US bartender jailed for murder of Ulsterman in baseball bat onslaught
It has taken four long years but finally the family of a Belfast man beaten to death following a petty late night bar room argument was able to watch his killer sentenced to life without parole.
Father-of-four Seamus O'Neill (60) was murdered by John McLaughlin, an American jury found following a three-week trial.
About 20 members of Mr O'Neill's family, including some who came for the trial, watched and listened as the jury in Philadelphia delivered its verdict.
His long-time girlfriend Bonnie Stratton, who along with the Belfast man's brother Billy found the body wrapped in a tarpaulin in the basement of Whitey's bar in January 2008, said: “I'm just thrilled that's it over because all our lives were on hold.”
She added: “To know him was to love him. He had the Irish brogue. He was a sweetheart.”
His sister, Mary Jeffrey, said March was his favourite month and St Patrick's was his favourite day, so what better time of the year “to bring justice for him”?
It's not known what exactly was said that led McLaughlin (40) to step behind the bar he managed, pull out a baseball bat and then proceed to “brutally, brutally beat” Mr O'Neill.
The Belfast man had stopped in for a late night drink after finishing a bartending shift at another bar in the Port Richmond district of Philadelphia.
The beating was witnessed by at least three other men in the bar. One, Samuel Toy, was convicted of attempting to cover up the killing.
McLaughlin, who has a previous conviction for aggravated assault and a reputation in the area as a vicious and racist street thug, is not talking and witnesses could only tell the pair were arguing over “some Irish thing”.
The head to head between them became louder, witnesses said.
“John McLaughlin went behind the bar, grabbed an aluminum bat, and then just began to brutally, brutally beat Mr O'Neill, knocking him out and continuing to strike him,” said prosecutor Jude Conroy. “The level of brutality that was demonstrated by the defendant on the victim in this case... is just unspeakable.”
McLaughlin, who managed Whitey's, then dragged the body to the basement, where it was later stripped naked and covered in duct tape and tarp. He was planning to dispose of the corpse, even contacting a dump truck owner he knew, telling him he had a package to dispose of.
But Ms Stratton and brother Billy were told his car was parked at Whitey's. When it opened for business they searched the bar.
McLaughlin went on the run but was tracked a week later by US Marshals to a seedy hotel in Coopersburg, north of Philadelphia.
As he handed down a sentence of life without parole, Judge Jeffrey Minehart said: “This case demonstrated how cold the human heart could be.”
Seamus O'Neill, originally from Duncairn Parade in north Belfast but who had lived in the US for 30 years, left four children and four grandchildren as well as his mother Jean and five brothers and sisters. Another brother, Frank, was killed in 1988 after a street mugging in New Orleans, where he was attending university.