A high-achieving Trinity College Dublin graduate with mental health issues will be returning to Ireland next week after nearly 10 years in prison in the United States that he served for a reckless armed robbery.
Niall Clarke (now 34), from Kilrush, County Clare is a computer science graduate. He was caught by the police in 2006 following a dramatic bank robbery in Bangor, Maine. He served ten years in prison and will be released and immediately deported next week.
Clarke was spotted by a police officer after he held up a bank teller and robbed $11,000. He was arrested within minutes of the crime.
His story made the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Clarke was a high-achieving Trinity student with huge potential but also with a history of mental illness, most worryingly untreated schizophrenia, according to testimony given by his father in court.
Life for Clarke had started out with seemingly great success. In 2002 he had won the Enterprise Ireland Student Awards, besting thousands of other entrants. He won $12,900 for his brilliant solution to software registration problems. He earned glowing write-ups in newspapers around Ireland.
Four years later things were very different for Clarke.
He was in the United States on a temporary visa, which was about to run out. On St. Patrick’s Day 2006 Clarke met the head of a division of Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles in a bar in Boston. He used that contact to get a driver's license, which he then used to purchase a gun.
On October 4, 2006 Clarke entered the Bangor bank wearing a ski mask. He shouted at the employees and threatened the manager.
In court, at Clarke’s sentencing, teller Cheri Smith said, “I think to myself, please don’t shoot me.
“I have kids at home. I just want to go home and be with them.”
As Clarke fled, bank staff took note of his license plate number and the alarm was raised. A detective spotted the car and followed him to the highway where six state trooper cars were waiting.
In court Clarke’s father Michael said that his own mother had suffered from schizophrenia and said that he had tried to have his son committed for treatment in Ireland. However, his son refused and, as he was not deemed as a treat to himself or others, he was not committed.
Clarke’s lawyer, Eugene O’Kelly, said, “What makes this so sad is that it could have been prevented. In a few short years, Niall’s gone from college to criminal, from prodigy to prison.”
The young man pleaded guilty to the robbery and to brandishing a firearm at the bank employees. He was sentenced to 33 months for the robbery and a minimum of seven years for the use of the gun.
Currently he is being held at the federal prison in Rochester, MN. He is due for release on June 22.
The judge raised no objections to Clarke serving some of his prison sentence in Ireland. However, this would only have happened if Clarke had applied for and agreed to the a transfer.
Upon his arrest Clarke’s local newspaper back home, the Clare People, ran his story on the front cover with the headline “Some Genius!” His story appeared alongside a photograph of Clarke being wrestled to the ground by detectives.
His family, annoyed by the Clare People's take on the story, came forward to the Irish Independent with their story.
Niall was a mathematical genius. He grew up as one of four children and moved from Clare to Roscommon during the 1980s. He scored near perfect results in the Junior Certificate exams and earned chance to take part in the Irish Maths Olympiad. After high school he studied at Trinity College, where he shined.
His dissertation supervisor, Jim Dowling, said, "He had that rare combination of in-depth knowledge of the tech side while being able to see the bigger picture of how the product could be used. He wasn't an introverted techie by any means.”
Clare broke up with his girlfriend, Michelle, and this had a profound effect on him. However, to the outside world it seemed like he was doing brilliantly.
In 2004 Niall took eight months to travel through India. He told his parents it was a gap year before he got down to business.
No one knows what happened in India, but his parents and Dowling agree he was changed upon his return.
O’Kelly, said, “It became very clear that Niall was a different person.”
The young man had developed a particular hatred for his father, whom he had been close to before the trip.
O’Kelly said, “He felt that his family were against him, that they had ruined his life. He was paranoid and deluded.”
Clarke moved back to Clare and lived in the family house. He became more and more difficult. He took a temporary job teaching Physics and Math at a school in Kilmihil in west Clare. His anger towards his family became worse.
He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by a psychiatrist in Ennis who recommended he be institutionalized. The Clarke family had no legal way to compel their son to go for help.
A the family attempted to use legal means to get him help Clarke fled to England. He lost touch with his family and began working in pubs.
Dowling also noticed a change to Clarke upon his return from India. He said, “I guess at the time it seemed like existential angst: 'Why am I here? What's life all about?' kind of thing. He was searching, but I felt there was clearly something wrong."
In mid-January 2006 Clarke arrived in Boston with a visitor’s permit and drifted to Portland, Maine. He worked in bars while making attempts at finding full-time employment.
Two days before his visa ran out Clarke obtained his driving license and on October 3, the day before the robbery, he purchased the handgun.
In court O’Kelly said, “He was hearing voices that the bank had to be robbed. He said it was no longer himself that was in his body – he had voices telling him that the bank had to be robbed.
"It certainly showed no criminal expertise. A child would have planned the robbery in a better way. It was a nonsensical attempt to rob the bank. He had no hope of successfully evading justice.
"He was in a very confined mall. It was ringed by state troopers. There was no prospect that he could get away with this, but he still felt compelled."
Hi lawyer went on to comment, “Obviously if Niall was not in the US, which has a very lax policy in terms of walking in and buying a deadly weapon, it may not have attracted a seven-year sentence which a gun crime attracts.
“It is horrifying the ease with which Niall was able to walk in and buy quite a deadly weapon by just producing a driving license."