Ten minutes was all it took for Ashling Murphy’s life to ebb away. Ten minutes to rob the 23-year-old primary school teacher of her future and change the lives of her parents, siblings and boyfriend forever.
Because of the Fitbit smartwatch she was wearing, detectives were able to pinpoint the exact timing of the vivacious young woman’s last moments, as she lay bleeding to death on a canal towpath after being stabbed 11 times in the neck.
At 3.21pm her heartbeat suddenly dropped. By 3.31pm it had stopped altogether. She died alone in a muddy, bramble-strewn ditch before paramedics could arrive to save her.
Ashling’s senseless and brutal murder sent shockwaves, not only through the small town of Tullamore, 60 miles west of Dublin, where she was killed, but across Ireland and beyond.
Her mother Kathleen said: ‘She had so much to give to the world.’ After her death on January 12, 2022, the six-year-old pupils she taught at Naomh Colmcille Primary School in nearby Durrow, County Offaly, made a shrine to her in their classroom.
It included a cross, a candle and handmade cards with drawings, prayers and heartbreaking tributes saying: ‘I love you Miss Murphy.’
Ashling’s class of 28 children also formed a guard of honour at her funeral, each holding a photograph of their teacher on her graduation day, along with a single red rose.
Those closest to her were naturally devastated, but hundreds of thousands of others also attended vigils in Dublin, Limerick, Cork and other towns across the country in solidarity against such a barbaric crime.
Coming in the wake of the brutal killings of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in London in 2021, campaigners said it was a ‘watershed moment’ for violence against women.
They lamented how a young teacher, just ten months into her career, who dreamed of building her own home with her boyfriend of six years, Ryan Casey, 25, could be so brutally murdered in broad daylight while exercising on a busy canal towpath.
Poignantly, the stretch where Ashling was killed is named Fiona’s Way after another young woman, Fiona Pender, who was 25 and pregnant with her first child when she went missing from Tullamore in 1996 and is presumed murdered.
Yesterday, Ashling’s attacker, Jozef Puska, an unemployed Slovakian immigrant who had come to Ireland with his family a decade earlier, was convicted of her murder at Dublin Central Criminal Court. The jury of nine men and three women took just over two hours to reach their unanimous verdict.
Speaking after the verdict yesterday, Ashling’s brother Cathal said his younger sister had been subjected to ‘incomprehensible’ violence by Puska, whom he described as a ‘vicious monster’.
‘The judicial process cannot bring our darling Ashling back, nor can it heal our wounds, but we are relieved that this verdict delivers justice,’ he said. ‘It is simply imperative that this vicious monster can never harm another woman again.’
Mr Casey, who previously described Ashling as his ‘soulmate,’ said: ‘Ashling was a vibrant, intelligent and highly motivated woman. Her life had a huge impact on so many of those around her and she was the epitome of a perfect role model for every little girl to look up to and strive to be.
‘She was not only an integral part of our family, but she was also a huge shining light in our community.’
Puska, 33, is likely to receive a hefty minimum term when he is sentenced to life in jail next week. Trial judge Mr Justice Tony Hunt, who described Puska as ‘evil’, is unlikely to look favourably on the fact that he refused to admit what he had done. By pleading not guilty, he forced Ashling’s relatives to listen to harrowing details of how she fought in vain to stay alive.
‘The Trial…’ takes listeners behind the headlines and into the courtroom of some of the biggest trials in the world.
Our first series, The Trial of Lucy Letby, was a worldwide hit, with more than 13million downloads.
Season 2 focuses on the killing of Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old teacher from Ireland.
Follow the trial’s evidence, with twice-weekly reports from Deputy News Editor for Mail on Sunday Ireland Nicola Byrne and broadcast journalist Caroline Cheetham.
How she was unable to scream for help because she had been stabbed in the neck so violently and repeatedly that her voice box was sliced in two, and how witnesses saw her desperately ‘scissor-kicking’ her legs to try to break free as he pinned her down.
Not only was Puska’s DNA later discovered under Ashling’s fingernails and his fingerprints found on a mountain bike abandoned at the scene, when detectives questioned him two days later he told them: ‘I did it. I murdered. I am the murderer.’
‘When she passed [me] I cut her, I cut her neck,’ he told detectives from the Gardai. ‘She panic, I panic . . . and then it happened.’
Puska later retracted this confession, suggesting it had been made when he was drugged up on painkillers in hospital, after inflicting stab wounds on himself. Instead he concocted a ‘contemptible’ tissue of lies, claiming a strange man had stabbed him in the stomach on the towpath before knifing Ashling.
Witnesses saw him crouching over her because he was being a Good Samaritan, trying to help stem the bleeding when the mystery attacker ran away, he claimed.
Yesterday, the jury concluded that there was no mystery man and Puska was, in fact, the stranger responsible for Ashling’s terrible murder.
So exactly how did Ashling’s world come to collide so devastatingly with Puska’s on that cold but sunny afternoon?
The court was told that January 12 was a Wednesday and Ashling had said goodbye to her parents, with whom she still lived, like she did every day before she left for work. ‘The last thing she’d say in the morning going out was ‘Mam, I love you,’ ‘ Mrs Murphy said after her death.
The youngest of Mrs Murphy and her husband Ray’s three children, Ashling had qualified the previous year and began her first teaching job at a primary school in Durrow, in March 2021.
On the day of her murder, she finished lessons just after 2.30pm and drove her little red Seat car the 37 miles towards her home, in the small village of Blue Ball, stopping off in Tullamore to go power walking beside the Grand Canal, a popular route for joggers and dog walkers.
The jury was told she had been given the Fitbit watch the previous November and made it her New Year’s resolution to exercise every day after work.
As well as being an award-winning fiddle player, who played with the Irish national folk orchestra, Ashling was a talented sportswoman and represented her local club in the Irish ballsport of camogie.
Data from the Fitbit device later revealed that she had walked briskly along the towpath for a mile when she decided to turn back. But soon after this she encountered Puska.
Unbeknown to Ashling, the father of five had spent the previous four hours touring Tullamore on his mountain bike looking for a victim.
Detectives trawled more than 25,000 hours of CCTV and caught him riding closely behind or ‘stalking’ at least two women, the prosecution said. One of those he followed through the town and on to the canal towpath, around 90 minutes before attacking Ashling, was another primary school teacher named Anne-Marie Kelly.
She told the jury his behaviour was intimidating and unsettling: ‘I felt someone was very close, and I turned around and looked and there was a man cycling a bike very slowly behind me, and he was staring directly at me. I stopped to let him pass, but he wouldn’t pass.
‘So I continued to walk but I felt very uncomfortable. I decided that before the path narrowed I would stop, and just look at my phone so he would have to pass me.
‘He did pass me and as he passed it was in really, really slow motion.’
After running away down the towpath, Ms Kelly remembered passing a ‘lovely, friendly girl’ she later realised was Ashling, who stopped to pet Ms Kelly’s dog, Joey, when he ran up to her.
Soon afterwards Puska dragged Ashling into the brambles beside the canal. There, he launched his vicious attack, stabbing her 11 times on the right side of her neck. He continued even when interrupted by two female joggers.
‘He was crouched over holding her down,’ witness Jenna Stack said. ‘She was kicking so hard, like a scissors kick. She was moving whatever part of her body she could to get help.’ Puska snarled at the pair to ‘go away’ and tried to lunge at them, so, fearing for their own lives and without their mobile phones, the women ran to summon help.
‘I thought the guy was going to rape her,’ Ms Stack said, although detectives found no evidence to suggest Ashling had been sexually assaulted.
The joggers alerted two workers who were tidying the towpath, and they in turn asked a passing cyclist to ride back to investigate. He discovered Ashling alone, barely alive, and dialled 999. Garda Tom Dunne, who was first at the scene, told the court there was ‘an awful lot of blood’. He tried to give her CPR but by the time paramedics arrived she was already dead.
As the pathologist outlined Ashling’s terrible injuries and her bloodstained possessions, including her tracksuit, pale pink bobble hat and gold necklace which spelt her name, were shown to the jury, Mr and Mrs Murphy openly wept in the public gallery.
Having just brutally killed Ashling, Puska then set about covering his tracks and spinning a web of lies.
He had left his bicycle at the scene, so lay in a ditch in a nearby field for several hours until it went dark, before going to see a friend, whom he persuaded to take him the four miles home to Mucklagh, where he lived with his wife and children.
That evening he shaved off his beard, arranged for his clothes to be burned and got a lift to his parents’ flat in Dublin.
At some point he also stabbed himself in the stomach, because the following day he began vomiting blood and was taken by ambulance to the city’s St James’s Hospital, where he had keyhole surgery for three knife wounds.
He lied to doctors, saying the self-inflicted injuries had been caused when he was stabbed by two random men in broad daylight the previous day.
They called the Gardai to investigate, but when officers began questioning Puska, who had visible scratches on his arms and forehead, they were immediately suspicious.
Detective Inspector Shane McCartan said: ‘It just did not add up . . . We came to the conclusion that the information we were in possession of may be of material assistance to the investigation of the murder of Ashling Murphy.’
Two detectives from Tullamore were dispatched to interview Puska. But doctors refused to allow them to speak to their patient that evening and they had to wait until the following day – January 14 – to ask him about Ashling. It was then that Puska made his bombshell confession. But four days later, after he was discharged and formally arrested, he changed his tune.
Puska invoked his right to silence, or said he couldn’t remember what happened on the day of the murder.
Originally from Lucivna, a tiny village of fewer than 1,000 residents, in the north of Slovakia, Puska is of Romany gipsy descent.
After spending time in Prague in the Czech Republic, he arrived in Dublin in 2013, aged 23, with his wife, two young children and other members of his extended family.
The couple had another child shortly before moving to Tullamore two years later, where they lived with Puska’s older brother. They had two more children and shortly before the murder managed to secure a five-bedroom council house in nearby Mucklagh.
But neighbours said the couple ‘had no respect’ for their home, which was situated in a well-kept cul-de-sac.
One elderly resident told the Mail: ‘I’d be very happy if I never hear that b******’s name ever again.
‘I remember him being here. I remember the mess that was in the front of the house, bags of rubbish everywhere.
‘There were always people coming and going at all hours. There was noise. There were problems with rats and everything.’
Although Puska had previously been employed on building sites, the family lived off the £166-a-week disability benefit he received after slipping a disc in his back in a work accident.
Puska told the jury he spent his days helping his wife with the housework and taking the children to school.
A source told the Mail that Puska, who insisted on an interpreter to help him understand the court proceedings, appeared to have a better grasp of English when arguing for a bigger home than the ‘broken understanding’ he displayed at the trial.
One local who knew Puska in Lucivna told reporters they couldn’t believe he was responsible.
‘He is from a decent family,’ the local said. ‘He has three brothers and all of them, including their parents, gradually moved to Ireland. They went there for a better life, because in our country it is not possible to live decently when you don’t have a job.’
It is not thought Puska has any previous criminal convictions, but another former classmate from Slovakia claimed he was ‘no innocent.’
‘He was a weirdo and aggressive,’ the school friend said. ‘He was often fighting, his behaviour was bad.’
Sources told the Mail that Puska, who wears his shoulder-length hair slicked back in a ponytail, tried to cheat Ashling’s family of justice midway through the trial by attempting to kill himself in jail, the night before taking the stand in his defence.
He failed to show any remorse throughout, appearing cocky and sometimes winking or nodding at his family from the dock.
Earlier this year, on the anniversary of Ashling’s death, a memorial fund was set up in her name. Because of her love of Irish music – she taught younger musicians in her spare time – the fund aims to raise money to promote Irish music, dance and culture among young people. A scholarship has already been set up at the college where she trained to become a teacher.
Her father Ray said ‘one of his biggest losses’ was listening to her teach her students on Saturday afternoons. ‘I would listen to them for half an hour while I was drinking my cup of tea. It was lovely [but] that’s gone now,’ he said.
‘Life will go on and we will celebrate all the good things, but she had so much more to give to everyone. What she did in her short 23 years, had she had another 23 years, what would she have achieved? That’s our terrible loss.’