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August 1, 2014

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Would-be Vegas hitman’s story ends in Irish jail

Card dealer’s strategy: Double-cross clients

We all nurse private ambitions. Essam Ahmed Eid, a 53-year-old Egyptian man living in Vegas and dealing poker at the Bellagio, dreamed of becoming a hit man. He longed to take off the casino clown suit, the Nehru shirt and simpering smile — and replace them with a gun and a grimace.

So Eid did what any enterprising 21st century contract killer would: He created a Web site — www.hitmanforhire.net — and waited for the clients to come.

They did. And what happened next went so wrong, backfired so badly, that it was the subject of almost every cover article in every newspaper in the country — Ireland, that is. That’s where Eid’s final contract to kill flopped fantastically.

The story is straight supermarket thriller, full of half-predictable twists, jealous girlfriends, wealthy businessmen and Eid armed with not a gun, but poison. While several Irish newspapers have spent the past year digesting every angle of the story, the American press has largely ignored it. And so Eid is infamous in another country but has been anonymous here — until now.

What follows has been combed from Irish and U.S. court documents, as well as a mountain of international newspaper articles and correspondence with foreign reporters covering the case. Despite the mountain of papers, the rationale behind Eid’s hit man ambitions is hardly clarified by the reading. What unfolds, however, should intrigue anyone who likes to read paperback mysteries or watch people fall on their faces, because this story is a bit of both.

•••

If Eid really fancied himself a hit man, he was a lousy one. He never came close to killing anybody. In fact, his whole strategy was not to kill the intended target, but to let him in on the plan, to tell whomever he’d been hired to kill all about it, and then generously give him the opportunity to buy out the bounty on his life. Whether this was Eid’s cowardice or cleverness is unclear.

What is clear is that rage overpowers reason. There is no other explanation for why anyone would look at a Web site like the one Eid created and decide the services detailed therein were a sound solution to his problems. The site was amateur and, even if you didn’t think it was a fall-flat joke, pretty lame. There was a picture of a shadowy Al Capone-style gangster alongside text that read: “Assassinations are the most practical solutions to common problems. Thanks to the Internet, ordering a hit has never been easier. We manage a network of freelance assassins, available to kill at a moment’s notice.”

Apparently, some people took this seriously. About a month after the site was created, Eid had a client — a disgruntled ex-girlfriend who, court documents indicate, wanted someone to shoot her old boyfriend’s new flame in the head. If criminals are made in a moment’s bad decision, this was Eid’s moment. Consider it a test-drive for the Ireland fiasco.

The intended victim, a loan broker from Southern California named Anne Royston, got her first call from the casino employee in September 2006. He told Royston he wanted her to refinance his house. Within days, Eid and a woman he identified as his assistant were in Royston’s Woodland Hills office. But when Royston slid the home paperwork across her desk to Eid for his signature, he pushed it back and told her: “Somebody wants your head. Somebody wants you killed and they hate you a lot.”

Eid showed Royston an e-mail indicating that her boyfriend’s ex had deposited about $17,000 in Eid’s bank account. He then, according to court documents, told Royston he wasn’t going to kill her because she reminded him of his own daughter. Tables turned, Eid instead offered to kill the ex-girlfriend. Royston refused. After some negotiation, Eid and his associate — later identified as his wife, Theresa Engle — said Royston could save her life by paying the balance on the contract: $37,000. Then the Vegas couple left, giving Royston a few days to come up with the money. Instead, she called the police.

With an FBI agent listening in, Royston called Eid. During the phone conversation, Eid said he lied about his name, which was really Tony Luciano. It would not be the first time Eid, an Egyptian, would claim this made-for-TV-movie Italian alias.

“Luciano” then told Royston he wanted only $20,000. When Royston told him she was worried that someone else would be hired to kill her, the hit man told her not to worry: Only 700 people in the world work as hit men, and his father, Michael Luciano, is boss over all of them. If any of them got a contract on Royston, his father would know, and therefore, so would she.

One day after this phone call, Eid and Engle flew to Ireland, where they would attempt a carbon-copy crime. Eid must have thought he was on a roll and that he’d be back shortly to collect the money he gave Royston two weeks to come up with. He was wrong. Instead, almost everything Eid planned would go foul, and the inner workings of his relationship with Engle, who had flown across the Atlantic with him to bluff a murder for hire, would be revealed for what it was: as complicated as the couple’s schemes and just as doomed.

•••

Eid and Engle were married in Clark County three years ago. They lived in North Las Vegas with Eid’s first wife, Lisa, whom he had married in Michigan a few years earlier and apparently never divorced. They also lived with Eid’s teenage daughter. It was a housing arrangement that Engle admitted to the Irish court was “quite bizarre.”

Engle met Eid five years ago in a Michigan casino where he dealt poker and she played. At the time, she was living with her second husband and their teenage daughter. She and Eid had an affair, and when Eid moved to Vegas in 2004, she followed.

After drinking, Eid and his two wives would have group sex, though both women told police they didn’t exactly want to. That, however, was one of the few things the two women agreed on.

Engle told a court psychologist Eid had promised to divorce his wife, but it never happened. Instead, Engle says, he slowly started to control and abuse her. She says he threatened to kill her and leave her in the desert. He made her cut off contact with her family. He bit her and hit her, she alleged.

Engle told the psychologist Eid made her drink his blood and urine. “Every night I would say to myself, ‘Please, God, don’t let me live through this night,’ ” she claimed.

Eid’s other wife, as well as his teenage daughter and a family friend, all said they didn’t see any of this alleged abuse and don’t believe it happened.

But Engle needs you to believe it’s true, because if you believe she was abused, you might believe that she is, as a psychologist submitted to the California court, a victim of Stockholm syndrome, meaning her role in Eid’s crimes was a result of being a hostage.

It appears Engle made the same claim in the Irish case, which was higher stakes all around: more money, more scheming, and more people to kill.

Eid’s California contract was nothing compared with what Eid had working internationally. While the poker dealer was negotiating with the California broker, he was also exchanging e-mail, as Tony Luciano, with an Irishwoman who called herself “Lying Eyes.”

This woman, described in the Irish press as “a veritable walking cliche of the sassy, blond temptress with the knowing smile” was really Sharon Collins, a 45-year-old divorced mother of two who had been dating multimillionaire property developer PJ Howard since 1998. While dating the wealthy businessman, who divided his time between a luxury lakeside home and a penthouse apartment in Spain, Collins must have been pampered — but it wasn’t pretty. Or so it seemed in e-mail written by Collins and later discovered by the Irish national police. Collins, according to newspaper accounts of the court case, sent an anonymous e-mail in April 2006 to an Irish radio program, accusing Howard of pushing her into having “strange sex” and detailing his affections for prostitutes, transsexuals and swinging.

When Collins contacted Eid a few months later, she had moved beyond leaking sordid details of her sex life and onto arranging the multimillionaire’s death. Writing from a computer in Howard’s business office, Lying Eyes told Tony Luciano how much she disliked Howard, and how, although she felt bad about it, she had to have him — and his two sons — killed to protect herself. The problem for Lying Eyes was that she wasn’t entitled to Howard’s money. The real estate developer wanted to leave his fortune to his sons, and would not marry Collins. Sure, the couple had promised themselves to each other, had thrown a party and even served wedding cake, but they never officially tied the knot.

So Collins, desperate to marry Howard, figured out a way to get what she wanted, at least kind of: She visited the Web site proxymarriage.com and paid $1,000 for a Mexican marriage certificate that required neither partner to be present. Now his wife on paper, Collins might be entitled to Howard’s millions.

The plan Luciano and Lying Eyes came up with was, like their aliases, right out of a bad book. First, an assassin would fly to Ireland and track down Howard’s sons in one of their favorite pubs. There, the assassin would poison the sons’ drinks with the deadly neurotoxin Ricin, which Eid and Engle were cooking up in their Vegas home for this express purpose. Shortly after the sons were killed, Howard, vacationing with Collins in Spain, would “jump” from the 14th floor balcony of his penthouse, overwhelmed with grief at his sons’ untimely passing.

Eid’s price: $90,000 to kill all three, with a down payment of $45,000.

Collins sent 15,000 euros, just over $23,700, to Vegas in August. The following month, Eid and Engle landed in Limerick. Their flights, and their hotel, were paid for with a credit card registered to PJ Howard. They day after they landed, the offices of Howard’s business, not far from Limerick, were robbed of a two computers, including one Collins used.

She was in Spain with Howard when the robbery occurred, enjoying the seaside while Eid, in Ireland, was planning to double-cross her.

After the robbery, Eid called Howard’s oldest son, 29-year-old Robert, and told him about the bounty on his family. “Luciano” was willing to let the Howards pay off the contract, for 100,000 euros, or about $158,000. Robert agreed to meet Eid at a hotel the following evening.

Robert also called police to report he was being extorted. Officers were waiting down the street from the hotel when he arrived and found Engle waiting to broker the exchange.

Instead of getting more euros, Engle and Eid got arrested.

•••

Engle was behind bars for less than a week and then returned to Las Vegas. She got her stuff out of Eid’s house and headed to the airport. She flew back to her home in Ohio, where she has remained since late 2006. At the request of the courts, she has made trips back to Ireland and California, where the Royston extortion case is ongoing. Ireland granted Engle immunity after she made a deal with Irish prosecutors to testify against her husband, according to Sunday Tribune reporter Mark Hillard in Dublin.

Eid, on the other hand, has remained in custody since his arrest, and the murder for hire trial has become one of Ireland’s biggest stories, with all the right characters to really crackle: an Egyptian hit man from Las Vegas, a millionaire target, a money-hungry blonde.

Five months after Eid was arrested, the Irish cops got Collins too. They searched one of the computers Eid had stolen and discovered the e-mail sent from Lying Eyes to Tony Luciano.

Collins, however, has denied any involvement. She claims she was being blackmailed by someone else, a woman named Maria Marconi, who somehow got access to her computer and was sending the e-mail to Luciano. Marconi, Collins claims, was a friend she made over the Internet, an American confidante. When the FBI looked for Marconi, however, they couldn’t find her. Prosecutors have called her a figment of Collins’ imagination.

After Collins was arrested, police searched Eid’s cell and found he had a contact lens case with traces of Ricin inside. That evidence, on top of the e-mail, the phone calls, the testimony from Engle and the money Lying Eyes sent to Vegas, was enough for a jury to find Eid and Collins guilty. Collins was convicted of soliciting and conspiring to murder the Howards. Eid was convicted of extortion, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in Ireland, and assorted theft charges, for the office break-in.

The poker dealer has been described as being rather buoyant about the whole experience, enjoying “an easy, humorous relationship with prison officers and everyone around him.”

His Web site, hitmanforhire.net, is dead, however.

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