11/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
People called Veronica Guerin a lot of things but never "ambivalent." Whether it was cheering for Manchester United soccer, driving well above the speed limit or cooking with her husband and son, "when Veronica liked something, by golly, she liked it," says Lise Hand, who would spar with her Sunday Independent colleague over which of them soccer star Eric Cantona would prefer if they met. But she saved her greatest passion for her work. "She saw journalism," says her brother Jimmy, "as a tool to expose wrongdoing."
Expose it she did. Guerin uncovered a variety of scandals in her seven-year career, but none more incendiary than her stories identifying the key players in Ireland's drug trade. Despite being threatened, savagely beaten and shot in the leg to shake her from the crime lords' trail, Guerin continued her relentless pursuit until 1996, when, at the age of 37, she was gunned down in her car by masked assassins. Hailed as a national heroine after her death, Guerin is getting the big-screen treatment with the release of Veronica Guerin, which stars Cate Blanchett
as the dogged journalist. "Like any investigative journalist, you take the story to its end point," says Blanchett. "And this story just kept unfolding and unfolding."
Guerin's competitive zeal was evident early: At 15 the Dublin native ignored the pain of a slipped disc to play in the All-Ireland youth soccer finals. After a stint working in her father Christopher's accounting firm (mom Bernadette was a homemaker), she started writing in 1989 at age 31. She built her reputation at the Sunday Tribune with scoops about Catholic Church sex scandals and corporate fraud, and became famous for "door-stepping," dropping in on her criminal subjects at home. "She was very aware that she had to appear tougher than the men," says Hand.
When she became the Sunday Independents crime correspondent in 1994, Guerin began writing about the city's burgeoning drug trade, using her accountant training to link Dublin's top gangsters to the drug business. That fall, gunshots were fired through her living room window, and while she was home alone the following January, a man shot her in the leg. But the shooting "made her more determined," says Jimmy. "You can't give in to bullies. It's not in our family to do that."
The intimidation didn't stop. When Guerin doorstepped John Gilligan, the Irish kingpin at the center of the drug trade, in September 1995, he brutally beat her. Soon after, he threatened to kidnap and rape her son Cathal, then 6, and shoot her. Guerin was deeply shaken. Cathal and her husband, house refurbisher Graham Turley, "were everything," says Hand. Still, she opted to press assault charges against Gilligan, then on parole. "He was going to go to jail for that," says Dublin's Sunday World crime editor Paul Williams, one of Guerin's chief rivals, "and he didn't want to."
On June 26, 1996, she was at a traffic intersection when two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside. The passenger fired five bullets into her body. The shooting stunned Ireland. "This was the first time it was brought home," says Hand, "that sometimes the good guys don't win."
Guerin's legacy is bittersweet. Thousands attended her funeral, and the government quickly created the Criminal Assets Bureau, which confiscates assets acquired through criminal activity. The country's drug trade briefly declined in the years after her death, but it is now "worse than it has ever been," says Williams. Almost all those involved in Guerin's murder are behind bars. However, only one man—Brian Meehan, the motorcycle driver—is serving a life sentence specifically for her murder. Several others initially implicated—including Gilligan, who fled Ireland but was extradited back in 2000—are in jail for other drug-related offenses. "There will never be another prosecution in her case," says Jimmy bitterly.
Guerin's husband, Turley, remarried in 1998. Cathal, now 14, "is troublesome and boisterous and everything his mother [was]," says Jimmy, who was a paid consultant on Veronica Guerin and admits that the real Guerin would have "hated it, because she wouldn't see that she deserved it." Still, the film is "a fitting tribute," says Jimmy, who now continues his sister's work as the Sunday Independent's
crime reporter. "She wanted to do right by children and make a better place for all."
Eileen Finan in London, Mary Finnegan in Dublin and Amy Longsdorf in Toronto