OUTWARDLY, he was a man who had everything. But Gerry Ryan's life was in meltdown. Despite forging an extraordinarily successful broadcasting career, maintaining a good relationship with his children and being dedicated to his new partner, Ryan's life was in chaos. In his last few months, the 53-year-old felt as if everything was falling apart, spiralling out of control. He could not cope. This intensified in the last two weeks of his life and culminated in his death. He died alone at home from heart failure, with cocaine as a probable trigger. It was a lonely death for Ireland's most dynamic and controversial media figure.
He hadn't taken much coke the night he died. But what Gerry Ryan didn't realise was that his heart was already chronically damaged. The pathologist who carried out his post-mortem, Dr Eamon Leen, said the damage to his heart was possibly due to sustained abuse of the class-A drug in the past. There is a chance that the damage to his heart was nothing to do with cocaine abuse but was due to a previous viral infection, added Leen, but the medical expert favoured the former as an explanation. Gerry Ryan was famed for pushing the boundaries in his broadcasting career. But by taking coke on the night of 29 April, he unwittingly pushed his life beyond boundaries it could handle.
The broadcaster's life was in a state of flux at the time of his death. His partner, Melanie Verwoerd, described the turmoil he was going through, how difficult it was to watch him struggle and how she tried to help him.
"It's important to remember, Gerry was a showman. No matter how sick he was, it was important for him to keep his face up," she told coroner Dr Brian Farrell at Dublin City Coroner's Court. She explained the problems he was trying to deal with on various fronts. Her voice shook with emotion but it seemed important for her to convey her partner's physical and psychological state in the days leading up to his death.
He had serious financial worries, work stresses at RTÉ and anxiety about the finalisation of his separation from his wife Morah. He was receiving "aggressive" phone calls which he found hard to deal with, she added.
"He was very unwell in the last 10 days before he died. He was under serious financial pressures and it was starting to take its toll. In the last two weeks, he barely slept, ever. He was up between three and five every night. He would sit up in bed, breathless. I begged him to go to the doctor," she said. "He said it was just panic attacks. He would go grey and find it hard to breathe. He was getting stomach cramps, vomiting. He found it hard to get up and had trouble getting into the shower."
He had a meeting with his bank manager on 26 April and it didn't go well. "He called me and said he felt dizzy and had to go to the bathroom because he felt as though he was going to pass out," she continued. Things didn't improve the next day and Melanie and Gerry had to leave a function in Bewley's abruptly because he began to feel so unwell.
In the last few months of his life, he had sometimes begun to feel panicked and overwhelmed in crowded social situations. This had become such a frequent occurrence that Gerry had a signal for Melanie to let her know if he had to leave immediately. That night, he got worse.
"He didn't sleep. I had to change the sheets because he was sweating so much."
The next day, Melanie was still worried so she called Gerry's GP and friend, Dr Tony Crosby. He has visited him only a few days earlier and the doctor concluded that he was suffering from severe stress and anxiety. When Melanie rang him a few days later and explained how bad he was feeling, he prescribed him the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and sleeping tablets. Melanie had the prescription filled.
In the next two days, Gerry told her he felt a bit better after taking the Xanax and was getting some sleep.
The next day was to be Gerry Ryan's last. He met his friend, music impresario David Kavanagh, in the Four Seasons for a few drinks at about 4pm. It was 29 April. Kavanagh is the former manager of The Chieftains and the producer of the original Riverdance album. He told the coroner that his friend confided in him about his problems, but that he seemed in good form.
After a couple of drinks, Kavanagh said the pair went to Town Bar and Grill on Kildare Street along with Kavanagh's girlfriend to meet Graeme Beere, the Abrakebabra entrepreneur, another friend, businessman Willy Power, and an international banker. Some business was being discussed but it was also an informal dinner among friends. Kavanagh told the coroner that he was not aware of Gerry Ryan taking drugs at any stage over the course of the evening.
Melanie Verwoerd spoke to Gerry shortly before he went to the restaurant and, despite the impression he was giving to his friends, she said his mood was not good. She said she spoke to him at 7.45pm and he was at David Kavanagh's house and they were about to leave for the restaurant.
In his evidence, Kavanagh did not mention if Ryan returned home with his friend after the pub before going out for dinner.
"He was agitated and stressed when I spoke to him," Melanie said. "But he felt it was important to go to dinner."
Graeme Beere and Willy Power also gave evidence that their friend seemed in good form that night. Ryan was the first to leave the dinner table to go home, saying he wanted to watch an interview he had recently recorded with Heather Mills for his TV show. He got a taxi at about 10.45pm to his apartment on Upper Leeson Street, making chit-chat with the driver.
"I could tell he had a few drinks taken but I wouldn't say he was drunk in any way," taxi driver Alan Wilson told the inquest.
It was just after midnight when Alice O'Sullivan's phone rang. The producer of the Gerry Ryan Show missed the call but listened to the voicemail her colleague left saying he didn't think he was well enough to make it to work the next day, which was Friday. She called him back and told him not to worry and get some rest over the bank holiday weekend.
"He said jokingly, 'I owe you one'. I said, 'yes you do, for waking me at midnight'," she recalled. "It was a short conversation, a nice conversation."
He also rang Melanie before he went to bed, telling her he was wrecked and had taken a Xanax and was also going to take a sleeping pill. She was still concerned about him and wanted to come over and stay with him. But he told her not to worry, saying he'd locked up the apartment and was about to go asleep. "I'm totally banjaxed," was one of the last things he said to her in their final conversation.
The next day, worried when she didn't hear from Gerry and couldn't get through to his phone, Melanie finally went to his house with her son. In the upstairs bedroom, she found him dead on the floor.
When asked by the coroner if she knew of Gerry's use of cocaine, she replied: "Definitely not. We had two un-negotiable agreements. One of them was the use of drugs. He knew there would be no second chances, I would be out the door. He made me a solemn promise. I'm confident that he kept that promise until the night of his death."
When she completed her evidence, Melanie Verwoerd left the courtroom for a short time, briefly overcome with emotion.
She sat with friends and RTÉ's Alice O'Sullivan on the left-hand side of the coroner's court; Gerry's ex-wife Morah and his son Rex sat on the opposite side of the court. The impression was of a gulf dividing the two women. Morah was surrounded by the friends with whom Gerry shared dinner with on the night he died. Melanie and Morah did not speak during the two-and-a-half-hour inquest, nor did it appear that they even exchanged a glance. They had separate legal representation, released separate statements to the media after the inquest and left separately. Morah agreed to pose for photos outside the front of the coroner's court in her sunglasses before being whisked away in a car out the back entrance.
That Gerry Ryan had taken cocaine on the night he died was kept as a closely guarded secret. Journalists were assured "off the record" that gardaí had not found any illegal drugs in his system that could have contributed to his death. In fact, only a handful of gardaí knew the results of the toxicology screening.
The broadcaster's death will now draw parallels with that of model and socialite Katy French, who died from cocaine toxicity in December 2007, at the height of Ireland's obsession with white powder and when the country was awash with money. The circumstances of Gerry Ryan's death are entirely different. But his use of cocaine is a stark reminder that the drug can kill even those who appear as outwardly invulnerable as Gerry Ryan.
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