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Grief of Zoe French whose 'heart ripped out' after hit-and-run murder of Gillingham father John O'Donohue by drug dealer Jake Austin

By Clare Freeman

The partner of a man murdered in a row over drugs has told how her childhood sweetheart was trying to turn his life around.

John O'Donohue, 33, was mown down in Gillingham by Jake Austin - who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Friday after being convicted of murder.

Father-of-three Mr O'Donohue and friend Aaron Eldridge tried to con Austin by paying for crack cocaine and heroin by including paper among cash.

Grieving Zoe French says her heart has been ripped out by the death of John O’Donohue

Now his common-law wife Zoe French has told how he had tried to "go straight", but was tempted into a drugs deal to buy them a new stair carpet.

It was a decision that cost him his life in Castlemaine Avenue.

Miss French, 30, said: "Everything's been ripped away. My heart's been ripped out."

The couple met when she was 14 and went on to have three children together – Billy, eight, Jack, five, and four-year-old Ocean.

Mr O'Donohue also looked after his stepson, 13-year-old Liam, Miss French's eldest child.

Family man John O’Donohue in a family picture with Zoe French and children

Miss French said: "He was funny, loving, a brilliant father. He lived for me and his kids. We were his life - it's all he lived for.

"He turned his life completely and utterly 360 degrees. He was a totally different man. Having the kids straightened him out."

In 2003, Mr O'Donohue was sentenced to seven years in prison after he and his brother Jay Hedges drove a stolen car at a disabled mother and snatched her handbag.

"He had a past," said Miss French. "Everyone's got a past. You don't live in the past, you live in the future and that's what he was trying to do.

"He'd try to do a good deed every day; it made him feel better."

Jake Austin has been jailed for life for murdering John O'Donohue in Gillingham

She said he had a job lined up and they were due to get married in July 2015 - she already had her dress for their big day.

"Everything was going to be perfect and it's just been shattered," she said.

Recalling the fatal night of January 23, Miss French said it was just a normal evening: "Me, John and the children were at home and Aaron [Eldridge] turned up.

"John wanted some money to do the house up and Aaron was getting money easily.

"I begged him not to do it, I didn't want him to do it. They made it sound so easy. I didn't think Aaron was going to be running back on his own and telling me… I never dreamed of that."

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The moment Jake Austin drives directly at his victim - just before the fatal strike
The car that hit John O’Donohue left on railings
The railings after being hit by the car driven by Jake Austin

They had arranged to meet at flats in Grange Road, Gillingham, on January 23 and Austin arrived in his Ford Mondeo estate with another man.

Prosecutor Dominic Connolly said when the friends tried to con Austin out of the drugs he accused them of trying to rip him off.

There was a row and Mr O'Donohue and Mr Eldridge walked off along Castlemaine Avenue.

"Austin drove after them, went past them and turned round and drove his car at them,” said Mr Connolly.

"They jumped out of the way and started to run. Austin turned his car round and drove after them at speed.

"They ran up a grass verge and Austin drove his car up the verge. Mr Eldridge jumped out of the way. Mr O'Donohue did not."

Couple John O'Donohue and Zoe French
Zoe French at home with son Billy, eight
Grieving Zoe French remembers happier times with son Billy

Austin drove his car straight at Mr O'Donohue and caused him fatal injuries when his head hit the windscreen.

Mr O'Donohue was taken to King's College Hospital, London, where he died from his injuries the next day.

Miss French said her two youngest children, Ocean and Jack, were too young to understand.

"They know Daddy's gone to heaven to look after Uncle Jay, but Ocean asks when is Daddy coming home," she added.

Jay Hedges died of "mixed drug consumption" in August 2013. The inquest into his death was only concluded on January 21, days before his brother was killed.

Video: Moment killer Jake Austin drove at victim John O'Donohue in Gillingham

Austin, 25, received a life sentence on Friday for murdering Mr O'Donohue and must serve a minimum of 18 years before he is considered for parole.

He had admitted manslaughter, but was convicted of murder after a trial at Maidstone Crown Court.

A police cordon around the car in Castlemaine Avenue. Picture: Andy Payton
John O'Donohue, 33, from Gillingham, died after being struck by Jake Austin's car
Police at the scene in Castlemaine Avenue, Gillingham, in January
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