Accused contests murder charges
Weeping relatives of two women killed in a quiet market town in Northern Ireland crowded into a courtroom today to face the man accused of their murders.
The families of Michelle Bickerstaff, 47, and Margaret Weise, 50 - who were found dead in Dromore, Co Down five years apart - huddled together, clutched hands and wiped away tears as stone mason Leslie James Anderson Ross was remanded in custody.
The 66-year-old - an ex partner of both women - showed no emotion as the two murder counts were put to him by a clerk at Armagh Magistrates Court.
The two women were found dead in Ross' home town of Dromore, Co Down.
Ms Bickerstaff, a mother-of-four was found dead in April 2012 while Ms Weise's body was discovered in August 2007.
Dressed in a black jacket which was unzipped, jeans and a dark coloured jumper Ross, who had been in police custody since Tuesday looked tired and drawn. He stood in the dock - just a few feet from the distressed relations of his alleged victims - shoulders slouched and flanked by two prison guards. Ross's thick grey hair was unkempt and some light stubble was also visible.
For the most part he stared straight ahead only occasionally looking towards the ground or at his defence lawyer in the well of the court.
Ross, from Meganlis Park in Dromore was also accused of indecent assault, gross indecency with a child and indecently assaulting a female child on dates between 1979 and 1990.
He gave a mumbled response to confirm his name and address but, otherwise did not speak during the brief five-minute hearing in courtroom number two.
Ross' solicitor, Conleth Downey told the court his client denied all wrongdoing and would be vehemently contesting the charges.
Mr Downey said: "During three days of questioning my client robustly and vehemently denied the charges."
The solicitor also claimed his client's home of 14 years had been attacked as a result of the high profile case and said he would not be applying for bail at this stage.
"Since his arrest and subsequent media interest his home of 14 years has been attacked.
"In light of what has been said there will be no application for bail but an application will be mounted at a later stage," Mr Downey added.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Detective Sergeant Mark Gibson, who said he was closely involved with the case, told the hearing he believed he could connect the defendant to the charges.
The police officer also confirmed that Ross had denied all allegations during three days of questioning at Antrim Serious Crime Suite and that his home in a housing development close to the centre of Dromore had been attacked.
"That's correct," he replied to questions from the defence lawyer Mr Downey.
Although there was no application for bail, Ross was informed that had one been submitted it would have been refused.
Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes remanded Ross in custody to re-appear at Banbridge Magistrates' Court next month.
As he was led from the dock to be taken away to Maghaberry high security prison in Co Antrim, Ross threw a brief glance towards the bereft families in the public gallery but there were no verbal exchanges.
Relatives of a third woman - mother-of-one Lily McKee, 52, who died in December 2002 - were also at the court hearing. Ms McKee, a divorcee and former beauty queen, also lived in Dromore and according to her only daughter Jenny Dickson had been in an on-off relationship with Ross for 11 years.
Police said a file on that investigation would be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Ross, whose family was once heavily connected to the licensed trade, was questioned before by police and then released without charge.
Ross is due to appear again via videolink on September 19.
Outside court Ross's lawyer confirmed he would be denying the charges.
He said: "In essence Mr Ross has indicated that he categorically and vehemently denies all allegations of wrongdoing. That has been pointed out to the court this morning and at the earliest opportunity he will robustly defend all matters."
None of the families wanted to speak at this stage.