Belfast Telegraph

Dogged detective James 'Jimmy' Nesbitt who tracked down Shankill Butchers dies at age of 79

By Ivan Little

One of Northern Ireland's best known detectives - the man who hunted down the notorious Shankill Butchers murder gang - has died just a month short of his 80th birthday.

James 'Jimmy' Nesbitt was a Detective Chief Inspector who headed the murder squad investigating upwards of 30 killings carried out by the evil UVF gang led by Lenny Murphy in the Shankill Road in the 1970s and 1980s.

During his lengthy career Nesbitt received a record number of commendations for any police officer in the UK – a total of 67 – and in 1980 he was given the MBE for his "courage and success in combating terrorism".

Nesbitt, who was from north Belfast, was a career copper who joined the RUC at the age of 23, the year before the IRA launched their border campaign. At his first station in Swatragh in Co Londonderry he helped build sandbag fortifications in a bid to thwart terrorist attacks.

But it was always his ambition to become a detective within the force and his dream was realised in Coleraine, before he moved back to work in Belfast in 1971 at a time when the Troubles were intensifying.

Two years later he was promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector in C Division, which included the loyalist Shankill area and the republican Ardoyne distict.

It was once said that more sectarian killer gangs were operating in the 15 square miles on Nesbitt's patch than in any other area of Northern Ireland.

The RUC also lost a huge number of their own officers in IRA bombings and shootings.

It was estimated that Nesbitt and his team investigated no fewer than 311 killings, and solved 250 of them.

The Shankill Butchers were among the most ruthless and savage murderers ever encountered by any police force in the British Isles. One observer said they didn't kill just for any perceived cause, but also for the sick pleasure that they derived from their horrific slaughter.

The Butchers normally cut their victims' throats, and in November 1975 they almost decapitated one man, Frank Crossen, who they'd pulled into a car in the Millfield area.

Their targets were normally Catholics, whom Murphy was said to have hated, but Protestants were also among the people they murdered.

Anyone who crossed Murphy, who'd once killed a fellow loyalist in prison, became a target. He killed enemies from his own community in full view of his associates.

And even when he was in jail he orchestrated the Butchers' murders from his cell.

Nesbitt made it clear to his detectives that he wanted the Butchers caught at all costs. Their big breakthrough came when a man who was left for dead by the gang recovered and Nesbitt devised a plan for him to be driven around the Shankill in an unmarked police car to see if he could identify his assailants.

Nesbitt questioned several of the men who were arrested and they named names. But he could never get enough evidence to charge Murphy with the killings because his gang were terrified of him. He was the big fish who got away, according to Nesbitt.

Several years ago he took part in a BBC documentary about the Butchers and defended the length of time it had taken the RUC to find the killers.

Nesbitt said that his officers had done everything possible to catch every murderer in Belfast and religion didn't come into it.

He said Murphy was cunning and sadistic, a psychopath who operated a "tight circle".

Writer Martin Dillon's book about the Shankill Butchers described Nesbitt as a professional police officer and rejected claims that he could have stopped the killings much sooner.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said he and his colleagues were "deeply saddened" by the death.

"Jimmy always showed great determination and perseverance," he said.

"As a Detective Chief Inspector in Tennent Street during the early 1980s, I was privileged and honoured to work under Jimmy's direction, and, like other young detectives, I learnt a lot from him.

"Jimmy's lasting legacy will always be his total commitment and unstinting efforts in bringing terrorists from all paramilitary organisations to justice for their heinous crimes against our entire community. It's a legacy that has helped rid our streets of the scourge of terrorism and is one that will forever be remembered, especially by all those who knew him. Our heartfelt sympathy is extended to the Nesbitt family."

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph