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Lurgan man charged with encouraging arson with intent was head of crime ring, court told

A man charged with encouraging arson with intent was the head of a highly-organised and violent crime ring, a detective said.

Malcolm Samuel McKeown, 51, from Ashleigh Crescent in Lurgan in Co Armagh, has been responsible for 30 arsons and had a 35-year criminal career, a detective told a court.

A total of five people appeared in court facing charges linked to what police said was an investigation into a drugs and arson "joint enterprise" allegedly associated with the group and targeting police officers.

A judge was told that when police began making inroads against Craigavon-based criminals, the homes and vehicles of serving officers were targeted for arson endangering life.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) members' vehicles and homes were attacked and in some cases destroyed in the Banbridge, Portadown and Gilford areas between April and July last year.

However charges directly linking McKeown to the attacks were thrown out by a judge because police did not have enough evidence.

A detective told Craigavon Magistrates' Court: "We believe Mal was the head of a highly organised crime gang, a particularly violent gang, based in the Craigavon area involved in the supply of drugs and intimidation."

He connected him to 30 arsons between October 2015 and last year.

The detective constable said covert recording used as part of the inquiry showed a gang member essentially asked McKeown's authority to "do things".

A spike in the number of phone calls around the time of the attacks was used by police to connect Christopher Carlisle to charges.

A detective said he phoned someone linked to a car seen in the area of one of the arson attacks which was later found abandoned.

Some of the charges were also based upon "cell site" analysis of where mobile phones were located, as well as texts between alleged members of the gang about drugs which urged them to avoid police around the time of the arsons.

According to the detective, a text from McKeown allegedly said: "Make sure you lie low for a couple of weeks."

He faces charges of assisting or encouraging arson with intent to endanger life, supply of cocaine and supply of cannabis.

Others accused in relation to the inquiry included:

  • Christopher Barry Carlisle, 32, whose address was given care of Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim. He faces three charges of arson and one of supplying cocaine. A detective said Carlisle was a "key" part of the gang.
     
  • Scott Simms, 20, a factory worker from Thorn Heights in Banbridge, who faces three charges, of supplying cocaine, cannabis and tramadol. They followed covert recording by police.
     
  • Melissa Auterson, 21, from Green Park Drive in Markethill, who was accused of conspiring to cause an explosion. She was allegedly covertly recorded and was alleged by prosecutors to have been discussing the targeting of police officers, the court was told.

Another of the accused was a minor and was dealt with in closed court.

Detectives searched properties in counties Antrim, Armagh and Down on Tuesday morning.

Police faced criticism from defence lawyers for not knowing some of the details of the case.

In response a detective said there were 600 pages of transcripts of covert recordings.

A judge denied three of the accused bail. Simms was freed with conditions.

The case is due to be mentioned on March 10.

Meanwhile, as part of the same investigation two men, aged 26 and 41, have been charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and three counts of arson endangering life with intent.

They are also accused of conspiracy to commit arson, supply of class A, B and C drugs and encouraging or assisting an offence believing it will be committed, police said.

They are both expected to appear before Lisburn Magistrates' Court on Thursday morning.

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