Belfast Telegraph

Police watchdog official faces investigation after case against RUC detectives collapses

By Chris Kilpatrick

A former investigator within the policing watchdog could face criminal charges over his handling of the case of four men wrongly accused of the murder of a soldier.

The so-called Derry Four were just 17 when they were charged with the murder of Lt Stephen Andrew Kirby in the city 35 years ago.

Lt Kirby, an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was shot by an IRA sniper while he was on foot patrol in the Abercorn Road area on February 14, 1979.

Gerry McGowan, Stephen Crumlish, Michael Toner and Gerry Kelly, all from Creggan, fled across the border when released on bail accused of the murder.

They remained on the run until the charges against them were dropped in 1998.

Following a complaint from Mr McGowan, the Police Ombudsman launched an investigation into claims officers falsified statements.

Two retired RUC detectives were subsequently charged with trying to pervert the course of justice.

The case against the men - John McGahan (71) and Philip Noel Thomson (64) - was dramatically dropped at Laganside Crown Court yesterday after additional information was passed to prosecutors from the Police Ombudsman.

On the back of the fresh evidence, the PPS decided not to pursue charges against the former officers. Attention has now switched to an Ombudsman investigator who handled Mr McGowan's complaint from 2005.

Mr McGowan, who was in court for the brief hearing, fought back tears outside and said he would continue to press for answers from the authorities.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory is said to be furious at the late disclosure of the evidence by the Ombudsman's office.

"We can confirm that we have recently been furnished with certain material by the Office of the Police Ombudsman which was not made available to PPS when the decision to prosecute was taken," a PPS spokeswoman said.

"This material undermined the prosecution case to the extent that we have concluded that there is no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction.

"Accordingly, we have advised the court that we do not intend to offer any evidence against the accused.

"The Director has met with the Police Ombudsman and has expressed his concern in relation to the late disclosure of this material. The matter is now the subject of investigation. "

The Ombudsman confirmed it has referred its own investigation to the PSNI to consider if any of its staff had broken the law.

"Given the concerns raised with us by the Public Prosecution Service, we referred the matter to the PSNI for them to consider if it warrants a criminal investigation," a spokesman said.

A prosecutor yesterday told judge Mr Justice Weir no evidence was being offered against the two former officers, whose addresses were given as Knock police headquarters.

The charges related to two statements taken from Mr McGowan between February 27 and March 2, 1979 following the murder of Lt Kirby and the shooting of another man, Noel Ronald Smith.

Mr McGahan was accused of recording a written statement after caution from Mr McGowan, which was allegedly not Mr McGowan's independent account of his involvement in the murder of Lt Kirby.

The second defendant, Mr Thomson, was charged with recording a written statement after caution from Mr McGowan which was not his independent account of his involvement in the shooting of Mr Smith.

Greg Berry QC, for both defendants, told Mr Justice Weir the former detectives were not present in court as "we only became aware of this matter yesterday".

He added: "We would be seeking a verdict in this matter and we would request a jury panel be sworn in for that."

Mr Justice Weir agreed and said that a jury would be sworn in on January 12, 2015 to formally deliver a not guilty verdict on the charges faced by the former police officers.

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