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Shock and sadness as community grieves for murdered Ballymena man 'who wouldn't hurt a fly'

By Sara Neill and Nevin Farrell

Published 30/04/2015

Found dead: Matt Shirley
Found dead: Matt Shirley
The scene in the Drumtara area of Ballymena where police are treating the death of a 69-year-old man as murder

The grieving niece of a Ballymena pensioner has spoken of the family's devastation at the murder of a man who "got on with everybody".

Matt Shirley's body was recovered from a flat in the Drumtara estate on Tuesday afternoon.

It remained cordoned off the next day, with police and forensic teams at the scene. Detectives carried out door-to-door investigations during their efforts to find out what happened to the 69-year-old.

A post-mortem is still to be carried out, but it is believed he may have died on Sunday, after an altercation between a number of people.

Two men, aged 41 and 49, and a 47-year-old woman were arrested on Tuesday, in what police have confirmed is now a murder inquiry.

Thursday detectives were given additional time by a court to interview the three people arrested over the murder.

Mr Shirley, known to his friends as 'Matha', lived alone less than a mile from where he was found dead. Locals said he was well-known and liked in the town.

His niece Amanda McCooke used to live in the flat above her uncle.

She said: "There was never any bother when he was there on his own. He was quiet, he didn't bother anybody and he would have gone out for walks. He got on with everybody.

"He was jolly and wouldn't have gone by anybody without speaking to them and saying hello. Nobody can believe what happened."

One neighbour, who did not want to be named, feared the worst when he saw emergency crews at the flat on Tuesday.

He explained: "I saw two ambulances and 10 police cars, and they were there all night. The flat was cordoned off automatically and the forensic teams were out.

"The way the police were getting on, I knew something had happened, I knew there was a body.

"But when I heard last night, I cried last night with my girlfriend. I just couldn't believe it.

"Everybody's shocked it happened to him.

"He's had arguments with people before, but nothing like this has ever happened.

"It's another funeral to go to. You used to see Matha going by every day, but not anymore."

Those living in Drumtara spoke highly of how Mr Shirley was known around the tightly-knit community. They are mourning the loss of a "harmless critter who wouldn't hurt a fly".

Raymond Balmer lives yards from where the victim's body was recovered. He had known Mr Shirley for almost 40 years, and the pair used to walk to work together from their former homes in Harryville.

He said: "Matt never missed a day's work and he spoke to everybody. He was a great worker, and to waken up to that this morning was unbelievable.

"A neighbour across the hall knocked my door at six this morning to tell me. I'm still in shock, and everyone who's seen him out walking his dogs won't believe it either.

"He was a work pal, a friend, a good neighbour. He was like a brother too. We were all a family, everybody helped everybody out and he never grew out of that.

"He just didn't deserve what's happened.

"This is not the news you want to hear. I haven't woken up to it yet, it's just not real because I've known him so long.

"It's only a few months ago we were all in my neighbour's flat with Matt having a drink, talking about old times, and I haven't seen him since then."

The pensioner, who is understood to be separated with one son, was often spotted walking his dogs for miles round the Ballymena area.

Mr Balmer said: "His pride and joy was taking his dogs out for a long walk.

"Rain or hail, he walked them for miles, and they went along beside him."

DUP councillor Beth Adger said the murder is a tragedy.

"There had been parties all weekend at the house, but Matt had no problems with people. He was a gentle wee man," she said.

"I couldn't believe that this had happened, Everyone's very close in the Drumtara estate, and people look after each other.

"I can't understand why anyone would do this to him."

Three people arrested as part of the investigation remain in police custody.

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Dickson has appealed for anyone who was in the Drumtara area from Sunday evening until teatime on Tuesday and who has any information about an altercation involving a group of people to contact the PSNI.

Belfast Telegraph

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