Stonemason facing murder trial
A former stonemason from Northern Ireland is to stand trial accused of murdering two former girlfriends.
Leslie Ross, from Meganlis Park, Dromore in Co Down, was remanded in custody after appearing at Newry Magistrates' Court.
He is expected to be arraigned next month over the alleged killings of Michelle Bickerstaff in April 2012 and Margaret Weise in August 2007.
Judge Peter King told the 67-year-old defendant there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a case concerning th e alleged murder of a third former partner, Elizabeth McKee, who died in 2002.
Judge King said: "I have no hesitation in concluding that the Crown has established a prima facie case in relation to Michelle Bickerstaff and Margaret Weise.
"I am not so satisfied in relation to the death of Elizabeth McKee."
Mother-of-four Michelle Bickerstaff, 47, was found dead in April 2012 while the body of 50-year-old Margaret Weise was discovered in August 2007.
Both women were from Ross's home town of Dromore and had been in a relationship with him at the time of their deaths.
The court heard how 52-year-old Ms McKee, a mother-of-one who had struggled with alcohol addiction, had a blood alcohol reading of 500 milligrams per 100 millilitres when she died.
"Fatalities occur at 350 milligrams," Judge King added. "Even a hardened and seasoned drinker like Ms McKee would be comatosed.
"I cannot conclude that the defendant acted in respect of Ms McKee. I cannot return the defendant in respect of that charge."
Ross has consistently denied all three murder charges.
As the judge made his determination relatives of the three women, who had packed into the public gallery of courtroom number three, wept.
The judgement followed a three-day preliminary inquiry at Armagh Magistrates' Court last month during which some family members had given evidence.
Addressing them directly, Judge King said he had been "impressed and moved" by the content of their evidence.
"My role is not to determine guilt or innocence," said the judge.
"My role is to determine whether a case is strong enough to proceed."
White-haired Ross, who has spent the past 18 months in Maghaberry high security prison in Co Antrim, appeared relaxed and calm throughout the hearing as he sat in the dock flanked by two prison guards.
He was dressed in the same dark grey suit and open necked white shirt that he has worn during previous court appearances.
Minutes into the case Ross, who is partially deaf, had to be moved from the dock into the press benches because he could not hear the judge.
"I can hear you but, I can't make out what you are saying," he told the judge.
He later spoke to confirm that he understood the case would proceed to the Crown Court.
During a separate court sitting a n application for bail was refused.
Judge King said he believed there was a risk Ross could re-offend or intimidate witnesses but rejected prosecution claims the pensioner would flee the jurisdiction.
Outside the court, defence solicitor Conleth Downey said: "My client Mr Leslie Ross has steadfastly denied the counts of murdering three women. Today he feels his stance has been vindicated in that the judge has ruled following a three-day preliminary court hearing that Mr Ross has no case to answer concerning the death of Elizabeth McKee.
"The court does not attribute any evidential weight to gossip, rumour, speculation or innuendo. However, Mr Ross still has the outstanding matters of the deaths of Michelle Bickerstaff and Margaret Weise and as such it would be inappropriate to make any further comment in relation to those cases at this stage."
Relatives of the three women declined to comment.
Ross is due to appear at Laganside Crown Court in Belfast on April 24.