Belfast Telegraph

Suspect's 'hotel arson vendetta'

Campaign began after accused was ejected for drug dealing, court hears

By Alan Erwin

A man took part in a campaign of arson and intimidation against a Co Down hotel after staff suspected him of drug dealing and threw him out, the High Court has heard.

Malcolm McKeown is accused of involvement in setting fire to two cars linked to staff at the Belmont Hotel in Banbridge.

He also plotted with others to torch another vehicle, prosecutors claim.

The alleged offences form part of a wider investigation into a total of 21 arson attacks on cars belonging to the hotel owners, their relatives and employees.

A further nine incidents of criminal damage to vehicles or property and 12 episodes of graffiti also form part of the same inquiry.

McKeown (49), of Ashleigh Crescent in Lurgan, Co Armagh, is charged with two counts of arson to a Renault Clio and Ford Focus on November 14 and 19.

He is further accused of conspiracy to commit arson on another Ford on September 24, and possession of class C drugs, namely Valium.

Bail was refused.

A co-accused, Robert Foster (39), of Hillhead Gardens in Banbridge, has already been charged with one count of arson and having class B drugs.

The campaign of intimidation stretches back to September last year, the court heard.

Conor Maguire, prosecuting, confirmed that no further attacks have taken place since the two defendants were arrested.

Foster was detained first amid claims he was identified buying firelighters from a shop in the town just before one of the arsons.

Examination of his phone revealed contact with McKeown, according to the prosecution.

A balaclava was seized from McKeown's home along with tracksuit bottoms which allegedly match those worn by the arsonist captured on CCTV in one of the incidents, the court was told.

Mr Maguire said police believe the Belmont Hotel's owners and staff were targeted because McKeown was ejected over attempts to sell drugs on the premises.

"The offences have taken place with regularity and many of the victims are repeat victims who have told police they are in fear for their personal safety," he said.

Opposing bail, he added: "Police are also of the view that, because this is an ongoing campaign of intimidation where acts have been carried out, injured parties have been very brave in putting themselves forward and maintaining their position.

"Police have concerns that if the campaign continues that significant pressure would be brought to bear on them."

Defence counsel said McKeown had not been charged with any offences of drug dealing in the hotel. He also claimed the prosecution case was weak, relying on a partial profile of a hooded figure captured on CCTV.

"There's no full-frontal image," the barrister insisted.

He added that McKeown had worn the balaclava in the past when riding motorbikes.

But refusing bail, Mr Justice Horner said: "On the basis of what I have heard at present I do not think I'm in a position to impose conditions to manage the risks."

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