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Cleared bank worker may sue in 'farce' of £26.5m heist case

The man cleared of the Northern Bank robbery may launch legal action after branding his failed prosecution a farce.

Police and prosecutors were accused of overseeing a fiasco after Chris Ward (26), yesterday walked free almost four years after the £26.5m (€33m) Northern Bank heist in Belfast.

The bank employee's family was held hostage in December 2004 while he was forced to load huge sums of cash into the bandits' van.

Police blamed the IRA in the aftermath of the raid and the huge political fallout threatened to undermine the North's peace process.

The collapse of the allegations against Mr Ward make it the third major case where police have failed to secure convictions after unsuccessful prosecutions over the Omagh bombing and the murder of Robert McCartney.

Mr Ward was acquitted after Belfast Crown Court Judge, Mr Justice Richard McLaughlin, dubbed a central pillar of the indictment, "coincidence and chance''.

Afterwards, Mr Ward's solicitor Niall Murphy said: "Mr Ward has been rescued from the appalling vista of a miscarriage of justice but there is no guarantee that this will prevail on every occasion.

"There must be a root and branch analysis of how some high-profile criminal cases are prosecuted.''

He said the "Kafka-esque farce'', which temporarily derailed the Northern Ireland political process, started from the premise that Mr Ward was guilty and worked back.

"From the outset Chris Ward was denied the presumption of innocence,'' he added.

He recounted the damage this had caused in the public mind.

"Indeed it is a regrettable fact that in this society, the mere fact that Chris Ward was a Catholic from Poleglass and charged with this offence was enough to seal his guilt in the eyes of some people.''

Asked about possible legal action, Mr Murphy said: "We are going to reflect upon the comments of the judge and make an informed decision.''

Police blamed the IRA for the robbery, but Sinn Fein have rejected this.

Mr Ward, from Colinmill, Poleglass, west Belfast, denied robbing the Belfast bank and abducting colleague Kevin McMullan and his wife.

The trial, which started on September 9, heard that the families of Mr Ward and Mr McMullan were held hostage in their homes in west Belfast and Co Down, while the key-holders for the bank's vaults went to work the next day on December 20, 2004.

They handed over the money to the robbers under fear for the lives of their families.

Mr Justice McLaughlin heard the prosecution's case was based on circumstantial evidence, which centred on the defendant's alleged role in altering a staff rota at the Northern Bank on the day of the robbery.

Evidence that other named employees had been central to the rota changes, prompted a rethink by Director of Public Prosecutions Alasdair Fraser.

The judge said: "Given the decision to present no further evidence, I could not arrive at any other verdict and I conclude that Chris Ward is not guilty of the three counts in front of me.''

During the trial Mr McMullan recalled disguising the cash under rubbish and at some stage standing in the bank's bullion loading bay with two trolleys containing millions in notes when a security guard walked over for a chat.

Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey said the decision to prosecute Mr Ward was influenced by the huge political pressure around the case.

"It is clear that this prosecution, like others before, was driven by political considerations rather than justice.''

A spokesman for the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) "wholeheartedly'' rejected this.

Prosecuting QC Gordon Kerr said the service applied the test of whether to take a case forward impartially in all cases.

A spokesman for the Northern Bank said ruthless criminals had targeted the company.

"It is disappointing that such a major crime remains unsolved."

The timetable of Britain's biggest bank raid

Sunday, 10pm: Armed and masked gangs take over the homes of two Northern Bank staff, one in Loughinisland and one in Poleglass. The families are taken to undisclosed locations.

Sunday, 10pm: Armed and masked gangs take over the homes of two Northern Bank staff, one in Loughinisland and one in Poleglass. The families are taken to undisclosed locations.

Monday, 7am: The bank employees are told to go to work as usual at the Northern Bank HQ on Donegall Square West.

Monday, 4:30pm: Belfast city centre is packed with Christmas shoppers.

Monday, 6pm: After the bank closes only the two bank employees and security staff are left. Black bin bags are left outside to be cleared away by a 'refuse' lorry. The bank's vaults are believed to have contained up to £30m, much of the money has just arrived and is set to be consigned to the bank's 95 branches and high street dispensing units.

Monday, 8.30pm: Two hours later and a truck has been filled, it leaves Donegall Square West and travels to an undisclosed location.

Monday, 10pm: The two bank managers are left in the countryside outside Belfast. Their families are finally freed after a 24-hour ordeal.

Monday, 11.45pm: Police and bank officials are alerted to the raid. The PSNI's Crime Operations department is immediately brought in to investigate.

Midnight: Rumours of a £30m heist at Northern Bank's headquarters are already sweeping bars in Belfast.

Tuesday, 8am: Despite a virtual media blackout, the Belfast Telegraph establishes the bank's vaults have been looted and the haul could run to tens of millions of pounds. By then, we were predicting the raid was the biggest in UK criminal history

Tuesday, 12:30pm: Northern Bank spokesman insists it is business as usual at their banks and customers will not be affected.

Tuesday, 3.30pm: Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kinkaid says he believes at least £20m was stolen but says it is too early to say if paramilitaries were involved.

Tuesday, 11pm: Detectives reveal they are examining a burnt-out car found in Drumkeeragh Forest Park, Co Down, which is believed to be connected to the raid.

Historic heists

Jonathan McCambridge looks back at some of the most famous heists in UK - and Northern Ireland - history:

1963: The great train robbery - On August 8 a 15 strong armed gang stole £2.6m, mostly in used bank notes, from a Royal Mail train north of London.

1983: Britain's biggest cash robbery - almost £6m was stolen from the Security Express HQ in Shoreditch, east London.

1983: November 26: six robbers broke into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport for what . was supposed to be a relatively easy job, stealing £3m in cash, but this all changed when, instead of the cash, they found gold bullion worth £26m.

1990: £292m City bonds robbery. A 58-year-old messenger with money broker Sheppards, was mugged at knifepoint on a quiet side street in the City of London; the total haul was £292m in bonds which became largely worthless.

2000: Police foiled the robbery when they caught a gang smashing their way into the Millennium Dome with a JCB earthmover to snatch £200m worth of diamonds.

2002: Thieves carried out a dramatic robbery at Heathrow airport, attacking the driver of a security van before escaping with an estimated £6.5m in cash.

Amongst the biggest raids in Northern Ireland have been:

A Provisional IRA raid on a postal sorting office in the early 90s that is believed to have netted £2m.

A loyalist robbery at a bank in Portadown in the late 80s that netted around £700,000.

An INLA raid on the Ulster Bank in Strabane in November last year may have cost the bank £400,000.

An armed gang made off with £1m worth of goods in an articulated lorry from the Makro store in west Belfast in May 2003.

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