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Men continued to drink as dead stabbing victim Matt Shirley lay among them, inquest told

By Angela Rainey

None of the three people who had been drinking with a man when he was stabbed through the heart were prosecuted because "it could have been any one of them", an inquest has heard.

Coroner Suzanne Anderson heard how Matt Shirley (69) was found stabbed to death in a "drinking den" in Drumtara flats in Ballymena in 2015.

He had been binging on cider and vodka in the property from the Sunday leading up to his death on Tuesday, April 28.

The father-of-two had been partying with long-term alcoholics Rodney McDowell (43), tenant of the flat, and Mark McPeake (51) when he was stabbed once through the heart.

On August 16 this year, father-of-four McDowell and McPeake were both found dead lying side by side outside the Drumtara property. They are believed to have taken prescription drugs mixed with alcohol.

A third friend, Michelle Spence, aged 47 at the time, was drunk and had been asleep in a bedroom at the time of Mr Shirley's death.

When roused by a policewoman and asked what had happened, she suffered a panic attack, prompting another ambulance to be called to the scene.

Although she is the only one of the three witnesses still alive, Spence did not attend court yesterday.

The coroner heard that McPeake was arrested at the scene "due to an outstanding warrant for another matter".

All three were subsequently arrested on suspicion of murder but none were prosecuted.

The court also heard that Mr Shirley lay slumped against a settee for a number of hours with a cut to his forehead and chin while McDowell and McPeake carried on drinking and sleeping. At lunchtime, McPeake left the property to go to a chemist before his taxi took him to the off-licence to buy more alcohol.

He returned at around 1.30pm, then three hours later, enquiring as to why Mr Shirley (left) had still not moved, was told by McDowell that "he f****** fell".

The "highly intoxicated" pair then made an "incoherent" 999 call at 4.38pm telling the operator that Mr Shirley "had fallen or something".

But paramedics at the scene found that Mr Shirley had "been dead for a number of hours".

McPeake threatened the ambulance crew, forcing them to take refuge in the kitchen to alert the police to the "suspicious death".

Paramedic John Montgomery recalled that on telling the men that Mr Shirley was dead, they continued to party, even offering Mr Shirley another drink. He said: "I informed them that the patient was dead and both seemed surprised and upset. They then sat back down and continued to drink and smoke.

"Mr McPeake accused me of looking at him the wrong way so we waited in the kitchen to change the dynamic as a threat had been made.

"I could then hear them shouting strange things like, 'Wake up mate, there's your drink' and 'You would think they (paramedics) would wake him up'. I overheard Rodney McDowell repeatedly saying, 'The door was open, anyone could have come in'."

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Dickson told the hearing how McDowell's DNA was found on a knife handle and that blood from Mr Shirley was matched to the blade.

He said no efforts had been made to clean the weapon and that it had been placed straight back in a wooden knife block.

A partial fingerprint was found on it but forensics could not determine whose it was.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided not to proceed to court. DCI Dickson said: "The PPS was of the view that there was clearly a crime committed but the difficulty was which of the three individuals were responsible.

"It is unfortunate but it could have been any one of them and that is the bottom line and I can understand how the PPS arrived at their decision."

The detective added that there "was no signs of a fight" and that McPeake had told a shop worker that he saw McDowell stab Mr Shirley.

The findings of the inquest will be recorded today.

Belfast Telegraph

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