Belfast Telegraph

Comber still on edge over mysterious death of Pat McCormick

Disappearance and, PSNI believe, murder of 55-year-old man five weeks ago continues to baffle locals of Co Down town

Comber in County Down
Comber in County Down
Missing man Pat McCormick
The town’s quiet streets
Ivan Little speaks to a member of the public in Comber
Police conduct inquiries
Police conduct underwater searches
CCTV footage of the last movements of Pat McCormick
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It's the mobile phone that, sadly, will never be answered. Anyone who dials Pat McCormick's number, as I did yesterday, gets the same voicemail from the provider. That he can't take the call.

But the invitation to leave a message is pointless.

For police believe the 55-year-old Saintfield man was murdered on an horrific Thursday night, on May 30, after a CCTV camera captured grainy images of him driving his car in Comber before he was spotted on foot.

And the PSNI have no doubt that those pictures of the church caretaker crossing Castle Street in the normally quiet town show him walking to his death.

He was never seen again.

Right from the outset of their investigation detectives said that Pat - his real name was William - had been murdered and that his telephone smashed to hinder the police search for his remains.

But in Comber it's what police AREN'T saying in their statements about the killing that has raised more questions than answers.

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People in the town yesterday admitted that they were still baffled by the 'PSNI-speak' which has fuelled rumours and sent imaginations running into over-drive.

"We're constrained by what we can say," insisted one police source.

"This is a sensitive and delicate operation where the feelings of many people have to be considered."

Which probably explains why detectives haven't elaborated on their most mystifying comment at the start of their probe that the motive behind the killing could be connected to an unspecified 'change of lifestyle' of Mr McCormick.

Coupled with reports that the victim had earlier been the subject on social media of complaints of stalking by a woman, the speculation has inevitably been lurid.

But the police have insisted that the stalking allegations don't form any part of their current investigation.

So what do we know about William 'Pat' McCormick?

His dormant Facebook page - last used in July last year - gave few clues other than that he was a supporter of Liverpool Football Club.

Mr McCormick was a father of four and he posted a photograph of himself with the message that he loved his family ... and dogs.

He also had over 400 friends on his page including people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Police said he was from Ballynahinch but had been living in Saintfield.

He was the long-term caretaker of Strean Presbyterian Church five miles from Comber but there were reports that he was due to start a new job nearby on the Monday after he disappeared.

Mr McCormick was also a former soldier.

On his Facebook page he described himself as a lance corporal in the Royal Irish Regiment.

But he'd also been a part-timer in the Ulster Defence Regiment. One former colleague said: "He was well-liked and he was inoffensive, a happily married man."

In Comber yesterday there were none of the usual manifestations of a missing persons investigation - no posters or photographs of Mr McCormick throughout the town.

And there were no signs of any extra police presence in or around the centre of Comber.

Detectives have their suspicions about where Mr McCormick's body might be and it clearly isn't in the middle of the town where he was last seen in the CCTV pictures going through an archway into a lane on Castle Street just yards from Comber's famous square dominated by a statue of war hero Major General George Rollo Gillespie.

The alley leads to apartments behind a pharmacy. Just beside the archway there are four mailboxes, one for each of the flats.

Detectives from the PSNI's Major Investigation Unit believe Mr McCormick was murdered in or in the vicinity of the apartments.

It's understood that he'd told his mother where he was going on the Thursday night he disappeared and there are reports that a concerned Mr McCormick also rang police who gave him advice about his safety.

Police have carried out painstaking searches in Comber and they have also issued appeals for information about a Ford Transit van which they believe could form a crucial part of their investigation.

Scores of hours of CCTV footage from over 100 shops and businesses have been closely examined in a bid to plot Mr McCormick's movements and the exact route the van took on the day after his reported disappearance.

One theory was that Mr McCormick's killer or killers put his body in a bin and drove him to a lake or a river where they disposed of his remains.

Expert diving teams have carried out underwater searches in a number of locations but so far to no avail.

Shortly after the murder three men aged 20, 26 and 39 were arrested along with a 20-year-old woman and they were later released on bail.

Last week the PSNI revealed that the Crimestoppers charity had offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of Mr McCormick's body.

As yet there's been no indication that the reward has elicited any additional information.

PSNI sources said that whoever killed Mr McCormick left few clues behind them.

In the town itself yesterday people were wary of speaking openly about Mr McCormick's murder even though there's no sense that Comber is a town gripped by fear of a random killer striking again.

"The feeling is that the murder was a one-off and Mr McCormick was known to his assailant and that he knew his killer," said a police source.

One shop assistant who was an acquaintance of Mr McCormick said Comber was a town that was recovering from shock, adding: "Everyone has been talking about the murder for weeks but there's nothing really new to say.

"The local weekly paper didn't even cover the killing or the search for a body last week."

An elderly woman said: "I just pray that someone finds Pat's body. It's cruel to keep his family waiting to get him back to bury him."

She added that Comber was a quiet town which escaped the Troubles relatively unscathed.

But there have been brutal murders there before. Seven years ago Philip Strickland was killed after a row over drugs and the murder of Pat McCormick has also brought back memories of the killing of Lisa Dorrian not far from Comber, in Ballyhalbert, 14 years ago.

Her body has never been found.

Local councillors have said the PSNI have tried to brief them as fully as they could about Mr McCormick's fate at a series of meetings.

DUP councillor Trevor Cummings said it was a complex investigation.

He added: "People want to see the police catching the killers, obviously. But what is uppermost in everyone's minds is that the uncertainty is ended for Mr McCormick's family. Finding his body is crucial so that his loved ones can have a decent Christian burial."

Ulster Unionist councillor Philip Smith said: "The longer this runs on the more distressing it is for Mr McCormick's relatives. I just hope that whoever killed him has the humanity to let someone know where his body is."

TUV councillor Stephen Cooper said: "I can't imagine the heartache the family are going through.

"Someone must know something and even though the PSNI are carrying out their inquiries diligently and thoroughly I just dread they may never find Pat's body."

It's a fear that is shared throughout Comber.

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