Belfast Telegraph

Cookstown tragedy hotel owner released - slams police who 'blackened' name in drug arrest farce

Fury: Michael McElhatton
Fury: Michael McElhatton
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

The owner of the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown where three teenagers died queuing up for a St Patrick's Night party has accused police of trying to blacken his name as he denied having any involvement in drugs.

Michael McElhatton (52) had been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter following the tragedy on Sunday. He has been released on bail and will return for "further questioning at a future date", police said.

Yesterday he was re-arrested on suspicion of possessing class A drugs with intent to supply following a search at his home.

But just 127 minutes later a statement was issued by the PSNI saying Mr McElhatton had been "de-arrested" over drugs offences, as the investigation descended into a farce.

Mr McElhatton said police had removed a "powdery substance" from the laundry room at his home, leading to speculation that the PSNI had seized washing powder.

"While I wish to respect the ongoing investigation by the police into the tragic deaths of the three young people at the Greenvale Hotel on St Patrick's night, I have no choice but to make it completely clear that I have nothing whatsoever to do with drugs," Mr McElhatton said.

"I can assure everyone that, whatever suspicions the police have raised about me in relation to anything to do with drugs, this is totally without any basis.

"I'm shocked and horrified that the powdery substance taken by police from the laundry in my house could be drugs.

"Despite there being no basis to these suspicions, they have blackened my name and caused so much upset for so many people, especially those who are grieving and distressed over the events at the Greenvale Hotel."

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said: "As a consequence of the arrest of a person on suspicion of manslaughter a search was carried out at the home of the suspect. The search discovered a medium size clear polythene bag containing an amount of a white powdery substance and pieces of tin foil.

"This discovery led to the suspicion that the substance was a class A drug. In line with normal procedure the suspect was arrested on suspicion of possession of a class A drug with intent to supply. This arrest was communicated to the media in line with procedure.

"Given the gravity of the investigation, the examination of the bag was carried out urgently.

"Once opened by the Forensic Science Agency for Northern Ireland the substance inside the bag was ascertained to be an innocent substance. The suspect was then de-arrested in respect of the drugs offence and a communication made to the media.

"The PSNI would like to make it clear that there is no suspicion of any crime relating to misuse of drugs on behalf of the person who still remains in custody.

"The actions taken were in good faith and in line with procedure. We will continue to carry out a rigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these three young people and we are deeply grateful for the huge assistance we are receiving from the community and we hope that people will continue to come forward and assist us with this enquiry."

A 40-year-old hotel doorman remains in custody for questioning on the suspicion of manslaughter following the deaths of Lauren Bullock (17) from Donaghmore, and Morgan Barnard (17) and Connor Currie (16), both from Dungannon. The teenagers died following a crush at the hotel door as crowds of young people waited to gain entry.

On Monday an emotional Mr McElhatton expressed his sympathies to their families at the scene of the tragedy.

The prominent Co Tyrone businessman had been praised for his role in the aftermath of the tragedy when he performed CPR on one of the teenagers in an attempt to save his life.

Around 400 people were trying to get into the venue after being dropped off by buses outside the popular night spot.

A police investigation into the deaths was launched on Monday.

The PSNI is urging all those who were at the venue on Sunday to come forward to help with the investigation.

What does it mean to be de-arrested?

A 'De-arrest' occurs when an arrested person is released before being processed at a police station.

If an arrest is valid, that person is interviewed and then potentially released within 24 hours, unless a 12-hour extension is sought.

But if at any point before that processing stage it becomes apparent there is no case to answer, it will be a 'de-arrest' rather than a release without charge.

For an arrest to be lawful, it must adhere to the conditions laid out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

An arresting officer must hold an "honest and reasonable" suspicion that a criminal act has been carried out. If at any point the facts of the original arrest change, an officer has to question whether he or she still maintains that honest suspicion.

Reasons may include mistaken identity or other exonerating evidence coming to light. If a case is dropped after the suspect is processed, the terminology would be 'released without charge'.

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