Dromore deaths: Police continue to question Leslie Ross
Police are continuing to question a stone mason Leslie Ross about the deaths of three former girlfriends in a quiet market town in Northern Ireland.
Ross, 66, from Dromore, Co Down, remains in police custody after officers from the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) serious crime branch were granted a 36-hour extension to quiz him.
He was detained in Dromore yesterday morning in connection with the deaths of Michelle Bickerstaff, 47, last April, Margaret Weise, 50, in August 2007, and Lily McKee, 52, in December 2002, and was taken to Antrim serious crime suite.
All three women were from the area and had been involved in relationships with Mr Ross who lives alone at Meganlis Park, close to the town centre.
It is understood two of the women died after suffering physical injuries while the third death was attributed to organ failure.
Mr Ross was arrested last year in the wake of Ms Bickerstaff's death but was released unconditionally.
The latest move comes after detectives carried out a review of the three separate cases and brought in specialist detectives to lead the investigation.
The probe did not involve any exhumations.
The families of the three women have been informed about the arrest.
In Dromore, locals have spoken of their shock at the developments.
Reverend Stephen Lowry, a church minister who visited Ms Bickerstaff in hospital before she died and conducted her funeral service, said the police investigation was one of the biggest incidents to have happened in Dromore's recent history.
The cleric, who spent 15 years in the town before a recent move, added: "It is a friendly place with a strong community.
"A lot of people are related to each other and there are good bonds of friendship that go back generations."
Local MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the community in Dromore was still absorbing this week's developments.
He said while some locals were aware the deaths of the women were believed to be suspicious, for many the police probe had come as a shock.
"For many people it has come as a surprise to them, it's not something you would expect in a dormitory market town like Dromore," the Democratic Unionist said.
"It will take a while for people to comprehend fully what has happened here."
Meanwhile, the PSNI has also re-issued its appeal for information.
A spokesman said: "Police continue to appeal to the community in Dromore who has any information about these deaths to contact them.
"Detectives are keen to speak with anyone who may have any information which could assist and continue to urge members of the community in Dromore to contact them."
Boxes of evidence are removed from house
By Anna Maguire
Neighbours described seeing police remove boxes of potential evidence from the house of stonemason Leslie Ross moments before the pensioner was led from his Co Down property by police.
He was arrested in Dromore on Tuesday morning amid what is now a major police investigation by the PSNI's Serious Crime Branch.
Neighbours watched as the well-known 66-year-old stonemason was led from his house in the town's Meganlis Park.
An elderly neighbour, who has lived beside Mr Ross for years but did not want to be identified, recalled watching several police officers search through Mr Ross's bins before the pensioner was arrested.
"Police were looking through the bins before they arrested Leslie," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"My carer said the police brought up their cars further up the (Meganlis) Park, but then she saw police coming round and putting boxes of his (Leslie Ross) in their car for evidence.
"I went to his front garden and I asked: 'Is Leslie all right?'. The police said, 'He is. It's ongoing'."
One neighbour described him as a skilled stonemason, who had struggled with alcohol addiction for years.
Mr Ross had lived on his own for several years, she added.
"I don't know how many police were there this morning but there were two police cars here to arrest him.
"He was on his own when they brought him out."
Neighbours also said they were aware of the police investigation into the local women's deaths between December 2002 and April last year.
A pensioner – who lived near mother-of-four Michelle Bickerstaff for years in the town's Dromara Road area, before more recently living in Meganlis Park beside Leslie Ross – described Ms Bickerstaff as a lovely woman. "I knew her all my life," she said.
Tributes paid to death probe women
Linked in death by a major police investigation, in life the three women at the heart of a criminal probe that has rocked the sleepy town of Dromore also shared something in common.
A shopkeeper who knew Michelle Bickerstaff, Margaret Weise and Lily McKee well said one common characteristic shone through.
"They all had hearts of gold," he said.
As 66-year-old stone mason Leslie Ross, a former boyfriend of all three woman, continued to be questioned by detectives about their suspicious deaths, friends and family in the quiet corner of Co Down, tucked just off the busy A1 carriageway linking Belfast and Dublin, were still absorbing the dramatic developments of this week.
It has given them cause to reflect on the lives of those they have lost.
Ms McKee's daughter Jenny has described her as both "fun and funny". Those sentiments were echoed by Carol Black, a local town councillor.
"She was always cheerful and happy," she said of the 52-year-old animal lover who died in 2002.
Ms Black also knew 47-year-old mother-of-four Ms Bickerstaff, who died last April.
"She was a bright and bubbly woman, who had so much to look forward to - she was a young mum."
A friend of Ms Weise, 50, who died in 2007, also recalled her with fondness.
"She was just a lovely woman," she said, emotion swelling in her eyes.
High on a hill above the market town, residents of the tight-knit estate where Mr Ross has lived for many years were also talking about the man now being quizzed by serious crime officers.
More than a year ago, vandals attacked the pensioner's white painted terrace house in Meganlis Park. The windows were broken and graffiti daubed on the front wall. Faint traces of the blue paint are still visible beneath a partially concealing coat of paint. The incident apparently prompted Mr Ross to move away from the estate for a period.
In the last few years it is understood he made enquiries about obtaining a gun licence.
One neighbour who lives down the street described him as a "quiet man".
"He would have had a few friends he would have had round to visit the odd time - older men of the same age - and he would have cooked them up a big pot of stew," he said.
"But otherwise he just kept himself to himself."
Another, who was monitoring developments over her back wooden fence, summed up the feelings of many in the neighbourhood.
"Everyone is just so shocked," she said.
The suspect's family once owned a pub in the town square - Ross's - where he would have tended bar as a younger man.
Long after it changed ownership, the bar was burnt down in a fire. A derelict gap among the shop fronts is the only trace of it remaining. There are plans to transform it into a community park.
In his work as a stone mason, Mr Ross helped build the formidable wall that surrounds the town's police station. Such structures are common across Northern Ireland as security forces continue to contend with the threat posed by dissident republicans.
Now semi-retired, the 6ft 2in white-haired craftsman is a familiar face on the streets around Dromore's main square, where today red, white and blue flags and bunting synonymous with loyal order marching season fluttered in a swirling breeze.
Mr Ross is a regular at the Market Bar on the corner, where he used to play in darts competitions.
"He is always out and about," said one local worker whose business looks out onto what was once a thriving marketplace.
"And always wearing a leather jacket."
Local MP Jeffrey Donaldson said people in Dromore, a town unused to such major criminal probes, were still struggling to comprehend developments.
"At this stage there are still so many unanswered questions," he said.