'Drugs' arrest of Greenvale hotel owner was distraction to teens' crush death probe, admits PSNI's Hamilton
The "drugs" arrest and swift de-arrest of a man "did not look good" for police investigating the deaths of three teenagers in a crush outside his Cookstown hotel, the Chief Constable has admitted.
Speaking at a Policing Board meeting in Belfast yesterday, George Hamilton said it had been "a distraction" to the investigation.
But he maintained his officers investigating the St Patrick's night tragedy at the Greenvale Hotel "have done a good job".
Lauren Bullock (17), Morgan Barnard (17) and 16-year-old Connor Currie died in the crush at the door of the premises last month.
In the aftermath hotel owner Michael McElhatton (52) was arrested on suspicion of possession of a class A drug with intent to supply. After forensic testing of the substance, however, he was de-arrested. Mr McElhatton issued a statement accusing police of blackening his name and causing upset for many people who were already distressed.
Police later said white powder found in a clear plastic bag during a search of Mr McElhatton's home was an "innocent substance".
Mr Hamilton maintained police were correct in not to say sorry at the time despite heavy criticism.
"The arrest was entirely lawful. The threshold for arrest had been met and on that basis there was nothing to apologise for," he maintained.
"What is regrettable is that it took attention away. It was a distraction from the grief that those families were suffering, the loss of those three young people.
"Perhaps we communicated too early, and I have no difficulty in accepting that.
"This was officers acting in good faith. Having seen the items, the officers were perfectly entitled to form a reasonable suspicion that this was class A drugs.
"As soon as we fast-tracked the analysis, as soon as we discovered that it wasn't actually class A drugs, the person was de-arrested for that offence.
"In many ways it was a technical release, because they were already in custody for manslaughter suspicion anyway.
"That was all done appropriately and we certainly would not have been putting out the identity of anyone arrested prior to charge in the courts."
Mr Hamilton told the meeting he was proud of the way his officers had handled a very difficult, high pressure investigation into the deaths of the three young people, having so far identified more than 800 witnesses.
The PSNI faced criticism after the first officers to arrive at the scene withdrew over safety concerns. Mr Hamilton referred that matter to the Police Ombudsman.
"I think officers responded in good faith in very difficult circumstances, large numbers, lots of uncertainty, chaos. These officers were brave, but I do think that when we objectively look at the time of arrival, the withdrawal and the details of all that, then there are questions to answer," he said.
"Those officers will answer them because they will hold themselves accountable and they're open to being held accountable. The referral to the Police Ombudsman was one about confidence.
"The investigation team and local police have done a good job, not to be self-congratulatory in such tragic circumstances.
"Beyond that initial response we've had dozens of officers engaged in all sorts of investigative activity, support for the families. We're proud of the efforts that they're making."
He said four officers had initially turned up at the hotel "where there were lots of people and more arriving".
"It was uncertain, chaotic. In some instances alcohol had been consumed. They had to make an assessment about their own safety and their own ability to actually do some good," he said.
"Sometimes when police intervene, and I'm not saying this was the case in Cookstown, but sometimes the presence of officers and their intervention, if too early, too robust or over-zealous, can make the problem worse.
"All the indications we have is that these officers turned up, they're faced with several hundred people in the vicinity and they made a judgment to hold back.
"They have support several minutes away and after assessing the scenario they call for assistance and there was a delay.
"That's all factual and I'm happy to convey that.
"The investigation into who did what and when will all have the benefit of a Police Ombudsman investigation, and I have every confidence in that."