Stephen McKinney had grown bored of his wife Lu Na and wanted out of his 14-year marriage so he decided to kill her on a family boating holiday
As Lu Na McKinney’s lifeless body lay floating in the calm waters of Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh on a cold April night in 2017 her killer husband Stephen thought he had covered his tracks by claiming she had fallen in after checking the mooring ropes of the boat they had hired.
In an erratic 999 call he said he had jumped into the water by the iconic Devenish Island to try to save her before it was too late.
But in fact he had simply wet his hair with a bottle of water to make it look like he had tried to help his 35-year-old wife as their two children aged 14 and 11 slept inside fully clothed.
McKinney (44), from Strabane in Co Tyrone, who had been living with his family in Co Donegal, wanted to end his 14-year marriage but in a cold and calculated murder ended his wife’s life instead.
It was supposed to be a family holiday for Easter but it was anything but. First Lu Na took a sleeping drug Zopiclone he bought online, then he forced her into the water without a life jacket.
In what had been initially considered a tragic accident soon became a murder inquiry and a killing that would expose a web of sex, lies and betrayal, on both sides of the Border.
After listening to 12 weeks of evidence the jury at Dungannon Crown Court took less than two hours last week to find him guilty of killing Lu Na, a Chinese national, with the prosecution describing him as “a controlling, manipulative, coercive man” who had grown bored of his wife.
During the trial it was alleged Lu Na had once spoken about a case where another woman went missing from a cruise ship and stated that if anything should happen to her “it would be Stephen”.
There are 150 islands on Lough Erne, the second-biggest lake system in Ulster, with many coves and inlets and Devenish Island is among the most remote. There’s no shelter, no amenities and — crucially — no overnight berths. Lu Na didn’t stand a chance in the dead of night and could not have functioned due to the “hypnotic-sedative effect” of the drugs, said a pharmacologist.
“My wife fell in the lake … I can’t see her, I jumped in to try and get her. I can’t see her,” said McKinney in one of two 999 calls lasting 40 minutes in total. “Please, please, please, please… please, please, please, help me. I can’t see her. She’s in the water, I can’t see her.”
It was 1.19am. McKinney was breathless and panting as he stood on the jetty shivering in a dressing gown and calling for the operator to help. “I jumped in to try and help her,” he repeated.
“He is a cold-blooded killer who had made calculations on how best to get rid of his wife,” a PSNI source said.
“There are lots of ropes on those hire cruisers and once you tie them up, there would never be a need to get out to check them. That was a blatant lie, he drugged her and then pulled her out and threw her over. He didn’t jump in.”
When the emergency services arrived, Lu Na was taken from the water and placed on a stretcher while members of the RNLI tried to give her CPR as her husband looked on.
“There was no sign of life, her eyes were glazed over — she was gone,” one emergency responder who tried to resuscitate her said.
She was transferred to an ambulance where her light-coloured jumper and top were cut off her and resuscitation attempts continued as paramedics made the five-minute journey to South West Acute Hospital.
“There was no sense of urgency for McKinney to go with his wife to the hospital,” a second emergency first responder, who attended the scene, said.
“The way he was acting gave him away to a certain degree. If he had been more distraught maybe he would have got away with it. He didn’t look like someone who had just lost his wife.”
Doctors examined her inside the hospital as her children — who had been covered in blankets and brought to the shore by police — waited in the foyer “looking shell-shocked”, according to a medical professional who was there.
Her husband, meanwhile, was instead standing outside A&E taking a drag of a cigarette. One source approached him to offer his condolences and recalls him “acting strange”.
“He was very calm when he lit up the cigarette. He wasn’t emotional. I thought maybe he was in shock. He was very placid. He wasn’t hysterical. To me if you had lost your partner you would have been distraught. I thought his whole demeanour wasn’t right,” the source said.
Others at the hospital told the court there were moments when he was “emotional and distressed”.
After obtaining statements from marina staff and work colleagues and telecommunications evidence, detectives grew concerned and a murder inquiry was launched.
Throughout police interviews he insisted he had no recollections of jumping into the water, telling officers: “The whole thing is a haze, I’ve lost my best friend.”
The police search discovered Skype chats, sexually explicit videos and images involving McKinney and his wife and other unknown people.
The conversations were often sexually graphic in their content and included McKinney talking of divorce but wanting to remain friends for the sake of their children while Lu Na asked for a chance to change and to spend the rest of her life making it up to him.
It was also claimed in court that Lu Na had a sexual relationship with a college lecturer from Letterkenny in Co Donegal. The man told the court it was a “normal sexual relationship” and claimed she had expressed concerns over how “she was being treated by her husband”.
In the small village of Newtownstewart in Co Tyrone, where Lu Na worked in a Chinese takeaway, her friends are still trying to come to terms with the tragedy even now.
“Sometimes I Google what has happened and I see her picture again. I still can’t believe it. Why? She was so young. Why did this happen to her?” asked Angelica, who runs Chopsticks where Lu Na was known as ‘Abbey’ by some of her colleagues.
She had been exchanging messages with her about meeting up but never got to.
“We were texting each other to meet for a cup of tea, shopping, that type of thing. There aren’t too many Chinese people here so we had each other. But it never happened.
“When I heard she had died I didn’t want to believe it. I called her mummy [in China] and she confirmed the tragic news to me. She was her only child so her mummy has now lost her only child.”
Last week she texted Lu Na’s mother to inform her McKinney had been found guilty. “Thank you” was the simple reply she got back.
Niamh McSorley, who also worked with Lu Na, said the woman “adored her kids”.
“She was always talking about them. There were some evenings her children would have came to the takeaway and to me they all seemed so happy. This has been a complete shock. There was nothing at all that would have made me think that this was coming,” she said.
“It’s hard to take in when you know her. You never know what goes on behind closed doors but I am sure she didn’t get on that boat thinking that this would be the outcome.”
Another former colleague, Nikita McConomy, described Lu Na’s work as “her happy place”.
“There were some cases when she might have been a bit upset but nothing was ever spoken about.
"Sometimes she’d ask us questions about text messages she had received; ‘What does this word mean’, ‘What does that word mean’, things like that. But there was no indication at all there was something going on. It’s hard to believe.”
Yesterday in Flaxfields, Convoy, Co Donegal, there was no sign of activity at the family home with neighbours saying they had not seen anyone at the property in ages.
A man looking after the house said: “If you are doing a story it should be on the children.”
While McKinney’s life sentence — with the minimum term due to be set — will soon commence, for Lu Na’s family it began on that dark night four years ago when she was murdered in a lough famed for its tranquility by the man they thought would keep her safe.