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Wrongly accused of killing, Derry Four still await justice

It was a series of blunders over four decades which led to four teenagers going on the run for nearly 20 years, two former detectives in a courtroom dock and a police watchdog investigator facing a criminal probe.

The charges faced by the officers related to an RUC investigation into the murder of Royal Welch Fusiliers officer Lieutenant Steven Kirby, who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in February 1979 at Abercorn Road in Derry.

The RUC charged four teenagers with his murder: Gerry McGowan, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly. They became known as The Derry Four after they skipped bail and crossed the border into the Republic. Protesting their innocence, they waited almost two decades before all charges were dropped and they could return home. In that time, Mr McGowan saw his dreams of becoming a top-flight footballer snatched away.

He woke up in bed in 1979 surrounded by soldiers and RUC officers. He and the other three were taken to Strand Road police station and allegedly interviewed by 12 officers.

He broke down yesterday while reflecting on the impact the arrest had on his life.

Considered a real prospect, Gerry trained alongside future England striker Gary Lineker. Both were given contracts by Leicester City and shared the same digs. Indeed, many who saw them play described the Creggan native as a better footballer. But that ended when he became homesick and was given permission to go back to Northern Ireland. He subsequently went on the run, his mother dying while he was in hiding.

In 1998 all charges were dropped. In 2005 he made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman, claiming evidence he was said to have provided had been falsified. In 2012 a file was passed from the watchdog to the PPS, which decided to prosecute retired detectives John McGahan and Philip Thomson, now aged 71 and 64. Both were charged with trying to pervert the course of justice.

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Weeks ago, the Ombudsman provided further information to the PPS. No details have been given but it led to the offering of no evidence in court. The attention has now switched to the watchdog, with the chance one of its investigators could face criminal proceedings.

Standing alongside Mr Crumlish outside Laganside Crown Court yesterday, Mr McGowan was highly emotional.

"I was forced to sign a statement for something I didn't do," he said. "I had no involvement - the four of us had no involvement whatsoever. I was prosecuted in 1979 for the murder of a solider in Derry. Me, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerry Kelly were all innocent of this offence. We complained to the Police Ombudsman about the original investigation. After seven years, a file was sent to the PPS recommending prosecution.

"I met with the DPP and members of the Ombudsman's office yesterday. I was advised that the PPS are no longer proceeding with the prosecution.

"It is my view that this case should have proceeded to trial. I am disappointed.

"My lawyers have today sought access to all documents relied upon by the PPS in making this decision, and I will be taking advice on this when I have seen the documents."

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