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Ward walks free as £26m bank robbery trial collapses

A man has been found not guilty of involvement in the £26.5m Northern Bank robbery after the trial collapsed in Belfast.

Christopher Ward, 26, from west Belfast, was accused of robbing the bank's Belfast headquarters and of holding a bank official colleague and his wife hostage in December 2004.

Mr Ward denied all charges.

Defence lawyer Niall Murphy claimed: "The mere fact he was a Catholic and charged with this offence was enough to seal his guilt in the eyes of some people."

He added: "This Kafka-esque farce started from the premise that Chris Ward was guilty and worked backwards, rather than commencing with the evidence and working forwards."

He said Mr Ward had been denied the presumption of innocence from the beginning.

"He should have appeared at this court today as a witness for the prosecution, instead he found himself in the dock for a crime he did not commit and of which he remains a victim," he said.

It was the prosecution case that the robbery was a highly organised crime by a gang which had good inside knowledge.

It was alleged at the start of the trial that Ward had made last minute changes to the rota of staff who had a key to the bank's vault so he would be on duty the day of the robbery, in December 2004.

Prosecution counsel Gordon Kerr QC said the prosecution contention was that the last-minute switch of Mr Ward’s shift was “deliberate to place him on the rota with colleague Kevin McMullan”, who lived in a detached house in the countryside that was easy to observe and to guard.

Today, however, the court heard that the change in rota had been "the result of a chance decision by management".

Mr Kerr said the case had been brought before the court based on circumstantial evidence.

"An essential strand related to the circumstances in which the defendant came to be on the rota of the late shift of the Northern Bank on the day of the robbery.

"Fundamental in the case to the prosecution inviting the court to draw inference from other parts of the case."

He added that differences had arisen during the trial around the rota which prompted the rethink.

"Having considered the remaining evidence and the advice of counsel... it has been concluded that it would not be proper to make further submissions."

Judge Mr Justice McLaughlin said: "I consider the decision of the Director for Public Prosecutions to be fully justified and proper.

"Given the decision to present no further evidence, I could not arrive at any other verdict and I conclude that Chris Ward is not guilty of the three counts in front of me."

The trial at Belfast Crown Court began on 9 September.

The raid was one of the biggest cash robberies in the world and within days Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde and both the British and Irish governments blamed the Provisional IRA.

However, Sinn Fein denied republican involvement.

On December 19, 2004 armed men took over the homes of two Northern Bank employees, Chris Ward in Belfast and Kevin McMullen in Co Down.

Both men were told to go to work the following day as normal or their families would be killed.

The robbery, now nearly four years, caused a major political crisis when the PSNI declared it was the work of the IRA.

As part of the investigation, Gardai arrested Cork chef Don Bullman at Heuston Station in Dublin in early 2005. He was found in possession of a Daz washing power box containing more than €90,000.

He was jailed last year for IRA membership but never charged in connection with the Northern Bank robbery.

Police recovered £2m during raids in Cork and Dublin.

Around $100,000 in US banknotes was also recovered from a toilet of the police athletic association's Newforge Country Club.

The PSNI confirmed the money was taken during the Northern Bank heist but said the stash was likely to have been "planted to distract detectives".

The timetable of Britain's biggest bank raid

Sunday, 10pm: Armed and masked gangs take over the homes of two Northern Bank staff, one in Loughinisland and one in Poleglass. The families are taken to undisclosed locations.

Sunday, 10pm: Armed and masked gangs take over the homes of two Northern Bank staff, one in Loughinisland and one in Poleglass. The families are taken to undisclosed locations.

Monday, 7am: The bank employees are told to go to work as usual at the Northern Bank HQ on Donegall Square West.

Monday, 4:30pm: Belfast city centre is packed with Christmas shoppers.

Monday, 6pm: After the bank closes only the two bank employees and security staff are left. Black bin bags are left outside to be cleared away by a 'refuse' lorry. The bank's vaults are believed to have contained up to £30m, much of the money has just arrived and is set to be consigned to the bank's 95 branches and high street dispensing units.

Monday, 8.30pm: Two hours later and a truck has been filled, it leaves Donegall Square West and travels to an undisclosed location.

Monday, 10pm: The two bank managers are left in the countryside outside Belfast. Their families are finally freed after a 24-hour ordeal.

Monday, 11.45pm: Police and bank officials are alerted to the raid. The PSNI's Crime Operations department is immediately brought in to investigate.

Midnight: Rumours of a £30m heist at Northern Bank's headquarters are already sweeping bars in Belfast.

Tuesday, 8am: Despite a virtual media blackout, the Belfast Telegraph establishes the bank's vaults have been looted and the haul could run to tens of millions of pounds. By then, we were predicting the raid was the biggest in UK criminal history

Tuesday, 12:30pm: Northern Bank spokesman insists it is business as usual at their banks and customers will not be affected.

Tuesday, 3.30pm: Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kinkaid says he believes at least £20m was stolen but says it is too early to say if paramilitaries were involved.

Tuesday, 11pm: Detectives reveal they are examining a burnt-out car found in Drumkeeragh Forest Park, Co Down, which is believed to be connected to the raid.

Historic heists

Jonathan McCambridge looks back at some of the most famous heists in UK - and Northern Ireland - history:

1963: The great train robbery - On August 8 a 15 strong armed gang stole £2.6m, mostly in used bank notes, from a Royal Mail train north of London.

1983: Britain's biggest cash robbery - almost £6m was stolen from the Security Express HQ in Shoreditch, east London.

1983: November 26: six robbers broke into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport for what . was supposed to be a relatively easy job, stealing £3m in cash, but this all changed when, instead of the cash, they found gold bullion worth £26m.

1990: £292m City bonds robbery. A 58-year-old messenger with money broker Sheppards, was mugged at knifepoint on a quiet side street in the City of London; the total haul was £292m in bonds which became largely worthless.

2000: Police foiled the robbery when they caught a gang smashing their way into the Millennium Dome with a JCB earthmover to snatch £200m worth of diamonds.

2002: Thieves carried out a dramatic robbery at Heathrow airport, attacking the driver of a security van before escaping with an estimated £6.5m in cash.

Amongst the biggest raids in Northern Ireland have been:

A Provisional IRA raid on a postal sorting office in the early 90s that is believed to have netted £2m.

A loyalist robbery at a bank in Portadown in the late 80s that netted around £700,000.

An INLA raid on the Ulster Bank in Strabane in November last year may have cost the bank £400,000.

An armed gang made off with £1m worth of goods in an articulated lorry from the Makro store in west Belfast in May 2003.

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