POLICE chiefs are preparing a fresh directing terrorism case against the leader of the New IRA gang that murdered journalist Lyra McKee.
Thomas Ashe Mellon is the target of a specialist team involving officers from the PSNI's terrorism investigation unit (TIU) and MI5. Their orders are to bring down the 43-year-old dissident who runs the New IRA in Derry city.
Mellon, who glared at Lyra's friends as they protested outside offices linked to the gang, has been a paramilitary since his teenage years.
But he has led a charmed life - beating a previous directing terrorism rap, walking away from a possessing explosives prosecution, and being investigated but not charged in connection with a robbery at Gransha Hospital.
The only major crime the New IRA godfather has been convicted of is writing a note that was smuggled into dissident inmates in Maghaberry Prison.
Mellon was jailed for 15 months for having an article of use to terrorists and put on a 10-year MI5 watch-list, which is normally only reserved for members of Islamic State.
After getting out of prison in 2015, he assumed control of the New IRA in Derry and was a key figure in establishing the headquarters of its political wing Saoradh on Chamberlain Street in the city, from which it is now being evicted.
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However, Mellon's reign could soon be at an end with the establishment of a specialist police unit with orders to charge him with directing terrorism.
Officers from the TIU are working with their counterparts in MI5 and the military's Special Reconnaissance Regiment in targeting the New IRA boss.
Conversations are understood to have been recorded and dissident meetings monitored, with unconfirmed reports that Saoradh's Junior McDaid house has also been bugged.
Police say the group known as ‘Saoradh’ are the political voice of the New IRA. They’ve been the focus of a backlash in Northern Ireland following Lyra McKee’s death. A clip from our piece on @BBCNews tonight pic.twitter.com/NtLYjiTYzy
Security chiefs used a similar strategy to charge prominent republicans Colin Duffy, Alex McCrory and Harry Fitzsimmons with directing the New IRA's terror campaign.
The trio are currently on trial before a non-jury court denying the charge.
"Mellon was high on the terrorism investigation unit's radar, but he became a priority target after the murder of Lyra McKee," a security insider told Sunday Life.
"There were already covert operations in place against his group and these have intensified.
"Cases like this take time. They involve many hours of monitoring and recording, often with little end result, but pieced together they do create enough evidence for arrests."
Security sources say lessons have been learned since the last time Mellon was charged with directing terrorism and found not guilty by a judge.
"Admittedly the evidence against him then was weak," added the insider.
"It was more a case of hitting him with a holding charge and getting him off the streets so he couldn't cause any trouble.
"The test for prosecution this time round will be much stricter, it will take a lot more than his handwriting on a scrap of paper."
Mellon - a taxi driver by day with an address on Rathmore Road - is extremely security conscious, and having served a previous terror sentence, rarely gets his hands dirty.
The New IRA riot in the Creggan area last month, which was put on for cameras filming there and led to the killing of Lyra McKee, took place on his orders.
Mellon was careful enough to not get involved, telling a veteran dissident to organise the violence.
He did, however, sanction shots being fired at police, with one of the bullets hitting Ms McKee who was standing beside a PSNI vehicle on Fanad Drive. Mellon is also aware that violent republican groups in Derry have been heavily infiltrated by informants, with several members of the New IRA jailed following police intelligence-led operations.
Because of this, he keeps a tight circle of friends, with his closest confidants being veteran dissident Fergal Melaugh, who is in his 60s, and Kieran McCool (51), named in court as being a "key member" of a dissident republican gang.
Both men stood menacingly with Mellon outside Junior McDaid House when Ms McKee's friends protested by putting red handprints on its wall to represent the murdered writer's blood.
Also standing with arms folded outside the building was tattooed dissident Gary Hayden.
The 46-year-old was among 11 New IRA supporters, including Mellon, convicted last week of taking part in an illegal Easter 2018 parade through the Creggan.
They were videoed by police wearing berets, sunglasses and combat fatigues with scarves covering their mouths while marching in the estate.
The demonstration led to trouble, with teenage rioters hurling petrol bombs at PSNI vehicles.
Mellon and Hayden were fined £750 each, as was Saoradh spokesman Joe Barr (30) and convicted dissident bomber Jason Ceulemans (47), who was caught in 2012 with a rocket launcher in a car.
Ceulemans was jailed for five years for possessing explosives, and having been released in 2017, is on licence until 2022.
He remains a free man despite being convicted last week of taking part in an illegal parade in support of the New IRA.
Also convicted of taking part in the march was William Martin McDonnell (32), who was caught by prison staff smuggling New IRA leader Thomas Mellon's handwritten terror note into dissident inmates at Maghaberry jail.
He was caged for a year.
Ex-Provo Christy O'Kane (45) was also fined £750 for his role in the Creggan terror display.
In 2008, he was sentenced to 10 years after walking into a PSNI station and confessing to involvement in five IRA shootings and bombings that took place between 1993 and 1994.
Because the offences took place before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, O'Kane had to serve just two years behind bars.