SLAIN hitman Robbie Lawlor had been living in Belfast for over a month collecting drug debts before being murdered last weekend.
Detectives believe this is what led him to his death in the Ardoyne area of the city last weekend.
A local criminal, who has been widely named in connection with the killing, is now living in fear after being warned he could be targeted in revenge attacks by Lawlor's gang.
Friends of this north Belfast man told Sunday Life that "he swears he had nothing to do with either killing or setting up Robbie Lawlor".
They added: "He really is living in fear, he is terrified that he will be murdered in revenge by Lawlor's associates.
"He is also worried that dissident republicans could target him after they wrongly accused him of bringing southern drug dealers into Ardoyne. His head is away."
Slain Lawlor was staying in Belfast since the start of March to avoid revenge attacks for his role in the horrific January killing and dismembering of Drogheda teenager Keane Mulready-Woods.
While supposedly laying low in the city, the ultra-violent thug was known to be collecting drug debts from local dealers who owed cash to gangs across the border.
He even ventured as far as north Armagh to demand £16,000 from a small-time drug dealer, whose original debt was just £2,000.
But his movements were leaked to rival criminals who had put a bounty on his head after the mutilation of 17-year-old Mulready-Woods.
Eight days ago Lawlor was ambushed in the Ardoyne area. He was shot several times in the garden of a property on Etna Drive, dying at the scene.
Although Lawlor was supposed to be hiding in Belfast, he was keeping anything but a low profile.
Before the coronavirus crisis forced pubs to close last month the gangland enforcer was seen drinking in the popular Cathedral Quarter in Belfast and eating at restaurants in the south of the city.
Detectives believe it was his threatening of local dealers who owed cash to southern-based drugs gangs that took him to his death in Ardoyne last weekend.
After pulling up in a car on Etna Drive to collect what is understood to be a £20,000 debt, Lawlor was shot dead by a hooded gunman.
The killer is understood to have escaped out the back door of a house on Etna Drive and through an unlocked alley gate. A getaway car used by the killers was found in flames at Kingston Court a short distance away.
Three men who were in a car with Lawlor in the seconds before his murder were arrested by police, but later freed without charge.
So, too, was a 36-year-old man arrested in Ardoyne last Tuesday.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Montgomery, who is leading the murder probe, described the killing as "horrific and callous".
He also appealed for information about the Volkswagen Scirocco getaway car found burning afterwards.
DCI Montgomery revealed it was left on Estoril Park in Ardoyne the day before the fatal shooting, having been stolen in the south on January 30.
He said: "This was a horrific and callous murder, carried out in close range and in broad daylight, and those involved need to be removed from the streets and our communities.
"At this stage I believe that a single gunman was involved in the killing, firing multiple shots at the victim and striking him a number of times.
"The murder weapon has not yet been recovered. These dangerous people have no place in our society and need to be brought to justice for what they did."
Career criminal Lawlor was freed from Cloverhill Prison in Dublin last December when a charge of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and causing her harm was dropped.
A week earlier he was cleared by a jury of threatening to murder his ex-girlfriend's partner as well as four other serious charges, including possession of a firearm and shooting his partner's mother's dog.
Prior to his murder Lawlor had racked up more than 120 convictions, including a 16-month sentence imposed in April 2015 for possessing a stolen car.
Several of the drug debts he was collecting in Belfast are understood to have been owed to his cocaine-dealing brother-in-law Richard Carberry (39), who was shot dead in Co Meath last November while he was in prison.
Lawlor took on these debts after his release, warning criminals that the cash had to be paid to him.
A fifth man arrested in connection with his killing, but later freed, is the son of a murdered republican from Belfast. He is known to have links to criminal gangs in Limerick and has previously supplied getaway cars used in gangland activity.
One motive being pursued is that Belfast drug dealers who were being threatened by Lawlor worked with gangland figures from Drogheda to execute him.
There is strong speculation that the gunman was from the south, but was assisted by local criminals.
Gardai are also probing whether €50,000 seized from two Limerick women shortly after the Lawlor murder was a bounty being ferried to the gang that organised his killing.