Killed over a grudge: UDA thug ordered murder of dad-of-five Brian McIlhagga
Twisted thug used Brian's cannabis dealing as excuse for brutal slaying
Murder victim Brian 'Brick' McIlhagga was gunned down on the orders of a UDA man who bore him a personal grudge.
The terror thug targeted the popular 42-year-old who last year started a relationship with glamorous Ashley Craig.
Heartbroken Craig had angrily told friends just weeks before the attack that the couple were the victims of lies, rumour and backstabbing.
The UDA man used McIlhagga's small time involvement in the drugs trade as an excuse to tell a team of UDA heavies to kneecap the father of five.
But rather than come quietly, the Ballymena man fought back - a brave move that sealed his fate.
Last Monday night the UDA gang dragged McIlhagga into the garden of his partner Ashley Craig's home and blasted him the leg with a shotgun, severing an artery.
This was after beating up the attractive mum of four in front of her screaming children, all aged under 13.
Today Sunday Life lifts the lid on the motives behind the horrific doorstep murder that has rocked the normally quiet north Antrim town of Ballymoney.
We can reveal that:
- McIlhagga was targeted by a member of the UDA;
- the murder victim was a small-time drug dealer who sold cannabis to friends;
- he was hit over the head with a crowbar before being blasted with a shotgun; and
- one early suspect was once linked to a series of pipe-bomb attacks in Ballymoney.
A source close to the investigation told Sunday Life: "Every way we look at this the UDA pops up, the group is at the centre of the murder.
"Brian McIlhagga was dabbling in drugs, a bit of taking, a bit of dealing.
"He sold to friends and regular customers, but it was on a very small scale, he was in no way a big-time drug dealer."
The security insider said detectives are working on the belief that the UDA used McIlhagga's involvement in drugs as an excuse to shoot him, when in fact the real motive was personal.
"In this murder there are layers upon layers of reasons. What we are finding though is that the drugs claim was simply an excuse to settle a personal grudge," added our source.
The McIlhagga family were completely unaware that Brian had been selling cannabis.
They also knew little of his relationship with Ashley Craig, whom he had been seeing for a year.
The murder victim's father Ronnie McIlhagga, 65, was too upset to talk to Sunday Life when we called to his Ballymena home on Friday.
But earlier in the week he said: "Everybody is just shell-shocked. I am stuck for words."
McIlhagga was with Ashley Craig and her four kids when a UDA gang arrived at the front door of her Riverview Park bungalow on Monday night.
They forced their way into the property and attacked her in the kitchen in front of the screaming children.
The UDA thugs then turned their attention to McIlhagga, who was desperately trying to fight them off, and smashed him over the head with a crowbar.
The blow, which is believed to have fractured his skull, rendered him unconscious and he was dragged into the front garden and blasted in the thigh with a shotgun.
While McIlhagga was being attacked, a frantic Ashley Craig managed to dial 999 to report the attack.
Police and paramedics raced to the scene as the UDA gang escaped, but by the time they got there McIlhagga was on the cusp of death.
Detective Chief Inspector Michael Harvey, who is leading the murder investigation, described the killing as "brutal, sustained and vicious".
He appealed for witnesses to the murder to come forward.
Cops hunting the gunmen have spent the past six days searching a river near the murder scene.
But our security sources say the shotgun used to kill Brian McIlhagga is unlikely to have been thrown away.
"A shotgun is valuable to paramilitaries, it is doubtful that they would have dumped it in a river," explained a source.
As well as searching for the murder weapon, cops are also examining cryptic Facebook messages that McIlhagga and his partner Ashley Craig made in the weeks before the killing.
In November an irate Ashley posted: "Some folk need to get a life and stop interfering in mine. Sad really, claim to be happy with their lives but yet still find time to make up lies and find out what I'm doing."
On December 27 the glamorous blonde talked about her love for Brian McIlhagga, writing: "A year ago today I was introduced to one of the most amazing people I have ever met - Brick McIlhagga. We've developed a friendship that no one will ever understand. Big man, what a year we've had.
"People we loved and trusted stabbed us in the back just to make them look good," added Ashley.
"You're my rock and have helped me through so much in the past year. You don't realise how much you mean to me babe. Happy one year anniversary."
And on New Year's Eve she posted that she would be happy when 2014 was over as it had been a year "full of lies, rumours, jealous folk and backstabbers". She said she was was stronger than ever, adding, "So nice try f******, maybe focus 2015 on your own miserable lives..."
The UDA terror gang in north Antrim is hopelessly fractured with no overall leader since veteran loyalist Billy 'The Mexican' McFarlane was ousted at the end of 2013.
This means that decisions, like that to shoot Brian McIlhagga, no longer need to be sanctioned at brigadier level.
At present two brothers run the UDA in Ballymoney, a violent bodybuilder controls Coleraine, with a third loyalist in charge of Derry city and the outlying areas.
Since McFarlane was stood down 15 months ago, the UDA in north Antrim has carried out a number of brutal punishment attacks as the different commanders jostle for control.
Victims include Matthew Campbell, 15, in Coleraine and Stephen Clyde, 21, who lost a leg after being shot by the UDA in Portrush.The gang also tried to kill a criminal from west Belfast who moved to the St James's Park area of Ballymoney.He was shot in the arm by the gunmen who chased him up the street, firing bullets as they ran.