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PSNI inquiry into online accounts led to arrest of cop accused of lying about Manchester terror attack

PSNI inquiry into online accounts led to Lee Howard's arrest

Lee Howard

A cop from Northern Ireland who allegedly made up a story to journalists about holding a dead child after the Manchester terror attack was exposed by a Police Ombudsman investigation into PSNI Twitter accounts.

Sunday Life can reveal that shamed Lee Howard was among a group of low-level officers and a pretend cop suspected of putting bogus information online about live investigations - claims that were later repeated as fact by some journalists.

They hid behind pseudonyms, with the most prolific hate account being @DonYeoo which spouted homophobic abuse and trolled Justice Minister Naomi Long.

A Police Ombudsman investigation into these accounts led officers to Howard, who worked for the Greater Manchester Police. Howard - who was born in Bangor but moved to Coleraine aged 11 - is understood to have been operating the @ni_incognito account which has since been closed.

At Liverpool Crown Court on Friday, he pleaded guilty to eight offences involving unauthorised access to computer data and disclosing personal data. However, the 32-year-old walked free from court after a judge was told he is mentally ill and undergoing treatment.

A prosecutor said none of the charges related to his claims over the Manchester Arena horror as no criminality was involved.

But he said Howard's claims to have been one of the first officers at the scene having self-deployed himself were not true.

"The reality," said the prosecutor, "is that the defendant wasn't involved in the immediate response to the bombing. He had been on patrol in his area of Ashton-under-Lyne and had moved to the central Manchester area with a group of colleagues from his patrol area. He actually arrived at the scene about an hour and 20 minutes after the explosion.

"He was posted to the outer cordon and he remained on the outer cordon throughout the remaining period of his duty."

A defence lawyer said that the matter was the subject of on-going police investigation.

It was also revealed that the probe into Howard's criminality began when Police Ombudsman investigators in Belfast found WhatsApp messages he had exchanged with a serving PSNI officer.

Other damning evidence found on his phone included:

  • A conversation with his wife about a cop whose son went to the school she worked in and whose private details he illegally accessed on police computers.
  • Details of a robbery suspect that were sent to his wife, along with "personal and disparaging" details about the female victim.
  • Images of an alleged rape victim including injuries to her face that were sent to a man breaching her right to anonymity.
  • A mugshot of a 15-year-old sent to a woman in Northern Ireland with the caption 'a hilarious mugshot of a kid in custody'.
  • Details of a nine-year-old in foster care sent to his wife, including a photograph of her natural mother and her criminal record.

While carrying out this disgraceful behaviour, Lee Howard was also giving radio and press interviews claiming to have held a dead child in his arms after the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack when suicide bomber Salman Abedi killed 22 and injured more than 100 at an Ariane Grande concert.

He also made claims about trying to save victims in the minutes after the slaughter.

Howard told reporters: "She (the child) was in amongst these dead bodies crying and trying to find her mummy. You could still smell the cordite in the air.

"I just grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out. I never found out her name or what happened to her mother or her family. That's the thing that has stayed with me the most from that night."

Howard's claims were the stuff of fantasy, a fact recognised by Judge Menary who imposed a two-year community order, 150 days community service and £750 fine after hearing the defendant was mentally ill.

The judge accused the police officer of dealing in allegations that were "completely inaccurate, false and made up".

Howard appeared on radio shows including Stephen Nolan's BBC Radio Ulster show to talk about his experiences.

Defence lawyer, Peter Doyle, said: "This offending occurred when he was unwell. He had been a young officer, very much an ambassador for the police."

Mr Doyle added. "He is responding properly to medication and management but is still unwell."

He said that the former soldier, who has not been suspended by the force, will face a meeting with the Chief Constable, adding: "The likelihood is this officer will either face dismissal or in recognition of his mental illness, which we submit drove this conduct, a requirement to resign. This has less stigma but same consequences."

Howard's case has implications for the ongoing PSNI and Ombudsman probes into Twitter accounts. The accounts were shut in 2017 after detectives began investigating offences including harassment and data breaches. A file on one suspected officer has been sent to the PPS while another was referred back to police as the individual did not work for the police.

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