Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ex-RUC detectives held in loyalist killing probe

Owen Bowcott:

Three former detectives have been arrested and questioned by investigators working for Northern Ireland's police ombudsman as part of a far-reaching inquiry into loyalist paramilitary murders.

Chief Superintendent Tom Meek and Constable Trevor McIlrath, were interrogated about an alleged attempt to pervert the course of justice and misconduct in public office, before being released last night. Their homes were also searched.

A third former detective was being questioned last night after returning from a holiday abroad. Johnston "Jonty" Brown was arrested at Belfast international airport as part of the inquiry into the handling of RUC special branch informers.

His home has been searched and computer equipment and other items taken. The retired sergeant had previously been interviewed voluntarily since he left the force in 2001 and began revealing embarrassing and damaging details of police special branch work with paramilitary informers. He was involved in the police undercover operation which led to the 1994 arrest and conviction of feared loyalist commander Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair.

The investigation by the ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, was triggered by a complaint about the way officers carried out the inquiry into the murder of Raymond McCord, who was beaten to death in Newtownabbey, on the northern outskirts of Belfast, in 1997 by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). At least one of those responsible was allegedly working for police special branch at the time.

Over the past three years, as more allegations emerged, the investigation has steadily expanded. Killings committed as long ago as the 1980s are being re-examined. Most involved the UVF.

The handling of intelligence and informers by what was then the RUC's special branch has been the focus. The most controversial issue is whether informers were permitted to become involved in murders and serious crimes without facing prosecution.

The investigation is the largest undertaken by the ombudsman's office since its inquiry into the 1998 Omagh bombing. The full report is likely to be published before Christmas. No one has been charged but an interim file was sent to the Public Prosecution Service.

The two former detectives arrested yesterday were once CID officers. Both Mr McIlrath and Mr Brown worked on the McCord inquiry when members of the RUC.

The ombudsman's office confirmed that another of the murders being re-examined was that of a taxi driver gunned down by the UVF 13 years ago, and the subsequent RUC investigation. Sharon McKenna, 27, a Catholic from Newtownabbey, was shot at the north Belfast home of an elderly friend where she had gone to make his dinner.

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