Following a Loughinisland murder reconstruction, the claims of a mystery witness that sparked arrests and alarmed the bereaved were finally debunked, MARK RAINEY reports
In November 2009, a witness came forward with startling new claims that police began protecting the UVF killers almost immediately after the 1994 murders at The Heights bar in Loughinisland.
Initially reporting her version of events to the widow of one of the six men who were shot dead, her detailed allegations breathed new life into the persistent claims of officers ‘colluding’ with those responsible for the atrocity.
These new allegations included: that officers failed to record, and then act on, her detailed description of the getaway driver on the night of the attack; that a serving officer secretly stored the killers’ getaway car at his home address; and that her life had been put in danger when her details were passed to a relative of the alleged getaway driver.
Identified as ‘Person V’ in the first police ombudsman (PONI) report produced by Al Hutchinson in 2011, the testimony of this witness was widely published – and remains part of the online historical record of the Loughinisland story. The same witness was identified as ‘Witness U’ in the second investigation carried out by Dr Michael Maguire.
During a video interview with The Detail website in 2011, the witness said: “It just confirmed to me right away, what had always been said, that somehow the police must have been involved in covering it up.”
Witness U could not have identified the driver of the car, which she stated passed her home on the night of the murdersNI Police Ombudsman
Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane amplified these claims on the floor of the NI Assembly in June the same year.
She said: “At every stage in this murder plot, a state agent was central. The driver of the getaway car is living openly. This goes right to the top. Matt Baggott inherited the massacre at Loughinisland. By failing to provide key information and by protecting agents he is now unwittingly, or wittingly, part of the cover-up. The families deserve truth.”
However, in keeping with so much of what has been reported around the atrocity, these claims began to unravel once properly investigated.
The witness’s account included claims that she:
• Saw the car pass her house soon after the murders;
• Got a good look at the driver – despite the car travelling in the dark at high speed – and named him in a statement to a solicitor acting for the Loughinisland families;
• Gave police a detailed account of her evidence at the time but that they failed to act on it;
• Partially lifted a tarpaulin covering a car at the home of a police officer, for no particular reason, and immediately identified the exposed section of the vehicle as the Triumph Acclaim that sped past her home in the dark nine years earlier.
As a result of these allegations around the getaway car, the officer was arrested and questioned twice by PONI investigators, suspended from duty for two years, and ostracised by colleagues who believed that he would not have been arrested without some hard evidence of criminal conduct. A separate strand of investigation focused on the identification of the alleged getaway driver.
These widely reported claims identified the driver as a well-known UVF-linked criminal who had been granted a Royal Perogative of Mercy and, two years after the Loughinisland murders, was freed early from an unrelated prison sentence.
This revelation outraged the Loughinisland families and was viewed as further evidence that police informers were being protected. However, it transpired the car had not been in the officer’s yard, and that the person identified as the getaway driver was not involved in any way.
The ombudsman behind the arrests Al Hutchinson would conclude in his 2011 report that:
• There were “several irreconcilable inconsistencies in the evidence provided”;
• “There is no evidence to corroborate Person V’s account that this vehicle was stored at any time at the premises of Officer 11”;
• “Inquiries have confirmed that within a week of recovering the vehicle from police it was crushed, baled and taken to another location where it was fragmented”.
Having investigated further, the current ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, reported in 2016:
• “My investigators revisited the allegations made by Witness U, particularly in relation to her account that she could identify the driver of the red car, which passed her house at speed on the night of the murders. As part of these inquiries a reconstruction was carried out on the 20th anniversary of the Loughinisland attack at the same time of day that the incident occurred”;
• “The view, which would have been available to Witness U, was photographed and videoed. These inquiries suggest that Witness U could not have identified the driver of the car, which she stated passed her home on the night of the murders”;
• “It is also noteworthy that the direction in which the car, described by Person U, was travelling is inconsistent with both other sightings of the vehicle and the deposition site of the Triumph Acclaim at Listooder Road”.
The PONI summary of this witness concluded: “Witness U’s evidence does not assist me in reaching any substantive determinations in respect of this investigation.”
Families told of ‘dirty dealings’
Clare Rogan, the widow of Adrian Rogan, said she was shocked when approached by a woman claiming to have new information.
“I was completely gobsmacked,” Mrs Rogan told The Detail website.
“They had discovered that this policeman had the vehicle that was allegedly involved, stored in his yard, even though we had been told it was destroyed. I was seeing stars. I could hardly take it in, disbelief. Up to now we had been told that there was no evidence”.
Mrs Rogan added: “But then we discovered this person had made a statement very shortly after it, a very detailed explanation of what the person, the driver looked like.”
Moira Casement, a neice of victim Barney Green, said there was disbelief when the families heard from this witness that a man named as the Loughinisland getaway driver was later granted a Royal Prerogative of Mercy and freed early from an unrelated prison sentence.
“It only made us more convinced that there were dirty dealings,” she also told The Detail.
This article is one of a series in the News Letter on the 1994 Loughinisland atrocity.