The Loughinisland killers’ getaway car was of no forensic value whatsoever by the time it was crushed the year after the 1994 UVF atrocity, scientists have finally confirmed.
For the first time, forensic experts have placed on record that “all relevant examinations” had been carried out before the Triumph Acclaim vehicle was released to police, the News Letter can reveal.
For years those alleging ‘collusion’ have circulated claims that officers conducting a cover-up had disposed of vital evidential opportunities by having the rusting car crushed – despite this course of action having been in line with standard police practise at the time.
In 2016, a report by police ombudsman (PONI) Dr Michael Maguire linked a police sub-divisional commander to the car’s disposal and alleged superintendent Ronnie Hawthorne had acted “negligently”.
Dr Maguire said potential future opportunities to gather forensic evidence had been lost.
However, following a legal action taken by retired officers, a judge found that Mr Hawthorne had “suffered unjustified severe public criticism” and all references to the officer were removed from the PONI report.
Totally erroneous accusations were fuelled by misinformed gossip...void of evidenceRetired c/superintendent Ronnie Hawthorne
Six Catholic men were killed when a UVF gunman opened fire on customers at The Heights bar in the Co Down village on the evening of June 18.
Speaking in 2011, a solicitor for the bereaved families said: ”I cannot conceive of any police policy that would reconcile it with destroying the most significant exhibit in a mass murder investigation within two years of the atrocity when the families were being told that the investigation was live. It was a preposterous, crazy, inexplicable, inexcusable decision.”
Following previous Freedom of Information refusals, and an appeal to the Information Commissioner, the forensic science service (FSNI) has now explained the true forensic value of the car – described by the retired superintendent as “rusting badly with algae all over it” by the time it was handed back to police.
A spokesperson for FSNI said: “Under standard protocols at the time it would have been the role of the Exhibits Stores staff to release exhibits back to the police but only after having been assured by the relevant forensic scientists that all relevant forensic examinations had been completed.”
The killers’ red Triumph car has a starring role in the 2017 film No Stone Unturned, which tells the Loughinisland story from the families’ perspective.
One film reviewer said: “The crushing of the car is shown repeatedly to reinforce the film’s principal point: the police weren’t negligent, but guilty of collusion.”
Another review described the Triumph car as being “mysteriously destroyed,” while a report in the republican An Phoblacht magazine reports a Loughinisland relative as saying: “The car may have retained the prospect of evidential product in the context of developing science.
“It is wholly unsatisfactory and unreasonable that this crucial exhibit was wilfully destroyed by the police.”
In his report, ombudsman Dr Maguire states: “Whilst I have not found evidence of a sinister motive behind the destruction of the vehicle, I have identified negligence associated with its disposal.”
However, Mr Hawthorne has always maintained that the car was treated no differently from any other vehicle after a thorough forensic examination – disposed of, following consultation with senior investigators, when storage capacity became an issue.
Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, he said: “I welcome the statement from the forensic science service as I knew all along there was no ulterior motive behind the decision to dispose of the vehicle.
“Totally erroneous accusations were fuelled by misinformed gossip...which, as we can now see, was totally void of any basics of fact or evidence”.
Former assistant chief constable Raymond White has questioned whether the view of the forensic science service was sought before the ombudsman determined that police acted negligently.
“Nor do I see any evidence that the ombudsman called in an independent forensic expert to assess the RUC’s handling of the Triumph Acclaim,” Mr White said.
“You recover the vehicle, you examine it for forensic traces and then you take custody of those aspects of the car that yield the forensics.”
The former senior detective said that such items are then retained as potential court exhibits, but said he has no knowledge, throughout the history of the Troubles, of any car being preserved as an exhibit and presented in court.
“It is the evidence of the forensic scientist as to what traces the examination of the vehicle produces that the court wants to hear about and how that uniquely connects to the person charged with a crime.”
Mr White went on to say: “The allegations of negligence in respect of the police action over the alleged ‘destruction’ – and loss of the potential forensic value of the scrap vehicle – caused emotional stress to the Loughinisland families and led to an abusive attack on the integrity of the police investigators”.
No one has ever been charged or convicted in relation to the murders.
• Former police officers’ concerns around the ombudsman’s Loughinisland massacre investigation have raised “deeply troubling questions” for the watchdog, Jim Allister has said.
The TUV leader said: “Last week’s series of articles in the News Letter raised deeply troubling questions for the office of the police ombudsman.
“The impact of the very serious allegations on the lives of upstanding police officers cannot be overstated. In an atmosphere where the press are always keen to jump on any suggestion of collusion, the charges levelled against the officers where highly detrimental to them personally as well as casting a shadow over the reputation of the force which held the line against terrorists in NI for over three decades.”
Mr Allister added: “To this day those who do not read the News Letter continue to associate Loughinisland with collusion headlines which blackened the names of innocent men.”
A PONI spokesman said they “stand by” the 2016 report, and added: “The quashing of the first Police Ombudsman Loughinisland report and the publication of the second have already been the subject of extensive consideration by the court, as well as public comment.”