A judge heard on Thursday how a police officer had been left traumatised after a dissident republican gun murder bid on a three vehicle PSNI convoy through north Belfast over five years ago.
The officer’s statement about the events of the evening of Thursday, December 6, 2013, was read into the trial of three men at Belfast Crown Court.
Colin Duffy (51), Henry Fitzsimons (50) and 57-year-old Alex McCrory, whose addresses can’t be given at this time, deny preparing and directing terrorism, and membership or professing to be members of the IRA.
Fitzsimons and McCrory are also charged with and deny attempting to murder police in the convoy, and possessing of the two AK47 assault rifles and ammunition used in the north Belfast gun attack.
Mr Justice O’Hara, sitting alone without a jury in the Diplock-style trial, heard an armoured police Tangi Landrover with three officers on board was leading two unmarked ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles to the nightly loyalist protest at Twaddell Avenue.
The two non-armoured vehicles it was escorting were a blue Volkswagen Transporter and a silver Mitsubishi Shogun, with one towing a sign which had a message telling loyalist protestors not to play music at Twaddell Avenue and the other was carrying a loud speaker.
The officer, who was driving the vW Transporter, said that as the convoy approached near the Holy Cross Church on the Crumlin Road he “heard rounds sounding’’ which were coming from his right hand side.
In his statement, read into the court record, the constable said he heard “two bursts’’ of gunfire and he believed that in total 15 rounds were fired.
His statement said that he “swerved his vehicle to the left hand side’’ of the Crumlin Road as a result of the attack and added that he wanted to get quickly out of the area but his path was blocked by the police vehicles in front of him which were “slowing down”.
He said that events of that night had had a “traumatic effect’’ on him, saying it had effected his concentration and that as a result “any thought I have are only half thoughts’’.
The police officer said in his statement that as a result of the gun attack, he was off work and had sought assistance from the PSNI’s Occupational Health Unit.
The officer driving the armoured PSNI Tangi landrover gave oral evidence of the events of the same night.
He said: “We were approaching Holy Cross Church, which was on my left hand side, just after 7pm when I heard five or six loud cracks.
“It was very quick and at first I thought it was fireworks. There was a pause and then there was another series of loud cracks, maybe ten to 12.
“My initial reaction was that they were coming from my right hand side.’’
He said he noticed three male civilians on the footpath beside the chapel and saw them “hunker down’’ after the shots were fired before they moved up in the direction of the roundabout at Twaddell Avenue, adding that he didn’t believe they were involved in the incident.
The constable said that after the second burst of “loud cracks’’ he no longer thought it was fireworks and believed “it was something more serious and more sinister than that’’.
Mr Justice O’Hara heard that there was a series of radio transmissions between the three police vehicles about the incident and they decided to rendezvous on the Woodvale Road.
When they reached the Woodvale Road, the officer said they carried out an inspection of the vehicles. He said his Land Rover had been struck a number of times, including a round which had struck the steal latch on the fuel cap.
There was also a bullet hole in the sign being towed by one of the unmarked vehicles, including two burst tyres and bullet rounds to vehicle, along with bullet rounds to the bulk head, passenger seat and rear doors.
After confirming the bullet marks, the court heard that the incident was radioed into senior PSNI officers that “contact’’ had been made on their vehicles by firearms.
A female constable, who was observer in the Land Rover, said that on approaching Holy Cross Church she too heard a “number of bangs....they were a small burst and then it stopped. I believed them to be fireworks’’.
She added: “There was a short for a few seconds and then a long burst. The first burst lasted four of five seconds and the second burst was in double figures.’’
Asked by a prosecution barrister what type of weapon she believed had opened fire on the vehicle, the officer replied: “It was a long arm, not a handgun.’’
On the opening day of the trial earlier this week, the senior judge was told that in the aftermath of the shooting police recovered two AK47 assault rifles, one of which was found in a burnt-out silver VW Passet car used by the gunmen to fire on the convoy from behind a wall while standing on a tresled scaffold.
He was also told that the three defendants were covertly recorded and videoed under an operation codenamed ‘Operation Idealistic” which was carried out the day after the gun attack by MI5.
The prosecution claim that Duffy, Fitzsimons and McCrory can by identified from the covert video footage and from an hour-long audio recording of them as they talked in a public park in Lurgan, known as Demesne Park, owned and operated by Craigavon Council.
It is the prosecution case that an analysis of the audio recordings by two voice recognition experts provided strong to moderately strong support that the defendants were those captured on disc discussing how to go forward “in light of Ardoyne, and how the leadership were regrouping”.
The prosecution lawyer further alleged that this was supported by the video recordings in that the clothing worn by the three suspects in the Demense Park were similar to that seized from the defendants following their arrests.
Counsel claimed that a transcript of the covert recording allegedly showed “an intimate knowledge” of the attack on the police convoy, the number of gunmen involved and the weapons with which they were armed and later recovered by police.