Man cleared of £26.5m bank robbery

The man accused of the £26.5m Northern Bank robbery in Belfast walked free from court today after charges against him were dropped.

Chris Ward, 26, was cleared of one of Britain's largest heists amid dramatic scenes at Belfast Crown Court.

The Northern Bank employee maintained his innocence throughout the trial after prosecutors branded him the inside man in the raid.

Police blamed it on the IRA but Sinn Fein denied any involvement.

Trial judge Mr Justice McLaughlin said: "I consider the decision of the Director for Public Prosecutions to be fully justified and proper.

"Given the decision to present no further evidence, I could not arrive at any other verdict and I conclude that Chris Ward is not guilty of the three counts in front of me."

Ward, from Colinmill, Poleglass, on the outskirts of West Belfast, denied robbing the Belfast bank and abducting colleague Kevin McMullan and his wife Kyran.

The trial, which started on 9 September, heard the families of Ward and Mr McMullan were held hostage in their homes in West Belfast and County Down while the key-holders for the bank's vault went to work in December 2004.

Prosecutors had attempted to link them to the operation, which saw thieves escape with a van from the bank's cash centre loaded with money.

Prosecution counsel Gordon Kerr QC said the case had been brought before the court based on circumstantial evidence.

"An essential strand related to the circumstances in which the defendant came to be on the rota of the late shift of the Northern Bank on the day of the robbery.

"(It was) Fundamental in the case to the prosecution inviting the court to draw inference from other parts of the case."

He added that differences had arisen during the trial around the rota which prompted the rethink.

"Having considered the remaining evidence and the advice of counsel... it has been concluded that it would not be proper to make further submissions."

Mr Ward's solicitor, Niall Murphy, said: "Chris Ward is relieved that today his innocence, which he has resolutely maintained since he was first charged almost three years ago, has finally been vindicated in a manner which is surely unique in the history of our legal system.

"The whole experience for himself and his family, who were victims of kidnapping, false imprisonment and robbery, was truly devastating."

He added that nobody who had witnessed the quiet dignity of Mr Ward's father's evidence could have failed to have been moved by the distress of the family.

"This has been utterly compounded by his arrest, his detention for the longest period of any individual ever held in police custody in this jurisdiction, and being put on trial for a crime he did not commit and his life thereby destroyed."

The robbers targeted Mr McMullan's home in Loughinisland pretending to be police officers. They snatched Kyran and said that if her husband did not facilitate the raid she would die.

During the trial, assistant bank manager Mr McMullan said: "It was easy to take £26.5m outside to a van on the street, yes. We disguised it as rubbish."

Mr Justice McLaughlin interjected: "It's not like the movies, you don't need dynamite."

Mr McMullan responded: "You just need to take someone's wife away from them."

Mr McMullan told the trial he had been terrified that at any time between his arrival to start work at noon and the last of the cash being taken away more than seven hours later, he would be found out following the hostage taking the night before.

He recounted at one stage standing in the bank's bullion loading bay with two trolleys containing millions in notes when one of the security guards wandered over for a chat.

The gang, he said, made it clear: "I was going to have to be the boss, that I was going to have to be a fantastic actor."