A saga of sinister elements and spectacular incompetence was exposed yesterday in the police investigation of a sectarian murder in Northern Ireland.
In an echo of other controversial cases, the Special Branch did not pass on to CID the names of loyalists suspected of the murder of a Catholic man. And when an inquiry into the police investigation was launched, the key file on the case suddenly disappeared.
In a report,Nuala O'Loan, the police ombudsman, concluded that "no earnest effort" was made to identify the murderers. Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, admitted there had been "significant failures" by the former police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Apologising to the family of the man killed, he announced a new inquiry.
The victim, 61-year-old Sean Brown, was killed by loyalists in Co Antrim in 1997. Ms O'Loan, who was called in after a complaint from the Brown family, said she had not uncovered evidence of collusion with the killers. But she listed a litany of mistakes and omissions by police.
She said that cigarette butts found close to the body had not been DNA tested, there had been no proper search for witnesses, and a man who had come forward to police had not been interviewed.
Security camera footage of cars was only partially viewed, while the history of the murder weapon was not properly investigated. Meanwhile, pieces of information recorded by the Special Branch, some of which identified suspects, were not passed on to other detectives.
When Ms O'Loan began her investigation she received a copy of one page from the central file on the murder, but when she requested the remainder of the file she was informed it was missing. Saying this had seriously impeded her investigation, she added: "I regard it as sinister that this document disappeared. It was the only document which disappeared from this particular police station."
She noted that the occurrence book of another station, which recorded what happened on the night of the killing, was also missing.
The RUC investigating officer has since retired, but his former deputy has been promoted and is still serving with the senior rank of superintendent. The ombudsman said she had written to the Chief Constable recommending that this officer undergo retraining. She commented: "It's a very, very failed investigation. Simple things that could have been done, were not done. The Browns were right in the complaint that they made to me."
Those involved in reviewing the original RUC investigation described it yesterday as dysfunctional and unprofessional, characterised by poor judgements and sloppy practice. One senior figure said: "I would give it two out of 10."
Sean Brown's son, Damien, said publication of the ombudsman's report had given the family "a very harrowing day - it opens up a lot of wounds". Referring to the new investigation into the case announced by the Chief Constable, he added: "We will not be happy with an investigation by the [Police Service of Northern Ireland], we want it by a totally outside force."
The family's solicitor, Kevin Winter, said the report was a "damning indictment" which had revealed "a litany of deficiencies and a mockery of a police investigation".
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