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22 January 2004 Edition

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Incompetence, corruption and wilful neglect

Sean Brown's son Damien and widow Bridie examine the ombudsman's report on Monday

Sean Brown's son Damien and widow Bridie examine the ombudsman's report on Monday

O'Loan says RUC made no real effort to find Sean Brown's killers

"He represented something better than we have grown used to; something not quite covered by the word 'reconciliation' because that word has become a policy word - official and public. This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood."

- Séamus Heaney, paying tribute to Sean Brown

A sorry but familiar tale of RUC incompetence, corruption and wilful neglect unfolded on Monday as the true extent of the failure of the police investigation into the sectarian killing of Seán Brown was made public by the Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

The murder, almost certainly by the LVF, of 61-year-old Seán Brown, abducted as he locked up the GAA club in Bellaghy on the night of 12 May 1997, bundled into the boot of his own car and driven to nearby farmland before being shot six times, caused outrage, both in his local community, where he was a well-known and highly-respected figure, and throughout the Six Counties.

He was killed against a political background in which the DUP's Willie McCrae - public supporter of LVF murderer Billy Wright and defeated by Martin McGuinness in the Westminster election just days before the murder - had said that McGuinness would "reap the whirlwind" of his victory and that the nationalist community would "pay the price" for voting for Sinn Féin. It is believed that Seán Brown was chosen as a victim because of his high profile as chairman of the Bellaghy GAA.

In a damning report this week on her investigation into the RUC's handling of the case, O'Loan upheld a complaint by Seán Brown's widow, Bridie, that the murder had "not been efficiently and properly carried out" and that "no earnest effort" was made to identify the killers. There were, she continued, "significant failures within the investigative process" and, further, those responsible for the investigation has shown a "failure of the leadership and management". She also heavily criticised the failure of Special Branch to share vital information that it had with the murder investigation team.

Her report is a litany of the ineptitude, and worse, of those carrying out the investigation, and whilst she says she could find no evidence of prior RUC collusion with the murder gang, her findings certainly raise the issue of collusion by omission and failure to investigate.

For example, the report notes that no DNA samples were taken from a number of freshly discarded cigarette stubs found close to the body and burned out vehicle, nor were DNA samples taken from any of those who were subsequently interviewed in connection with the murder. This neglect, says O'Loan, "was a significant error which could have impacted on upon the effectiveness of this investigation". None of the senior officers could provide her with an explanation for why this DNA testing had not been carried out.

Equally crucially, a key file was 'lost' by the RUC three weeks after the Brown family made their complaint to the Police Ombudsman. This file, known as the Policy File, contained a record of what decisions were made by whom with regard to the investigation, and would have provided an audit trail of responsibilities against which action could have been taken against individual officers. This inability to obtain the policy file, says O'Loan "has seriously impeded enquiries undertaken by the Police Ombudsman". Further, "it has also effectively prevented the allocation of responsibility for individual decisions made by senior officers".

Also 'lost' is what is known as the Occurrence Book from Bellaghy RUC station. This is a record, identical to those kept by every police station, in which are entered all matters reported to the police. The fact that the Occurrence Book for Bellaghy RUC for the relevant period cannot be located, says the report, "means that neither the murder investigation team nor the Police Ombudsman has been able to examine the record of what occurred at Bellaghy RUC station on the night of the murder".

In addition, there was "no proper search for witnesses" at the location where the body was found. The evidence of one witness, who was in the Old Moneynick Road on the night of the murder and saw a car in the exact spot where the burning vehicle was later discovered and who approached the police himself to let them have this information, was completely disregarded.

The report also condemns as "wholly inadequate" the way in which the police investigated what is described as a "convoy" of vehicles driven by the murder gang as it drove through Toomebridge, past the RUC barracks, on 12 May 1997. Although the registration number of every passing car was recorded at the barracks, "no attempt was made to identify possible sightings of a 'convoy' or other vehicles en-route to the scene prior to the attack upon Mr Seán Brown... Nor was any research conducted into the potential for suspect vehicles to have passed Toomebridge on a reconnaissance mission in the days before."

The report focuses on the two senior police officers involved in the case, neither of whom is named. The Senior Investigating Officer retired in 2000 and, as the report observes, "the law states that a retired officer cannot be made amenable after retirement for any misconduct occurring before his retirement". The second-in-command, identified only as the Deputy SIO 'A', refused to be interviewed as a witness. As evidence of the mishandling of the case mounted, however, he was served with a notice that he was under investigation and as a consequence was interviewed under caution. His behaviour during questioning is singled out for particular criticism by O'Loan.

"He relied on the fact that he acted solely on the instructions of the Senior Investigating Officer and that he followed the instructions he was given," she says. "[DSIO] A's explanation to all issues was that it was the 'Senior Investigating Officer's decision'. In the absence of the Policy File, which would have clarified responsibility for decision making, this provides an effective shield. It does, however, raise the question as to what value he added to the investigation."

In her recommendations, O'Loan says there should now be a full independent review of the enquiry into the murder of Seán Brown and that the family should receive the maximum compensation allowed under the law. The concerns expressed by them about the original investigation are, she says, "now shown to be justified and to have caused them additional stress and suffering".

Failures of the police investigation:

o No proper attempt was made to identify all the vehicles which drove past Toomebridge RUC Barracks on the night of the murder, despite the fact that the registrations number of all vehicles passing the barracks are recorded. These vehicles included those containing the murder gang on their way to and from Bellaghy GAA.

o Forensic evidence was not gathered, including crucial DNA evidence.

o Witness were not sought, and the evidence of one important witness who came forward was disregarded.

o Crucial files on the case were 'lost' by the RUC shortly after the complaint was lodged.

o The ongoing history of the murder weapon was not properly investigated.

o Special Branch did not share relevant information with the murder investigation team.

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