Suspicions still surround Falls bookie shop killings

A decade ago today, three men were controversially killed by a top secret army intelligence unit as they carried out a robbery at a West Belfast bookmakers. In one of the most notorious incidents of the ‘dirty war’, Peter Thompson (23), Eddie Hale (25) and John Joseph McNeill (42) died in a hail of bullets at Sean Graham’s betting shop on the junction of the Falls and Whiterock roads. The killings led to calls from politicians, clergy and civil rights groups for an independent public inquiry – one that has never been granted. Relatives of Thompson are now trying to bypass the British legal system by taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. As he emerged from the shop on the morning of January 13, 1990, unarmed, Thompson was shot at least 10 times. Hale, who was carrying a concealed weapon in his clothing, was hit 12 times – nine in the back. The getaway driver, McNeill, was shot in the face at point blank range behind the wheel of a car outside. No gun was found beside McNeill. The two soldiers responsible for his death claimed he made a movement indicating he was armed and they had no alternative to shoot, though this was never proved. Eyewitnesses reports suggest the men were not given the chance to surrender. Up to 30 shots were fired in total by the British Army soldiers, who were attached to the secretive 14 Intelligence Company. Four masks were found at the scene and the security forces embarked on a manhunt for the ‘fourth man’, believed to have been Frank Turley. He was questioned but released without charge. Turley was shot dead near a railway line at Whiteabbey in June, 1998. Turley told the Irish News the trio had been under surveillance for weeks and had been targeted because they had handled stolen army material. Rosemary Thompson – Peter’s mother – had been followed in her car, while Peter received three mysterious phone calls from a woman with an English accent. His father Joseph – a Protestant – told the Irish News his son had “nothing whatsoever” to do with paramilitary activity. A few days after the killings, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told reporters he had been informed by associates of the dead men how joyriders stole sports bags from a Nissan car at Drumbo on December 9, 1989. The bags contained a 9mm pistol, a Heckler and Koch machine gun, documents, maps and other military material. The guns were said to have been sold on to the men shot dead, but were retrieved by the RUC a month before the failed robbery attempt. A ‘fence’ used by the three men had pleaded with them before the garage raid to hand the weapons back after he made a deal with the RUC during interrogation. Thompson’s father believes the RUC should have arrested his son as a result of the raid. The stolen guns revelation sparked claims the killings could have been a pre-planned ‘shoot to kill’ revenge attack for embarrassing the security force’s most elite unit. On the RUC’s advice, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced in December, 1990 that the soldiers would not be prosecuted, leading to outraged accusations of a cover up from the nationalist community. At the 1994 inquest, the two soldiers who fired the fatal bullets did not appear, giving evidence through notes and statements instead. Others spoke from behind screens. A forensic scientific officer contradicted evidence given by one soldier about the guns he was carrying on the day of the killings. The soldiers denied it was a revenge attack but at one stage the families withdrew their legal representatives in protest at restrictions on the questions they could ask. The jury eventually found the soldiers believed the trio were paramilitaries who posed a danger to their lives and came across the robbery by chance on a routine patrol. In April, 1995, Lord Justice Carswell ordered a second inquest after quashing the jury’s findings from the previous October. The judge said questions posed to the jury to help them return their finding had breached coroner’s rules, which do not allow an inquest to come to any result which strays from factual statements. The high court judge said the jury’s verdict was in essence “a finding of justifiable homicide” – something beyond their remit. But at the second inquest in September, 1997, solicitor Peter Madden led a walk-out after telling coroner Dr John Leckey it was “a charade”. “What is being attempted is that the people who carried out the killings are attempting to justify the killings by restricting scope of the inquest. It is totally unacceptable and it is totally unfair,” said Mr Madden. “They must be investigated properly and in full. The inquest procedure at the moment cannot do that.” Despite this and the Thompson family’s refusal to attend, the inquest went ahead with just five of the 34 witnesses called to give evidence. The jury took just under an hour to find that the men were killed during an attempted robbery by an undercover security.