Northern Ireland news

Cookstown: Police will not apologise over drug arrest

 A group of teenage girls escorted by their families leave floral tributes at the entrance of the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Police followed "normal practice" in revealing the owner of a Cookstown hotel where three teenagers died was arrested on suspicion of drug crimes before later saying he had been "de-arrested" after forensics revealed white powder taken from his home was "an innocent substance", a senior detective has said.

Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray, who is leading the probe into the teenagers' deaths, defended the PSNI's handling of the investigation and said police would not apologise.

Michael McElhatton (52), was detained on Tuesday along with a 40-year-old man, on suspicion of manslaughter following the deaths of Lauren Bullock (17), Morgan Barnard (17) and Connor Currie (16).

However, in a dramatic chain of events yesterday afternoon police said he had been "further arrested on suspicion of possession of Class A drugs with intent to supply" following the search of a house in Moneymore.

He was then "de-arrested" following tests on a white substance taken from the laundry room at his home.

Greenvale Hotel owner Michael McElhatton was one of two men arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association

Mr McElhatton has insisted he has "nothing whatsoever to do with drugs" and accused police of having "blackened my name".

Last night Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said the PSNI "would like to make it clear that there is no suspicion of any crime relating to misuse of drugs" in relation to Mr McElhatton.

The 52-year-old was released on police bail in relation to the alleged manslaughter late on Wednesday night. Police said he will return for questioning at a later date.

The 40-year-old man remains in custody.

Giving an update on the investigation into the three deaths this morning, DCS Murray said: "Anything that we said about it follows our normal practice."

"We didn't identify anybody," he said.

He said forensic teams had told police what the white powder discovered in the house "was not" but not what it actually is.

He said after looking at an image of the substance, he could see why officers thought it might be suspicious.

Police will not apologise for handling of drug arrest

Asked if police would apologise for their handling of the arrest and release of information, Mr Murray replied: "No".

"Everything that happened in relation to that arrest and seizure is actually what we normally do," he said.

He added: "I have seen images of the discovery and we're talking about white powder in an unmarked, unbranded, clear plastic bag and around that are a number of individual tin foil pieces which are scrunched up and look like wraps."

The senior detective said "normally" the substance would be sent to a laboratory and it "may be some time before forensic testing would occur".

"Because it is part of a linked event into the investigation into the deaths of three vulnerable young people it is fast-tracked through the lab extremely quickly and the lab were able to come back to us and say 'no, we don't actually know what this is yet but it is none of the controlled substances that we would expect to find'," he said.

Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray during a press conference about the deaths of three teenagers at Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown, Co Tyrone. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association 

He said the 52-year-old and his solicitor were quickly informed he had been "de-arrested" on suspicion of drug crimes.

"Anything that we said about it follows our normal practice. We've not identified anybody. People may have chosen to identify themselves and that's fine, that's their lawful right and I understand that, but that is, in fact, a choice."

Mr Murray said police did not try to "blacken people's names".

"What we are about is investigating the deaths of three children in a fast-moving, high-intensity investigation and actually the very fact that we move so quickly for the forensic examination - the very fact that as soon as we got the results we expeditiously made it known to the individual and then re-issued the update to the media I think actually shows transparency."

He said there was a "hunger for transparency".

Mr Murray said if police had not informed people about the drug arrest: "I would be sitting here answering questions that are actually coming from the exact opposite angle - why didn't the police update us in line with our standard practices as soon as they knew".

He said the police press release clearly stated the 52-year-old had been arrested about "suspected class A drugs".

The Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown, Co Tyrone

Mr Murray said police do not know what the substance found in the laundry room of Mr McElhatton's house actually is.

"We have been told what it's not. The forensic analysts have not told us what it is," he said.

He said police had asked the forensics laboratory to identify the substance.

"How it was found and where it was located certainly didn't lend itself to being just a household agent," he said.

PSNI Cookstown probe is 'professional' and 'sound'

Mr Murray defended the police investigation and said officers had covered a "tremendous amount of ground" in just four days.

"The overall investigation I believe is extremely sound; I believe it is professional; I believe it is responsive to the needs of those families; I believe it is responsive to the community," he said.

"What happened on Sunday night is an enormous tragedy," he said. "There is no element of this (which) is comfortable for anybody at any time. It is not comfortable for those in the custody block; it is not comfortable for those witnesses coming forward; it is not comfortable for those officers listening to account after account but above all it is... heartbreakingly tragic for the families."

He added: "It is uncomfortable, but that doesn't make it wrong."

Mr Murray said police had "acted in good faith and tried to do our best in difficult circumstances".

Victims' families thank everyone who tried to save teenagers

From left, Connor Currie (16), Lauren Bullock (17) and Morgan Barnard (17) died following a crush outside a St Patrick's Day disco at the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown 

The victims:

Mr Murray said the families of the three teenagers have asked everyone with information about their loved ones' deaths to come forward.

"The three families would like to extend their heartfelt thanks to the local community for their support since the tragic events of Sunday night," he said.

"They are grateful to all of those who have come forward to speak to the PSNI so far and would appeal to anyone else who witnessed the terrible event to come forward and give their account to police. 

"The families want to find out exactly what happened to their children and have asked people to co-operate fully with the police investigation. The families would also like to thank the emergency services who responded at the scene and the staff in Antrim Area Hospital."

He read out a short statement from each of the families.

"Morgan's family will remember him for loving the simple things in life," he said.

"He volunteered for a number of things including working at the local Cancer Research shop. He always had a smile for everyone and brightened up the classroom with his humour. 

"Connor's family want to thank Antrim Area hospital staff, paramedics, ambulance staff, the PSNI and members of the public who came to Connor's assistance in any way during that terrible time.

"Lauren's family will remember her as a very thoughtful and caring young girl who was out-going and fun-loving."

Police due to interview further 106 people in next few days

The senior detective said police had identified just over 400 people who were either in the queue for the disco or in the hotel car park.

He said of the 400 people, 82 had been interviewed and "firm arrangements" had been made to speak to a further 106 people within the next few days.

Police were still "reaching out" to around 200 people, he said, and urged anyone who has yet to come forward to speak to officers.

"The interviews are challenging because a lot of the people are young and they are vulnerable and that has to be respected and catered for," he said.

He said officers had been called in from across Northern Ireland to help in the investigation.

A total of 72 people have used a special police facility at the Burnavon arts centre in Cookstown to allow young people to give information without having to go to a police station.

He said it was the first time the PSNI had used a "public portal" to allow witnesses to upload video footage. Information can be provided via https://mipp.police.uk/operation/PSNI19O08-PO1

A specialised police vehicle had also been sent to the scene to capture people's phone footage, he said.

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Anyone affected by this story can access help and support by contacting the Lifeline helpline on 0808 808800

People looking for an accredited counsellor can contact the National Counselling Society on www.nationalcounsellingsociety.org or 01903 200666

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