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News

Loyalist jailed for possessing weapons 40 years ago

Sammy Tweed

A FORMER loyalist paramilitary has been jailed for two and a half years for having a cache of guns and ammunition - despite a plea from First Minister Peter Robinson to "show leniency''.

Mr Robinson was one of a number of DUP politicians who wrote letters to Belfast Crown Court urging the judge not to jail 74-year-old Samuel Tweed who had been on the run from police for almost 40 years.

Tweed, of Mark Street, Newtownards, was told by Judge Philip Babington: "These were, and are, serious offences, albeit you were younger and less wise but that does not diminish the seriousness of the offences in any way at all.

"I am satisfied that you have lived a lawful and law abiding life over the last 40 years.

"However, that does mean that the offences are any less serious, far from it.''

Tweed was arrested earlier this year by detectives investigating the 'romper-room' murder of Catholic man Pat Bensted in 1972. He is believed to have been a key member of the notorious UDA Baker/McCreery gang which was responsible for the mass murder of innocent Catholics in the 1970s.

Tweed had pleaded guilty to escaping lawful custody and to possession of a haul of revolvers and pistols with intent to endanger life along with 2,500 rounds of ammunition.

Prosecution QC David McDowell earlier told the court that on April 19 1974, police tried to stop a Ford Cortina car being driven by Tweed, then aged 32, along the Beersbridge Road in east Belfast but he left the vehicle and made off on foot.

The court heard that an RUC officer caught him and grabbed his coat but Tweed removed the coat and made off for a second time.

During a subsequent search of the car he had been driving, police located a Walther pistol under the back seat. His fingerprints were also found on the rear view mirror.

Two days later, the court was told, RUC officers and members of the Royal Military Police went to a house at Jocelyn Avenue in east Belfast to carry out a further search.

The prosecution lawyer said that Tweed answered the door dressed in a pair of trousers and a vest and was arrested.

During a search of the house, security force members found a "cache of firearms'' and ammunition in a front room and downstairs bathroom.

They were: six .45 calibre revolvers; two .22 calibre Star pistols; two .22 calibre pistols; a .22 calibre Browning pistol; a .22 calibre revolver, a .25 calibre Mauser pistol; a .38 Webley revolver; two .38 calibre revolvers; a .32 calibre pistol; a 9mm Beretta pistol; a 12 bore sawn-off shotgun; a 9mm magazine; a .22 calibre magazine and a quantity of assorted ammunition.

At interview in Castlereagh Holding Centre, Tweed told police at the time of the seizure: "I accept responsibility for them. I am just taking full responsibility for all the firearms and ammuntion. That's all I'm saying.''

The following month, on May 7 1974, Tweed was present in the dock during a remand hearing at Belfast Magistrates Court when proceedings were disrupted by a denim-clad mob of teenagers who shouted: "There's a bomb in here''.

Added Mr McDowell: "Pandemonium broke out in the courtroom. Mr Tweed got out and escaped from the courtroom.''

In 2011, his solicitor approached the PSNI and asked if there was anything outstanding against his client only to be told he was not wanted on any warrants.

However, Tweed was arrested the following year by officers from the Historicial Enquiries Team for escaping lawful custody and having the weapons haul with intent to endanger life.

During interview in 2012, he told police that "the guns were already in the house'' at Jocelyn Avenue where he was staying.

Mr McDowell said Tweed "claimed not to remember the incident of escaping lawful custody'' but said the incident in the courtroom was "not an orchestrated event''.

The prosecution lawyer added: "Significant efforts were made to find him involving several other agencies other than the RUC.

"He didn't register for State benefits until 2010 when his wife died. He was registered with a local GP from 1972 until 1995 but he did not attend his GP practice.''

Defence QC Eilis McDermott told Judge Philip Babington: "For whatever reason the authorities did not appear to seek out or arrest Mr Tweed after his escape.

"It is inconceivable that he would not have been found. He was living in east Belfast with his wife and children at the family address from a few weeks after his escape took place. He always lived in that area.

"He didn't sign on for state benefits. He didn't work and his wife supported him until the time of her death in 2010.''

Ms McDermott added that the defendant was "not aware of the administrative scheme'', which has been commonly referred to as the 'on-the-run or OTR scheme'.

She told the court that "such a scheme only benefited one particular political grouping''.

"It has now been established that many people benefited from it. Mr Tweed did not benefit from it.''

The defence QC told the court that a number of references had been written on behalf of Mr Tweed - one from DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, DUP Strangford MP Jim Shannon and east Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas.

In his letter, Mr Robinson: "I am writing this letter as a matter of urgency in the sentence of Mr Samuel Tweed''.

The First Minister wrote that Tweed had now "shown remorse for his actions'' and "has since lived a law abiding life''.

He added that in the context of the early release scheme he was "urging leniency in this particular and unusual case''.

In his letter, Sammy Douglas MLA said that Tweed was "suffering from considerable stress, was suffering from the impact of chest pains and panic attacks which had been exacerbated by going through the crown court process''.

"In my view, over the last 40 years, he has not been involved in any unlawful or illegal activities,'' added Mr Douglas.

"He was caught up in paramilitary activities albeit for a short time. He wants to live out his twilight years with his family and friends.''

Ms McDermott QC said the court had the powers to impose a custodial sentence of up to seven years which may be suspended for a period of up to five years.

She said that if the court felt an immediate term of imprisonment was appropriate, then this could be divided up between a period of custody along with a period on probation.

After Tweed agreed to accept a custody probation order, Judge Babington imposed a sentence of 36 months for the firearms and ammunitions offences followed by one year on probation following his release.

The judge sentenced Tweed to nine months for escaping lawful custody which he said would run concurrent to the firearms sentence.

** The family of Patrick Benstead have asked anyone with information about the activities of the Baker/McCreery gang and the UDA at time of his murder to contact them 079 2221 5567 or email them at colum.benstead@yahoo.ie

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