Northern Ireland news

Two men remanded in custody charged with Shane Whitla murder

David Young, PA

Two men have been remanded in custody after appearing in court charged with the murder of Shane Whitla in Co Armagh.

The 39-year-old father-of-four was discovered unresponsive in Lord Lurgan Park, Lurgan, on January 12.

He had been shot twice in a nearby alleyway and had managed to make his way to the park before collapsing.

Joshua Cotter, 29, of Madrid Street in Belfast, and Jake O'Brien, 27, from Church Walk in Lurgan, appeared separately by videolink before a district judge at Lisburn Magistrates' Court on Saturday morning.

They were the second and third men to appear in court charged with Mr Whitla's murder.

On Friday, Kevin Conway, 25, of Deeny Drive, Lurgan, was remanded in custody after appearing at Craigavon Magistrates' Court charged with murder.

On Saturday, Cotter, who spoke to confirm his name, was remanded in custody after a brief appearance before District Judge Amanda Brady.

A defence lawyer did not challenge the basis upon which a detective sergeant connected his client to the charge and no bail application was made.

The lawyer made clear to the court that his client denied involvement in the murder.

A more substantive hearing was held for O'Brien after his solicitor, Gavin Booth from Phoenix Law, challenged the basis upon which police were connecting his client to the charges.

As well as the murder count, O'Brien is also charged with possession of a handgun and ammunition with intent to endanger life.

He spoke to court only to confirm his name.

The detective sergeant told the judge that a call was made to Mr Whitla when he was at home in Victoria Street, Lurgan, at 7.30pm on the night he died, left the property five minutes later and entered a nearby alleyway off Woodville Street.

The officer said 23 seconds later two men were captured on CCTV running down the alleyway after Mr Whitla. Shortly afterwards they were filmed running back out of the alleyway.

Two bullet cases and a knife were found by police searching the alleyway, the court heard.

The officer said that at 7.32pm, just before Mr Whitla left home, a call had been made to a number linked to O'Brien. The officer said that two days later O'Brien was captured on CCTV in a shop in Lurgan buying credit for the phone.

On the night of the murder, the officer said, two men police believe were O'Brien and Cotter were captured walking together in Kilmaine Street, close to the area of the crime, both before and after the shooting.

The officer said Cotter has acknowledged he was one of the pair in Kilmaine Street, but O'Brien had not identified himself as being in the footage.

The detective sergeant also said indicative traces of gunshot residue had been found on O'Brien's clothes when his home was searched

“During his arrest, items were seized from his house, namely a jacket and trousers,” he said.

“On the trousers itself indicative samples of cartridge discharge residue have been found on the trousers and inside pocket and sleeve of this defendant's coat.”

The officer said only 20% of forensic tests had been completed to date.

Mr Booth challenged much of the evidence the officer put before the court.

He insisted his client had co-operated with police during interview and had given an account that he had been riding his bike in the area on the night of the murder.

Mr Booth said O'Brien passed Lord Lurgan Park but only after the shooting had occurred, as an ambulance was at the scene at the time.

The solicitor said the CCTV capturing the men entering and leaving the alleyway was poor quality and it was impossible to identify anyone in it.

He said that in the other footage from Kilmaine Street, police were only identifying his client on the basis of clothing.

Mr Booth stressed that the results of cartridge discharge residue (CDR) were only “indicative”, adding they could be explained by items such as fireworks, and he made clear no weapon had been found in O'Brien's possession.

“Indicative samples don't always turn out to be gunshot residue,” he added.

The solicitor said there was not much to link his client to the charges.

“This is really only a circumstantial case,” he said. “I do think that the charges aren't fully met at this stage”.

Judge Brady said: “I'm satisfied at this stage there is a circumstantial case to link him through the CCTV and to the CDR residue and therefore I find that there is connection established.”

Mr Booth did not make a bail application on behalf of O'Brien.

Both accused were remanded in custody to appear by videolink at Craigavon Magistrates' Court on January 27.

Conway will appear before the court on the same date.

Northern Ireland news