Five alleged loyalist killers accused of gunning down a man in front of his young son in broad daylight had their case sent to the Crown Court yesterday.
There was a heavy police presence at Newtownards Magistrates Court where, during a short preliminary enquiry, the legal step necessary to refer a case up through the courts, a prosecuting lawyer submitted there was a prima facie case against the five men and one woman.
The men are jointly charged with the murder of James Colin Horner on May 28 last year and with possessing a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life.
They are: Robert Ralph (47),from the Donaghadee Road in Newtownards; Adrian Price (48) from Bristol Park in Newtownards; Joseph Blair (34), from Shackleton Walk, Newtownards; Alan Wilson (29), from the Ballyrainey Road, Newtownards; Ryan Smyth (30), from Windsor Gardens in Bangor.
Standing alongside the alleged killers in the dock on Friday was 23-year-old Terrie Aicken, from the Green Road in Conlig.
She is accused of perverting the course of justice by providing police with a false statement on 16 June last year.
Mr Horner (35) was shot dead by a lone gunman moments after he had put his three-year-old son in the back of his car at the Sainsbury’s car park in Bangor.
The murder has been linked to a feud among rival loyalist factions.
Giving evidence to the court when Smyth first appeared, DS Bush said police believe he has “strong links to the UDA” and that the murder of Mr Horner was connected to the Carrickfergus killing of loyalist George Gilmore with “mounting tensions in south east Antrim UDA in an ongoing feud”.
A lawyer said that while Wilson is not accused of pulling the trigger or being in the getaway car, it is the Crown case that he “scouted” the victim and phoned the gunman.
Photographic evidence from earlier that day allegedly shows Wilson’s car parked near Mr Horner’s home on the morning of the attack, the court heard.
The prosecution claimed that Wilson’s car was captured on CCTV following Mr Horner’s car into Sainsbury’s car park while mobile phone records allegedly show he made a number of calls while the victim was in the supermarket.
Cell site analysis also allegedly links his mobile to the Kerr’s Road area between Bangor and Newtownards where the getaway car was later discovered burnt out.
During Smyth’s bail application, there was a similar claim that cell site analysis places a mobile phone allegedly associated with Smyth in Sainsbury’s car park at the time of the killing and a further claim that photographs of Mr Horner and his car were found on the phone.
It is the prosecution case that a yard on South Street in Newtownards was used as a “staging post” in the killers’ plan with a claim that “CCTV evidence shows the Mondeo getaway car and a Ford Focus (allegedly used by Wilson to scout the victim) leave these premises about an hour before the murder”.
Defence lawyers however submit there is no direct evidence to link either man to the murder and that the circumstantial case thus far is weak.
In court on Friday, defence barristers for the six defendants conceded there was sufficient evidence to refer the case upwards to the Crown Court.
All six were given the opportunity to comment on the charges or give evidence to the preliminary enquiry but each declined the chance.
Freeing them all on continuing bail, District Judge Mark Hamill returned the case to Belfast Crown Court and ordered each of the defendants to appear there on September 7 for their arraignment.