Police Ombudsman finds ‘significant failings’ in PSNI investigation into 2002 murder

The Police Ombudsman has found that there were “significant failings” in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation into the murder of Gerard Lawlor in 2002, but no evidence that police could have prevented his murder nor of collusive behaviours.

Aug 31, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson

Mr Lawlor was murdered as he walked home along the Floral Road in North Belfast shortly after midnight on July 22, 2002, the “final, fatal gun attack” which took place in the north of the city that evening.

The first of the attacks was at 7.30pm when a Protestant man was shot while standing outside a house at Glenbryn Park, near the peace line. Although he was seriously injured, he survived.

Four further gun attacks took place that evening between 10.00pm and 11.25pm within a relatively small geographical area of north Belfast. On each occasion the victims were members of the Catholic community, leading the police to believe that the attacks were in retaliation for the attempted murder of the man at Glenbryn Park.

The sixth attack resulted in the murder of Mr Lawlor, for which Loyalist paramilitaries claimed responsibility. He was 19 years old and had a partner and 18 month old son.

Mr Lawlor’s family had raised concerns with the Police Ombudsman, Mrs Marie Anderson, about the preventability of the murder, protection of informants and allegations of collusion, as well as how the PSNI investigation was conducted.

Commenting on the outcome of her investigation, Mrs Anderson said: “Sectarian tensions were high in North Belfast on the night of July 21-22 2002 and although police resources were undoubtedly stretched, police and military patrols continued in interface areas that evening and both police and military vehicle check points were also in place.

“My investigation found no evidence that police had prior information that Gerard Lawlor was going to be targeted, or that Loyalist paramilitaries were planning an attack in the Floral Road area and I do not believe that an opportunity existed for police to prevent the murder”.

She added: “Initial police actions following the murder were conducted in a thorough and competent manner. Scenes were secured and forensically examined and police conducted extensive witness and CCTV inquiries in the vicinity of the murder scene, in addition to the route that Mr Lawlor took upon leaving the Bellevue Arms, and potential routes taken by the murderers before, and after, the attack.

“However, my investigation did find evidence of significant failings in aspects of the police investigation and, therefore, I have concluded that a number of the complaints, allegations and concerns made by the family about police actions and omissions are legitimate and justified”.

Among the investigative failings identified by the Police Ombudsman was a failure to document and develop a “targeted covert/sensitive strategy” with defined objectives for the purposes of the murder investigation and a failure to conduct searches, arrests and interviews in a timely manner as a result of which potential forensic and other evidence may have been lost.

Police received information at an early stage of the investigation linking two people, Person H and Person I, to Mr Lawlor’s murder.

Mrs Anderson said the senior investigating officer directed no arrests be made at that point, believing that it would have been counter-productive as both suspects would not have cooperated during interview and would have been forensically aware.

The officer instead decided to pursue sensitive inquiries in order to gather evidence linking the suspects to the murder.

However, the Ombudsman’s investigation was unable to locate a documented sensitive inquiry strategy which clearly outlined the objectives and tactics required for this phase of the investigation and Mrs Anderson has concluded the approach was “flawed”.

Person H and Person I were arrested under terrorist legislation on suspicion of murder in early August 2003, more than a year after the murder, and subsequently released without charge.

Although the Police Ombudsman acknowledges that there are valid reasons as to why investigators might delay making arrests, she believes the decision ‘significantly undermined’ evidential opportunities:

“I am of the view that the impact of delaying arrests for a year provided the suspects with the opportunity to simply state they could not recall what they were doing a year previously,” Mrs Anderson said. “This failing significantly undermined the likelihood of obtaining evidential and forensic opportunities from the relevant arrests and suspect interviews. These may potentially have advanced the investigation.

“In the absence of evidence that the senior investigating officer was pursuing a sensitive strategy with defined objectives and tactics in connection with Gerard Lawlor’s murder, I can identify no justification for the delay in the arrest and questioning of suspects and carrying out related searches.”

She also identified a  failure to link the murder with a series of sectarian attacks.

The Police Ombudsman said the senior investigating officer linked Mr Lawlor’s murder to the attempted murder of the person who was the victim of the second retaliatory attack of July 21, 2002, as a motorcycle or moped had been identified as being used in both attacks.

He also made a ballistic link to an attempted murder which had taken place in September 2000.

There were no other identifiable evidential links made with any of the other attacks.

However, the Police Ombudsman’s investigation found that police were in possession of intelligence identifying two people, Person J and Person K, who may have played a role in sanctioning the attacks.

There is no evidence that inquiries were conducted in respect of those individuals in the murder investigation.

“I am of the view that the investigation into the other attacks should have been coordinated and subject to strategic oversight, given their proximity to one another and within the wider context of Loyalist paramilitary attacks on July 21, 2002,” said Mrs Anderson.

“A suitably experienced senior officer should have been appointed to oversee and coordinate the investigation into all of the attacks. This would have allowed police to better utilise their limited investigative resources in a more focused and structured manner.

“This could have led to additional opportunities being identified, not only in relation to those directly involved, but also those responsible for sanctioning and/or directing the attacks.”

Regarding an allegation of collusion, Mrs Anderson said: “I have carefully considered all of the available evidence and information in this investigation. There is no evidence that Mr Lawlor’s murder was reasonably foreseeable and therefore preventable. I also concluded that there is no evidence that the PSNI or any of its officers sought to protect any informant.

“I have therefore concluded that there is nothing uncovered by this investigation that would support conclusions that there was ‘collusion’ or collusive behaviour on the part of any police officer.”

Mrs Anderson’s investigation also found:

  • A failure to obtain all relevant telecommunications data;
  • A failure to ensure the continuation of a dedicated family liaison officer;
  • A failure to establish clear communication lines and record all contacts in accordance with family liaison guidance applicable at the time;
  • A failure to maintain and complete policy file/decisions;
  • A failure to maintain CCTV viewing logs; and
  • A failure to fully consider the dissemination of all relevant intelligence to the senior investigating officer.

Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Saunders, head of legacy and disclosure at the PSNI, said: “I recognise the continued pain and suffering felt by the family of Gerard Lawlor.  Their suffering does not fade and my thoughts are with them today.

“We note the comments made by the Police Ombudsman and acknowledge her findings around the original investigation into Gerard’s  murder on July 22, 2002.

“We will now take time to carefully consider this report and its findings.

“Gerard’s murder currently sits within the caseload of Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) for future review in accordance with LIB’s Case Sequencing Model.”

Mrs Anderson expressed her gratitude to Mr Lawlor’s family for their cooperation and patience in awaiting the outcome of the investigation and publication of the public statement.

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