NI: Downpatrick Crown Court: Six people sentenced for involvement in Bangor murder with ‘paramilitary overtones’
Four men have been given life sentences for the murder of a man who was shot in front of his three-year-old child in Bangor in 2017.
Stating that the murder had “paramilitary overtones”, Judge Adrian Colton imposed minimum tariffs of between 15 and 16 years for the men who had pleaded guilty earlier this month. A man and a woman who pleaded guilty to withholding information about the murder were given suspended sentences.
In May 2017, Colin Horner was shot dead in the car park of a shopping centre in Bangor. Mr Horner was shot a number of times at close range, and continued to be shot when he fell to the ground. The shooting took place in front of Mr Horner’s three-year-old son.
The Court heard evidence that Mr Horner had been targeted earlier the same month, when 20-30 men had gathered outside his home –dispersing only when the police arrived.
In January 2019, Alan James Wilson, Ryan Graham Smyth, Joseph Blair, and Robert Ralph pleaded guilty to the offence of Mr Horner’s murder, and to the offence of possession of a firearm and ammunition with intent.
Terri Aicken and Adrian Gordon Price pleaded guilty to the offence of withholding information.
The prosecution case was based on CCTV footage, text message traffic between the six defendants, and cell site analysis of their mobile phones. There was also forensic evidence, namely a cigarette butt, DNA from a seat belt, and empty cans and bottles – all found in or around the two cars involved in the incident. The case was that Wilson, Smyth, Blair, and Ralph were part of a joint enterprise to target and deliberately kill Mr Horner. While the gunman was not identified, it was accepted that the others were involved in the murder.
Judge Colton said that the clearly planned and targeted murder appeared to have “paramilitary overtones”, and clearly justified a higher starting point of 15/16 years. Judge Colton said that if it was not in the nature of a “professional” or contract killing, it was committed on behalf of either a paramilitary organisation or a similarly organised crime gang.
Aggravating factors were the fact that a firearm was used; the murder was carried out in front of Mr Horner’s three-year-old son; the murder was carried out in a public place, resulting in innocent bystanders having to witness the shooting and its aftermath. In the circumstances, Judge Colton said that the appropriate sentence before mitigation was a minimum of 20 years.
Each of the men submitted that he was not the gunman, and that they played only minor roles in the killing.
Mr Wilson said that he was prevailed upon by other more sinister persons and was only a reluctant participant, that his only prior was a minor road traffic offence, and that there was a lack of sophistication on his part exemplified by the fact that he used his own car. It was also submitted that he was the sole carer for one of his children.
Mr Smyth also submitted that he was reticent about being involved, and that his only prior court appearances were for relatively minor road traffic offences.
It was accepted by the prosecution that Mr Blair played a lesser role than Wilson or Smyth, and that he was merely “keeping dick” for the others. While he did not play a leadership role, he was a voluntary participant – not under the influence of others as it had been suggested. The court heard that Mr Blair had 36 convictions dating back to 2002.
Mr Ralph submitted that he only became involved at 11am on the day of Mr Horner’s murder, and argued that since he had not replied to 8 phone-calls that morning – he was either not expecting them, or not responding to them. Nevertheless, it was accepted that Mr Ralph assisted in the plan knowing that a firearm was to be used, and that murder was a potential outcome. The Court also heard that Mr Ralph had 30 criminal convictions – including one in April 2018 for putting up flags of a paramilitary nature.
Judge Colton said there was no significant exceptional or personal mitigation to justify a reduction in the minimum sentence, nor was he persuaded that there should be significant difference in the appropriate tariff for each defendant.
Nonetheless, applying some distinctions, Judge Colton said that Wilson and Smyth should each serve minimum terms of 20 years, Blair should serve a minimum on 19 years, and Ralph should serve a minimum term of 18.5 years.
Considering the significant benefit and assistance of the guilty pleas which avoided a trial potentially lasting 6 weeks, and avoided evidence having to be given by a number of witnesses by “special measures”; Judge Colton concluded that the discounts for the pleas should result in minimum tariffs of 16 years for Wilson and Smyth, 15.5 years for Blair, and 15 years for Ralph.
In respect of the offence of possession of a firearm and ammunition with intent, Judge Colton imposed sentences of 12 years for Wilson and Smyth, 10 years for Blair, and 9 years for Ralph – all to run concurrently with the life terms imposed.
The prosecution case against Mr Price was that he had been in contact with at least three of the men involved in Mr Horner’s murder an hour after the shooting had taken place, and that he failed to give information to police. It was said that this was done out of a “misguided sense of loyalty”, and that it had no bearing on the police investigation. Mr Price, who had a lengthy criminal record, was given a 12 month custodial sentence to be suspended for 2 years.
Mr Smyth’s girlfriend, Ms Terri Aicken, had told police that Mr Smyth had been with her until 1.45pm on the day of the murder, and that she had then gone to bed sleeping until 4pm. Two days later she told police that she had been sleeping until 5.45pm, that she did not know where Smyth was while she slept, and apologised for misleading police in her initial interview. Judge Colton was satisfied that the custody threshold had been passed, and that the appropriate sentence was one of three months, suspended for 12 months.
- by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News