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Six Officers Disciplined Over Double Murder Failings

Six police officers have been disciplined over several mistakes made by the PSNI in the days before two people were murdered by a violent offender in Belfast in 2013.

Caron Smyth and her friend Finbarr McGrillen were murdered in a flat at Ravenhill Court just days before Christmas after they were attacked by two men.

One of the killers was Caron's boyfriend Shaun Hegarty who is now serving life in jail.

The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that had a more appropriate course of action been taken by police, it may have reduced the likelihood of what was to happen.

Although the Ombudsman identified one "very competent" officer who "did the best he could", six police officers have been disciplined for failures identified in the investigation.

The report catalogues a series of flawed decisions, including an incident when police went to a house where, unknown to them, it's thought the man was holding the woman against her will.

Unable to get any response after knocking the front door and at a front window, they then left, without checking the back door or the rear of the property.

The man was known to police as a violent offender who wore an electrically powered tag to monitor his movements at night.

Later, they released him from police custody to a house which had no electricity supply.

Two men received prison sentences for their murders.

Police had Hegarty in custody several times that year, including during the weekend prior to the murders, when it was alleged he had assaulted Ms Smyth.

They referred the issue of whether they had dealt with him properly during these periods to the Police Ombudsman's Office for an independent investigation.

Hegarty had a lengthy criminal record, with more than 70 convictions and several allegations of abuse of previous partners.

In January 2013, police had a report that during a burglary he had assaulted a home owner with a hammer.

In early April, they received a report that he had assaulted a man in Strabane.

Later that month, he was given a prison sentence for assault on a former partner the previous year.

Prior to his release, Hegarty was discussed at a Protection Panel meeting, part of the Public Protection Arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI). It concluded that he could cause serious harm by carrying out a sexual or violent offence.

In May 2013, he was released from prison and during that summer began a relationship with Caron, who lived at Drumaness in County Down.

In June, police received a report that Hegarty was in a premises in Belfast threatening to kill a former partner.

Also that month they received a report that he had assaulted a relative, cutting the man’s face with a knife.
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In July, they received reports that he had made a threatening phone call to an ex-partner and had threatened a woman with a knife.

In October, he was arrested for his alleged involvement in the knife attack on his relative and was released on court bail.

The conditions of bail were that he live at Caron's home, not go out between the hours of 10pm and 7 am, be fitted with an electronic tag to monitor that he keeps the curfew and present himself at the door of the property if asked by police or the monitoring service which operated the tagging system.

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, 07 December, police officers called at Caron's address to conduct a 'bail check' on Hegarty.

According to a report she later made, he was inside, holding her against her will.

Police should have checked Hegarty's location, before leaving house where he was holding Caron against her will.

"Officers filed a report that he had breached his bail conditions but took no other action that day," said Dr Maguire.

On Sunday, 08 December, Caron contacted police to say Hegarty had locked her in the house since Friday and assaulted her with a metal bar. She said she managed to escape and had gone to a relative’s house.

Police met Caron and compiled a report which detailed her injuries, and recorded her as saying she was frightened and thought Hegarty was going to kill her. It concluded that she was at "risk of serious harm".

Caron also said she wanted to withdraw the use of her address as part of Hegarty's court bail conditions.

Police then arrested him for assault and for breaching those conditions.

On Monday 09 December, he was released on police bail, on the condition that he did not contact Caron or enter Drumaness.

The conditions of his previous court bail remained in place, although police, without the authority of the court, changed the location he was to live at to an address in Belfast which he had supplied. He continue to be subject to a night time curfew and to the wearing of an `electronic tag.

On Thursday 12 December, Hegarty and another man murdered Caron and Mr McGrillen.

Dr Maguire said: "This was a man who was flagged on police systems as a violent offender and who had breached court bail conditions the previous weekend, when they believed he committed a violent assault."

Police decided to release him to a different address, even though only a court can authorise a change of court bail address.

They did not properly check the suitability of this new property: had they done so they would have established it did not have an electricity supply needed to operate the electronic tag,” he said.

The Police Ombudsman recommended that eight officers be disciplined for failures identified during this investigation.

Six have now been disciplined. One had been required to resign in connection with an unrelated matter and police dismissed the charges against the eighth officer.


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