Lurgan man Shane Whitla ‘executed’ over drug debt to crime gang ‘The Firm’, court told
Shane Whitla was gunned down at a pre-arranged meeting in the Co Armagh town last month, a judge was told
A man shot dead in Lurgan was “executed” over his suspected drug debt to a notorious crime gang known as ‘The Firm’, the High Court heard today.
Shane Whitla was gunned down at a pre-arranged meeting in the Co Armagh town last month, a judge was told.
The alleged circumstances were set out as the Public Prosecution Service appealed a magistrates’ decision to grant bail to one of three men charged with the murder.
Joshua Cotter, 29, of Madrid Street in Belfast, is accused of the killing based on circumstantial CCTV, telephone and forensic evidence.
With the defendant denying any involvement in the murder, his barrister described the case against him as “tenuous and flimsy”.
Mr Whitla, a 39-year-old father of four, was shot on January 12 in an alleyway off Woodville Street but made his way to Lord Lurgan Park where he collapsed and died.
Prosecution counsel Natasha Fitzsimons said CCTV footage showed Cotter and co-accused Jake O’Brien, 27, of Church Walk in Lurgan, walking together towards the general area of the murder earlier that evening.
Detectives believe a third man charged with the murder, Kevin Conway, 25, from Deeny Drive in Lurgan, then phoned the victim to tell him where to meet his killers.
Mr Whitla was viewed leaving his home and going into the alleyway, the court heard, followed by two unidentified men who re-emerged and fled a minute later.
“After police believe the execution happened, Conway makes contact with O’Brien four times within an 18-minute period,” counsel alleged.
The gun used to carry out the murder has still not been recovered.
But Ms Fitzsimons argued that a balaclava, hoodie and trousers seized from Cotter’s home contained particles potentially indicative of firearm discharge residue.
Opposing his release from custody, she said: “Police believe that he is part of an organised criminal gang known as ‘The Firm’.
“Police believe the murder of Shane Whita was motivated by Mr Whitla owing ‘The Firm’ a drug debt.”
Defence barrister Michaal Ward insisted Cotter’s alleged affiliation to the gang was nothing more than social media “tittle-tattle”.
He also told the court forensic experts concluded that the particles on the seized clothing were unlikely to be linked to bullet casings recovered from the alleway or anything worn by the murder victim.
“The evidential value of these particles is extremely limited,” he submitted.
Branding the CCTV footage of the unidentified suspected killers as blurry and of poor quality, Mr Ward contended there is a fundamental gap in the prosecution case.
“It is wholly circumstantial, it is tenuous and it is flimsy,” he added.
Adjourning the hearing, Mr Justice Rooney requested further checks on the forensic evidence before deciding if Cotter is to be granted bail.
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