Details emerge | 

Natalie McNally: Man accused of murdering pregnant partner ‘researched most painful ways to die’

Days before she died, Ms McNally exchanged 33 messages with another male. Those messages were part of the suspected “catalyst” for her killing

Stephen McCullagh

Natalie McNally

Natalie McNally’s parents Bernadette and Noel McNally with family members at Monday's High Court bail application

Natalie McNally's brother's Brendan (centre left) and Declan (centre right) with friends, family members and supporters leaving Belfast High Court © PA

Belfast Telegraph staff reporterBelfast Telegraph

A man accused of murdering Natalie McNally had researched the most painful ways to die – weeks before he is alleged to have killed the mum-to-be, a court has heard.

The details emerged as Stephen McCullagh was refused bail at the High Court in Belfast.

Ms McNally (32), who was 15 weeks’ pregnant with McCullagh's child, was stabbed at her home in Silverwood Green, Lurgan, a week before Christmas.

McCullagh (33), from Woodland Gardens, Lisburn, is accused of her murder. Appearing via videolink from Maghaberry prison, where the court was told he is being held in segregation, he was dressed in a grey sweatshirt and appeared emotionless for most of the lengthy hearing.

Ms McNally’s family, some wearing T-shirts displaying her picture, were in court.

Natalie McNally's mother Bernie (second left), and father Noel (right) with family members outside Belfast High Court ahead of a bail application hearing for Stephen McCullagh on Monday March 6, 2023. (Liam McBurney/PA Wire)© PA

McCullagh is charged with murdering Ms McNally – his partner – on December 18 last year.

It was alleged in court that he planned and carried out her killing “in a cold and cynical plot” after discovering communication with another male.

The court was told that the victim’s parents allowed the accused to spend 20 minutes alone with her body on Christmas night, believing him to be the grieving partner and not their daughter’s alleged killer.

Prosecution barrister Natalie Pinkerton objected to bail, citing a significant risk to the public, interference with the course of justice and a risk of flight.

She cited a “six-hour fake alibi” – based on a YouTube 'livestream’ that had actually been pre-recorded.

He also left "brazen and taunting” hidden messages about her death in the bogus session, it was claimed.

“The degree of planning and level of sophistication shown by the individual who has committed this crime, along with pre-meditation, deceit and efforts to conceal, is something that the courts in this jurisdiction will rarely have seen,” she said.

McCullagh, who denies involvement in Ms McNally's murder, had initially been arrested and released. On December 24 police stated publicly that he had been eliminated from the investigation.

He was rearrested on January 31 after new CCTV evidence emerged, and charged in the early hours of February 2.

Natalie McNally (Family Handout/PA)© Family Handout

The court was told McCullagh and Ms McNally began their relationship in August 2022, and she was 15 weeks pregnant by December 18.

“On the 18th of December Ms McNally had been at her parents’ home in Lurgan watching football, the World Cup had been on,” said Ms Pinkerton.

“After leaving she travelled back to Lurgan in her vehicle and arrived at approximately 7pm and there is CCTV that captures this.

“As far as Ms McNally is concerned, Mr McCullagh had started a livestream on YouTube of himself playing a computer game.

“The applicant had advertised this on his Twitter account at around 4pm that afternoon and he called it the Violent Night Christmas Gaming stream, saying he would be streaming from about 6pm that night."

Text communications between the two “establish that Mr McCullagh deliberately led Ms McNally to believe that he would be live streaming throughout the night of the 18th”, Ms Pinkerton contended.

The last message from McCullagh to Ms McNally was at 5.57pm saying: “Right I’m off to stream the night away, wish me luck”.

Ms Pinkerton added: “It is important for the court to be aware from the outset that this stream was a lie. It was not live, it was pre-recorded, and pre-recorded by the applicant to specifically play between 6pm on the 18th of December until midnight.”

She said it was the prosecution case that this was “an elaborate hoax, to establish an alibi for the time Ms McNally was murdered".

“And it should be said that time could only be known by the person who committed this crime,” she said.

“The applicant does take issue with the prosecution stating that it was a hoax and offers an explanation for this lie.

“It is a hoax and there are multiple lies to convince viewers of a reality that did not exist.”

Outlining details of the day in question, Ms Pinkerton said CCTV identifies a man at 7.09pm walking towards a bus stop at Kingsway in Dunmurry. The bus stop is two miles from McCullagh’s home address.

The male boards the bus and travelled to Lurgan, with a large hood covering the upper part of his face and a snood or scarf covering the lower.

“When the male gets on the bus he pays with cash… he drops coins on the floor of the bus and bends over to try and pick the money up,” Ms Pinkerton said.

“Due to the thick gloves he is wearing he is unable to do so, so he removes his black gloves and underneath there is a further set of latex gloves that are a yellow-orange colour, which is a further forensic counter measure.”

The height and build of the man fits with McCullagh, the prosecution claimed.

CCTV in Lurgan catches the same person who has a “similar walk or gait” to McCullagh at Silverwood Green where Ms McNally lived with her pet dog and two cats.

Ms McNally owned a large German Shepherd dog, but neighbours did not hear any sound from the dog. The prosecution say this is because the pet would have known McCullagh.

At 9pm two neighbours reported hearing a woman scream.

“Given this evidence combined with CCTV footage it is inferred this is the time Ms McNally is attacked,” Ms Pinkerton said.

CCTV shows the same male leaving Silverwood Green at 9.31pm, carrying a dark backpack, having changed clothing.

The man then gets into a taxi that was waiting on a different fare in Lurgan. The prosecution say the man came across the taxi by chance.

The man told the taxi driver there had been a change of plan and he now needed the taxi to go to Lisburn as his mother was unwell.

The taxi driver has since identified McCullagh in a VIPER line-up as the person he took to Lisburn, the court heard.

Ms Pinkerton said the prosecution case is that McCullagh took the taxi to his home address rather than getting it to stop a few streets away as he didn’t have enough money for the fare.

While the home is surrounded in high trees, the man does go through the front gate and comes back a few minutes later and pays the taxi driver, she said. He takes two bags from the taxi that he is seen throwing over his hedge.

“The taxi drops the male home at 11.13pm and at 11.16pm, after hours of inactivity, Mr McCullagh’s phone becomes active,” she said.

In a prepared statement, McCullagh claimed his phone was inactive because he was drinking and fell asleep.

The court heard that three days before she died, Ms McNally had exchanged 33 WhatsApp messages with another male. Those messages were part of the suspected “catalyst” for her killing, it was contended.

On December 17, the night before the murder, Ms McNally stayed with the accused and analysis of her phone shows that between 12.22am and 9.54am on the day of her death her device was unlocked nine times.

Her WhatsApp was viewed as well as her Twitter account, although no messages were sent.

“It is inferred it was the applicant who accessed Ms McNally’s phone and viewed the information within,” said Ms Pinkerton.

“And it has been confirmed by a family member of Ms McNally that she had given him (McCullagh) the password to her phone in November of 2022”.

It is contended by the prosecution that the communications on Ms McNally’s phone provide a motive for her killing.

McCullagh, who worked as a part-time Belfast Telegraph employee, was interviewed eight times and made no comment through the interviews. However, after being shown evidence that the ‘livestream’ had been pre-recorded he provided a pre-prepared statement.

He claimed to have been drinking at home and fell asleep and then accessed his phone and took his bins out.

His browsing history was also checked and showed that on November 12 there was a searches for “is it more painful to be shot in the head or the heart”.

Another search, Ms Pinkerton said, focused on “which is less painful – drowning or burning to death and would you rather drown or be shot; and is drowning a painful way to die.”

“On the 30th of November there were further searches regarding drowning and unconsciousness.”

McCullagh said he discovered Ms McNally’s body after becoming concerned for her welfare.

At the scene, the court heard, McCullagh told police of another individual he said he believed was responsible for her death, telling detectives: “I know how this happened … (a specified person) did this”.

He was initially arrested after Ms McNally’s body was discovered, then released on police bail and then later unconditionally.

During that time he ingratiated himself with the McNally family and attended their home frequently, the court heard.

“The applicant attended a rally in aid of Ms McNally and violence against women and prepared the montage of photos and videos of Ms McNally’s life for the event,” Ms Pinkerton said.

The prosecution say he was there “preying on everyone’s sympathies” and painting himself as the grieving partner and as a victim.

The court heard again how he left a phone in the McNally home, calling back for it later and during that time he tried to record the family’s conversation to see if they suspected him.

The prosecution say it is “unknown” what he would have done with that information.

McCullagh claims this was an accident.

Defence barrister Craig Patton, representing McCullagh, said: “I’m very aware what a circumstantial case means and how that should be addressed, but that doesn’t mean that the applicant isn’t entitled to scrutinise each of the individual strands and see if they stand up to scrutiny”.

Mr Patton added that while the taxi driver had identified his client as the man he took from Lurgan to Lisburn the driver also admitted that “he had seen Mr McCullagh in the media”.

“We heard a lot about the suspect on the bus and the clear planning that suspect went into”, Mr Patton said.

“We heard very little about how this applicant is purported to be that person on the bus.”

Refusing bail, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan said: “The case is framed by very tragic circumstances, the death of a young woman and her unborn child.

“There are risks apparent from the nature of this crime.”

The Lady Chief Justice added that there was a risk of flight and interference with the investigation.

“I could not be confident at this stage … that any bail conditions could meet the risks that are apparent. I am therefore refusing bail.”

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