Natalie McNally murder: Accused shown ‘he is capable of deception beyond imagination’, court told

Stephen McCullagh is charged with killing the mum-to-be in what a court heard was a “sophisticated, calculated and cool-headed plot”

Stephen McCullagh and (right) Natalie McNally

Allison Morris and Adrian RutherfordBelfast Telegraph

A man faked a video-gaming livestream to provide an alibi on the night he allegedly murdered Natalie McNally, a court has heard.

Stephen McCullagh is charged with killing the mum-to-be a week before Christmas in what a court heard was a “sophisticated, calculated and cool-headed plot”.

Ms McNally, aged 32 and 15 weeks pregnant, was killed in her home in Lurgan on December 18.

The 32-year-old defendant, of Woodland Gardens, Lisburn, appeared at Lisburn Magistrates Court on Thursday morning.

During a court hearing lasting almost an hour, it was said that just a week ago McCullagh went to Ms McNally’s parents’ home, left his phone on record and left before returning 40 minutes later, claiming to have forgotten it.

Police say this was an attempt to find out if he was being discussed in connection with the case.

Objecting to bail, a prosecution lawyer said McCullagh had shown “he is capable of deception beyond imagination”.

McCullagh, a part-time assistant audience editor at the Belfast Telegraph, was dressed in a grey tracksuit as he appeared on the video link, showing no emotion throughout.

Ms McNally’s parents, Noel and Bernie, and brothers, Declan, Niall and Brendan, were present in court as the accused appeared via video link from police custody.

The court was told that on December 24, police stated publicly that McCullagh was eliminated from the investigation.

McCullagh’s alibi

His alibi had been that he had been livestreaming a video game on YouTube for six hours – including at the time when police believe Natalie was stabbed to death.

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Neil McGuinness said this is a “complex case with new evidence from various lines of enquiry at an almost hourly basis”.

“New information had come to light that caused me to review the position of Mr McCullagh. I took careful consideration and I reviewed his status and decided that he was suspected of the offence of murder,” he said.

Mr McGuinness noted that on the ‘live’ YouTube footage McCullagh told his subscribers that he was unable to interact with them live due to technical issues.

Mr McGuinness told the court that extensive technical examination of McCullagh’s devices by cyber experts has indicated the footage was pre-recorded.

McCullagh is said to have given a “brief explanation” to uniformed officers on December 19 after he reported finding Natalie dead at her home. This was captured on body-worn footage.

However, when he was interviewed after being taken into custody, he replied “no comment” on the advice of his solicitor.

Police have released CCTV footage of a suspect seen entering the street where Natalie McNally lived on the night she was killed.

CCTV footage

The court was told that CCTV footage from a Translink bus showed a man fitting the description of the previously released CCTV footage.

This footage, the court was told, was only discovered by detectives last Thursday.

“That person gets onto a bus in Kingsway, Dunmurry, having walked to the bus stop,” said Mr McGuinness.

“He has a hood pulled down over his eyes and some sort of face covering over his face, pulled right up over his nose.

“CCTV inside Translink buses is very good quality, so we have images of the male getting onto the bus and interacting with the bus driver.

“That male is carrying a large green Bag For Life from the Asda store — a very distinctive bag.

“Looking into that bag you can see a black bag.”

Police believe this to be the rucksack that is seen being carried by a suspect on footage from Silverwood Green, near Ms McNally’s home, on the night of her death.

When paying to board the bus, the person drops change on the floor and “he removes a black glove from one of his hands to reveal a yellow glove”, the detective said. “So he’s double gloved.”

Mr McGuinness said the significance of the yellow glove is that a glove mark in Ms McNally’s blood from the crime scene “is consistent with a Marigold washing-up-type glove”.

During the 35-minute journey to Lurgan, the person “sat emotionless, other than to adjust his face covering”.

Mr McGuinness contended that the person is taking “careful” steps to conceal their face using a hood and mask.

At one point the person takes a drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Mr McGuinness explains: “Rather than lowering the face mask to take that drink, the person lifts the face mask from beneath and surreptitiously sips it from beneath, which is a very awkward-looking action.

“It is quite clear to me that that person is taking great pains to disguise their identity on that bus,” the detective contended.

The person is seen on CCTV at various places in Lurgan, with what police say was a distinctive “stride and gait”, making his way towards Silverwood Green.

It is the belief of police that, on leaving Ms McNally home, the person changed clothing but has the same distinctive gait and build.

The person then gets into a taxi outside Fa’ Joe’s bar in Lurgan. Police interviewed the driver, who told them they had been booked to take a fare to an address in the town.

However, the detective told the court that “the male who entered the taxi with a black bag said his mother was ill and there had been a change of plan and could he [the driver] take him to an address in Lisburn”.

Asked to retrace the route, the taxi driver took detectives to the area where McCullagh lives. GPRS analysis showed that the taxi drove to the accused’s address, arriving at 11.13pm.

The accused’s mobile phone revealed no activity from 6pm on December 18 until it is swiped open at 11.16pm.

“There are no cookies on that device — those are sort of electronic remnants of any activity on the phone. That phone, we don’t believe, was used or on the network on those final hours.”

Mr McGuinness said he could not be certain where the phone was but added: “The significance of that is that it is strange behaviour in itself — the fact that there is no use or movement or activity on that telephone for that period of over five hours on that occasion at a significant time.

“I believe there is also significance to the time it is activated, bearing in mind that the person travelling from Silverwood Green arrives at that address three minutes before.”

‘A deception’

The court was told that McCullagh has a YouTube channel, Votesaxon07, which has around 37,000 subscribers.

At 4pm on the day of Ms McNally’s death, McCullagh told his followers and subscribers that there would be a “surprise” live broadcast at 6pm that evening.

There are also messages “that suggest Natalie believed Stephen was about to engage on a livestream event”, Mr McGuinness said.

“That event would have been him playing a game — one of the Grand Theft Auto series of games online as part of a stream.”

One section would have shown the game and the activity on the game, and another would have shown McCullagh, with him conversing throughout.

There is also a facility where subscribers and followers on YouTube can “interact” and try to communicate with the host, the court heard.

“It was believed, at that point, that, because of the livestreaming event, Stephen McCullagh is on screen for virtually all of the six hours of that broadcast,” the detective contended.

Mr McGuinness said that, when he assumed “ownership” of the investigation, he was assured that it was essentially an alibi for the accused for the time Ms McNally was attacked and killed.

McCullagh was initially arrested in the wake of the killing but then ruled out as a suspect on the basis of the alleged livestream alibi, the court was told.

However, extensive technical examination of his devices by cyber experts suggested the footage was pre-recorded and played out as if it were live.

DCI McGuinness said officers have watched the footage, which is still available on YouTube, on numerous occasions.

At the start of broadcast, McCullagh tells followers that he can’t interact with them live as he is “having trouble with his set-up”.

During the footage, viewers interact with each other and question why McCullagh cannot speak to them from his mobile phone.

“He spoke throughout, continually, but did not speak to the people who were responding live. He did not interact with anyone at the time and he essentially formed a monologue with his own music and commentary of the game,” he said.

DCI McGuinness adds: “He speaks throughout the six hours, but it is a monologue.”

During the footage he gives reference to what time it is and the timings are consistent with it being live, the detective said.

“That is significant and further demonstrates a deception and an intention to tell the world that he was livestreaming this event,” said Mr McGuinness.

“We became aware that you could pre-record and stream as if live.”

Police at the scene of the arrest© Kevin Scott

Crime scene

Later, the detective said that the crime scene had been disrupted by Ms McNally’s pets — her dog and three cats — and paramedics who attended as first responders.

“I had imposed on Stephen McCullagh the importance of his view and observations on discovering Natalie’s body, as he is the only person whose eyes had seen the scene as I wished to recreate it,” he said.

“He declined on numerous occasions to assist police.”

Once he was redesignated as a suspect, police say that there was a risk that evidence would be lost or put beyond use if he was approached voluntarily, so a warrant was sought and granted to remove computer devices, which were then taken for investigation.

This analysis confirmed that what was broadcast did not take place that day.

“After consultation with his legal representative, Mr McCullagh has given us a written statement, and in that statement he has ceded that that livestream was not live and was in fact recorded on the 13th into the 14th of December and that he had streamed it on the night of the 18th,” said the officer.

He also claimed in the statement that he was at home drinking during that time and had fallen asleep and denied involvement in Natalie’s murder.

Bail application and next hearing

Objecting to bail, the prosecution lawyer cited a risk of further offences and a risk of absconding.

“The defendant in this case has hatched a sophisticated, calculated and cool-headed plot to kill Ms McNally. Every detail had been carefully thought through and it’s only due to painstaking police work and sophisticated cyber evidence that he hasn’t got away with it,” she said.

She added: “Over the last six weeks, he has behaved in such a way that he displayed a confidence that he had got away with this.

“He was liaising with the family, he was at their home… He will be absolutely desperate now. He has shown he is capable of deception beyond imagination.

“There are absolutely no bail conditions that could alleviate the risks posed here.”

Parents of Natalie McNally, Noel and Bernie McNally at home with Natalie’s dog River on January 9th, 2023 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)© Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The court heard that “just last week” McCullagh visited the McNally home and left his phone there, claiming he forgot it.

The prosecution lawyer added: “That phone was recording what was happening in the home, and the theory is that he wanted to see if there was any suspicion about him. Your Worship, this is chilling.”

The recording was later transferred to a computer, the court heard.

The prosecution lawyer added: “Had there been any suspicion voiced by the family and any expression of an intention to talk to police, you just don’t know what would have happened.

“He is a dangerous person, Your Worship, and I would ask you to refuse bail.”

DCI McGuinness told the court that the discovery that McCullagh had allegedly left his phone recording in the McNally family home was “shocking”.

“I feel that that is an attempt to inquire into the progress of the police investigation and to see whether there are any suspicions around him. And I believe that is a heinous way of interfering with grieving parents,” he said.

Defence barrister Craig Patton questioned the evidence against his client as he challenged the basis upon which the police connected him to the charge.

Applying for bail, Mr Patton added: “Essentially, what the evidence seems to all hang on is that this man did not livestream when he said he livestreamed.”

Refusing bail, District Judge Rosie Watters said: “I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a case that is so complex. And if the police are right, this was a cold-blooded attack, which was meticulously planned, with absolutely tragic consequences, and in all the circumstances I also am concerned about the issues which the prosecution are concerned with.

“The risk of further offending… If he can carry out an attack like this, if the police case is right, then who knows what else he is capable of?”

McCullagh was remanded in custody to appear before Craigavon Magistrates Court on February 24 via video link.

Today's Headlines

More Courts

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

WatchMore Videos