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trafficker tragedy Drugs baron Noel Johnston made a hopeless bid to climb to safety before fatal fall

Johnston - the man who introduced heroin to Northern Ireland - died last Friday after climbing out of an apartment window.

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Drugs baron Noel Johnston

Drugs baron Noel Johnston

Drugs baron Noel Johnston

Drugs boss Noel Johnston tried desperately to save himself seconds before the fall which killed him last week, it is believed.

Sources who saw Johnston's remains in a Ballymena house - where he was being waked prior to his funeral on Tuesday - say both his hands showed signs of serious injury.

And they believe it is evidence that Johnston tried hard to prevent his drop to death.

Johnston - the man who introduced heroin to Northern Ireland - died last Friday evening in the rear car park of an apartment block where he lived at High Street in the Co Antrim market town.

He plunged 50 feet on to a manhole cover as armed police smashed their way into an apartment when Johnston was visiting a friend.

It later emerged that 61-year-old Johnston thought he was being targeted by a loyalist hit squad over an alleged drugs debt.

And making an instant decision to flee, the married father of two jumped on to a fourth storey window ledge from where he hoped to escape by easing himself down a steel sewer pipe.

But it is believed that as the burly-built crime king began his descent, he lost his grip, smashing his skull on the tarmac below.

Despite the best efforts of the police and paramedics who fought for over an hour to save him, Johnston died at the scene.

"I saw Noel in his coffin and it looked as though both his hands had been badly smashed in the fall. We all came to the same conclusion, that Noel had tried desperately to get a grip on the pipe as he fell and he injured his hands in the process," said one of Johnston's life-long friends.

"Noel had no fear. On another day, with a bit of luck, he would have made it safely to the ground."

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Johnston's death last week split the Ballymena community down the middle.

Some residents remembered Noel as a kindly local lad who helped pensioners across the road - while others saw him as a hardened criminal who brought death and misery to the town.

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Noel Johnston, fell after climbing out of a window of a third story flat during a police raid..

Noel Johnston, fell after climbing out of a window of a third story flat during a police raid..

Noel Johnston, fell after climbing out of a window of a third story flat during a police raid..

He is single-handedly credited with turning the once-respectable Doury Road estate into a heroin wasteland infested by drugs peddlers and pill poppers.

But the Sunday World can today reveal that prior to his tragic death last week, Johnston was due to appear in court soon in the largest non-terrorist trial of all time.

He was one of 28 accused facing serious fraud and conspiracy charges.

Johnston had been personally charged with six counts of entering into arrangements to acquire criminal property, 17 counts of possessing criminal property and three counts of conspiracy to defraud.

He was facing no fewer than 26 charges, although his lawyer claimed this week that a number of them were expected to be dropped even before his death.

Earlier this week, the Northern Ireland Courts Service confirmed to the Sunday World that despite Johnston's death, the case is still live despite a trial date still to be set.

Many of the charges relate to Johnston's alleged possession of expensive vehicles and cash. But other charges include the alleged participation in staged road traffic accidents, including one involving a Range Rover 4x4 and a Rolls Royce Corniche which collided at Ervey Road, Co Derry, between January 31, 2011 and February 28, 2011.

Johnston was also facing charges of being the alleged driver of a vehicle involved in a crash at Omeath, Co Louth, with a view to defrauding an insurance company.

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of Johnston's public debut as a serious drugs dealer in Northern Ireland.

He was one of five men from Northern Ireland found distressed and exhausted on rocks near Malin Head, Co Donegal.

The men, who were all wearing military-style outdoor clothing, told a single Garda officer who found them that they had been on a pleasure trip on an inflatable RIB boat when the engine failed.

When police reinforcements arrived, Johnston and the others were arrested and taken to Burnfoot Garda Station. Detectives assumed - wrongly as it turned out - they had stumbled across an IRA training camp.

But despite Garda suspicions, the men hadn't committed any crime and were released. It was the following day before the men's true intentions were revealed. A cruiser - the Plongeur Wisky - skippered by a Donegal man, slipped into a small harbour near Kilrush in Co Clare.

Customs Officials who boarded the vessel found £17 million worth of cannabis stashed inside it.

It was all part of a failed drugs transfer which Johnston and his pals had planned to make at Innistrahull Sound near Malin Head.

But bad weather meant the get-rich-quick drugs dealers were lucky to make it back to dry land with their lives.

As a youngster brought up in Wilson Crescent, Harryville, Noel was a promising boxer at the renowned All Saints Boxing Club.

The confidence he gained in the boxing ring stood by him when it came to settling drugs debts.

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