'vigilante activity' | 

Fears drug feud could escalate after ‘hit list’ of 60 alleged gang members posted online

Senior figures in ‘The Firm’, said to have ordered the murder of Shane Whitla last month, flee homes following warning

Police at the scene of the murder of Shane Whitla in Lurgan last month: Picture by Kevin Scott© Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Allison MorrisBelfast Telegraph

Over 60 alleged members and affiliates of a notorious crime gang linked to two murders have appeared on a ‘hit list’ circulated online.

‘The Firm’, based in Armagh and Down, is said to have ordered the murder of Shane Whitla (39) in Lurgan last month.

In June 2021 a court was told murdered crime boss Malcolm McKeown, shot dead outside a Waringstown petrol station in August 2019, was locked in a feud with The Firm.

Police are aware of the hit list and urged people not to get involved in “vigilante activity”.

Some senior members of The Firm have fled their homes in recent days after being warned by the PSNI of the threats.

The online list of 52 men and 11 women allege they are a gang that are “killing kids” with drugs.

The Firm is unique in local terms in that it includes members from both communities.

The list includes the son of a senior republican shot dead by loyalists, and a relative of a Catholic man murdered by the IRA.

Three men have so far been charged with the murder of Mr Whitla.

Police say the father-of-four was shot a number of times in an alleyway on January 12, before making his way to Lord Lurgan Park, where he collapsed and died.

Earlier this week a court was told a “significant amount” of gunshot residue was found on clothing retrieved from the home of one of those accused of the killing.

The clothing, consisting of a balaclava, tracksuit bottoms and a black hooded top, were uncovered during searches of Joshua Cotter’s home.

The 29-year-old claimed his neighbour, Jake O’Brien (27), had handed the “soaking wet” items to him.

Cotter and O’Brien, both from Church Walk in Lurgan, and a third man, Kevin Conway (25), from Deeny Walk, also in the town, are jointly charged with Mr Whitla’s murder.

Giving evidence while objecting to Cotter being freed on bail, a detective constable told the court the killing was the result of a drug debt and a “feud between organised crime gangs”, including The Firm, claiming Cotter was an “active member”.

“Threats were issued by members of the gang to the victim the night before he was murdered,” the detective revealed.

Earlier this week pipe bomb “delivery boy” Ryan Treanor was sentenced to nine years.

Treanor blew half his hands off in a botched attack linked to The Firm.

The 26-year-old admitted possessing an explosive substance with intent to endanger life on December 1, 2020.

The court was told the bomb was to be thrown at the home of the mother of a man involved in a feud with the gang.

It was the third time the property had been targeted.

In August 2019 loyalist McKeown (54) was found dead in his car at a filling station. He had been shot six times.

McKeown was charged with the February 2012 murder of drug dealers Hugh and Jacqueline McGeough. The charges were dropped in January 2013.

His brothers Trevor and Clifford McKeown are convicted sectarian murderers.

Clifford, a notorious UVF supergrass of the 1980s, was jailed for the 1996 LVF murder of Catholic taxi driver Michael McGoldrick.

Trevor McKeown was sentenced to 15 years for the 1997 LVF killing of Catholic teenager Bernadette Martin in Aghalee.

Police believe McKeown’s killing was linked to a drugs dispute between him and The Firm. Four men have been charged with his murder.

There were fears of further bloodshed in the Co Armagh area following the killing of Mr Whitla. The circulation of the list has added to those fears.

The PSNI said: “Police are aware of messages circulating on social media which refer to named individuals.

“We do not discuss ongoing investigations or the security of any individual. If we receive information that a person’s life may be at risk we will inform them accordingly.

“We never ignore anything which may put an individual at risk.

“It is the Police Service’s priority to keep people safe. We won’t tolerate any type of vigilante activity, and we would caution any individual or group against taking the law into their own hands.

“We’re grateful to local people for their support, and would appeal to anyone with information, or concerns about any suspected criminality to contact us on 101.

“Alternatively, please contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111, which is 100% anonymous and gives people the power to speak up and stop crime.”

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