'extremely high' | 

Shane Whitla murder accused refused bail after judge says risk is ‘through the roof’

According to the police case there is a “working hypothesis” the trio of alleged killers are “active members” of an organised crime gang known as ‘The Firm’

Accused Jake O'Brien

Shane Whitla

Paul HigginsSunday World

An alleged gangster accused of shooting murder victim Shane Whitla was refused bail on Friday after a judge said there was too great a risk to free him.

While defence counsel for Jake O’Brien lamented the case against the 27-year-old is “inherently, inherently weak,” District Judge Bernie Kelly said the defence submissions “do not address the elephant in the room.”

“He is alleged to have committed a murder while on bail for another alleged murder,” declared the judge at Craigavon Magistrates Court, “the risk of further offending has to be through the roof.

With O’Brien appearing at court by video link from prison, DJ Kelly said while the seriousness of an offences isn’t a ground to refuse bail, “his are the most serious offences that a person can face and here we have a defendant facing two murders.”

O’Brien, from Church Walk in Lurgan, is one of three men accused of the murder of Shane Whitla on 12 January this year and possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life.

While he remains in custody his two co-accused who are facing the same charges, 25-year-old Kevin Conway, from Deeny walk in Lurgan and Joshua Cotter (29), from Madrid Street in Belfast, are both on bail.

According to the police case there is a “working hypothesis” the trio of alleged killers are “active members” of an organised crime gang known as ‘The Firm’ and that the shooting of Mr Whitla was as a result of a drugs feud over a debt.

Detectives have claimed that Conway called Mr Whitla four times on 12 January this year and it was those calls that caused the 39-year-old father-of-four to go to an alleyway off Woodville Street where he was shot, allegedly by Cotter and O’Brien.

Shane Whitla

While the police believe they can link Conway to a mobile which was in contact with Mr Whitla before the murder and with O’Brien both before and after the killing, detectives further claim CCTV evidence place O’Brien and Cotter close to the scene.

Meanwhile, forensics tests on “soaking wet clothing” seized from Cotter’s home which he claimed O’Brien gave him, has uncovered a significant amount of “indicative cartridge residue particles,” supporting a contention the clothing was close to a primary source of CDR such as a gun being fired.

In court on Friday, Det. Const. Fisher said police had serious concerns that given O’Brien’s alleged membership to the OCG and his previous offending the likelihood of further offending is “extremely high.”

He said there were also fears that if O’Brien was to be released, it could lead to reprisal attacks as police held intelligence that dissident republicans had issued threats against The Firm, revealing that O’Brien has been with TM1 threat documents.

While that threat had resulted in Conway being subjected to 23 hour lock down while he was in prison, a status which partially swayed the judges decision to free him, the detective further revealed that O’Brien was not subject to any such strictures.

The officer also submitted that having spoken to 30 witnesses as well as local residents, “police have encountered a real fear in the community” so other witnesses may be reticent to come forward if O’brien was free.

He revealed that to date, O’Brien’s and his legal team had put forward no less than five proposed bail addresses, none of which were suitable but the latest one, at Patrick Street in Newry, “doesn’t exist.”

With the tenant of another proposed address allegedly “lying to police,” he said already stretched officers “are being lead on a wild goose chase” to ascertain the suitability of bail addresses.

Defence counsel Michael Forde highlighted that even taking the police case at it’s height, all the police had was CCTV if cotter and O’Brien half an hour before the shooting and clothing which may or may not have evidence of CDR which they cannot connect to bullet casings retrieved in the alley where Mr Whitla was shot.

DC fisher argued however that while police have not yet the murder weapon, enquiries are on going and in addition there was also mobile phone evidence evidence.

Mr Forde argued that the case against O’Brien is such there was an argument that he cannot be connected to the murder “let alone remanded in custody” on evidence which he described as “inherently weak.”

Conceding that O’Brien is on bail for the murder of Malcolm McKeown who was gunned down in Waringstown in 2019, the barrister argued he had been on bail for three and a half years in relation to that case “with no trial yet in sight” and while there had been breaches, “other judges saw fit” to re-release O’Brien.”

DJ Kelly said “there are no conditions that I can think of” which she could attach to O’Brien’s current bail order which would assuage or lessen the risks and concerns.

Remanding O’Brien into custody, she adjourned the case to next Friday when his co-accused are due to have their cases mentioned again.

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