By Mary Nelis
Thirty years ago on Valentines Day 1979, a British soldier was shot dead at the junction of Wapping Lane and Abercorn Road. The death of the soldier would impact on the lives of four young men and their families and would set in train a series of events that to this day has not been fully resolved.
The four, all from Creggan, whose average age was seventeen, would remember with pain and dread that fateful Valentines Day thirty years ago when their lives and the lives of their families would be turned upside down. They would spend the next nineteen Valentines Days, ‘on the run’, hunted, afraid to stay in one place, always looking over their shoulder unable to visit their homes, or attend the funerals of the parents who died during that dreadful time.
Had the death penalty been in place, they would certainly have been hanged.
This is the story of Michael Toner, whose family set to prove his innocence and in the process unearthed the corruption and sectarianism of the entire legal process, involving the RUC and the 6 County Courts.
On Monday the 26th February 1979 at 7.45 am, the British Army and the RUC raided the Toner home in Creggan and arrested 17 year old Michael under Section 11 of the Emergency Provisions Act. Simultaneously Stephen Crumlish, who lived nearby, was also arrested. Both were taken to the RUC Station at Strand Road.
The family contacted their solicitor, who contacted the RUC but was refused permission to visit his client. Throughout all of that day, the family and the solicitor tried unsuccessfully to see Michael.
On the following day Tuesday the 27th, two other youths, Gerard Kelly and Gerard Mc Gowan were arrested in another early morning raid and taken to the Strand Road station.
That same evening, Michael Toner’s parents were given permission to visit him at 6pm in the police station. They were cautioned by the RUC not to discuss the arrest and detention and the police remained in the room during the short visit.
After the visit, they were informed that Michael would be charged the following morning as he had been involved in a kneecapping incident.
The following morning the family solicitor who had been refused access to Michael by the RUC informed the family that there was no Special Court
Later that evening at around eleven o clock, Hugh and Michael’s solicitor were told by a Detective Inspector Scott, that Michael was involved in the death of the British soldier. Hugh contacted his father and both were permitted individually to see Michael for a few minutes. He didn’t speak to them and they were cautioned not to discuss the case.
Michael Toner was charged the following morning at a Special Court convened at 7am. Both he and Stephen Crumlish were charged with the murder of a soldier and the kneecapping of a man at Rosemount on the 17th February. Their solicitor informed the family that Michael had made detailed statements admitting both charges. He also said that Michael had verbally admitted his involvement to him. The family, shocked and distressed went home.
Around 1am, Hugh received a call from his father to come to the family home in Creggan. When he arrived he found the father of one of the two young people arrested on the Tuesday, McGowan and Kelly.
Mr Kelly told Hugh that when he had been allowed to see his son at Strand Road station he was visibly upset and broke down in front of his father’s anger.
He told his father that he was innocent and that the RUC told him that if he signed the statements he would be released the next morning. The solicitor made a formal complaint to the police citing ill treatment of his client.
Over the course of the next few days the families and their legal representatives became convinced that the four young people were entirely innocent and that they had been pressured into making admissions by the RUC.
Hugh immediately set out to contact the RUC officers involved but to no avail.
He then began to trace his brother’s movements on the days when the offences occurred, a search that would eventually lead him to the US to engage the services of a CIA specialist in lie detecting who later would testify during a television programme on the arrests that Michael Toner was entirely innocent.
The death of the soldier occurred at precisely 7pm on Valentines Day. As Hugh began to piece together Michael’s movements that day he discovered that Michael’s girlfriend at the time had sent him a Valentines Card but he had not sent her one.
He bought a card and as he didn’t want his parents to see it, he left the card in his friend Patrick’s house. He came home from work, washed, ate his dinner and then went over to Patrick’s house to write verses on the card. They sat out in the hall writing the card. The programme ‘This is your Life’ was on TV. The programme was about Kevin Keegan and Patrick’s mother called to them to come in to watch it. Patrick’s father came in from work around 7.13 pm. He passed the boys still sitting in the hall writing verses on the card.
Over the course of the next weeks Hugh Toner minutely tracked Michael’s every movement on the dates and times of the incidents. He took statements from all the people that Michael had come into contact with and presented them to the RUC. All the witnesses were brought to the Strand Road Station to be interviewed.
Meanwhile the families of the other young people had also provided alibis from credible witnesses that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that all four could not have carried out the incidents that they were charged with.
A Detective Inspector Scott actually admitted to Michael’s solicitor that it looked as if Michael was innocent but the matter would have to go to a higher authority.
Detective Sergeant Martindale was charged with reinvestigating the cases. Having examined all the alibi witnesses, Martindale also admitted that ‘in all probability ‘the four were innocent.
Michael Toner and his co accused were granted bail on the 27th April 1979, the first time anyone was given bail on a capitol charge.
The lie detector test carried out by the CIA specialist cast further doubt on the RUC case and the validity of the statements.
Their trial began in October 1980. On the first day of the trial, they were informed on good authority that despite the witness alibi statements and the general belief of many influential members of the community in Derry and elsewhere of the innocence of the four, they would not get a fair hearing in any Diplock Court.
They were offered a deal of fifteen years if they pleaded guilty. The alternative was life with a recommendation of thirty years. They took the decision to go’ on the run’ and for the next nineteen years became fugitives like hundreds of others, of a corrupt and brutal policing and justice system that passed for law and order in the North.
They now pray for the soldier who died on that Valentines Day and they pray that those who beat them into signing false confessions will have the decency thirty years on to at least acknowledge the terrible wrong they inflicted on four young men and their families.