Masks worn by the unionist paramilitary killers of three innocent Catholics in a November 1992 massacre were recovered by the Crown Forces the following day – but they were never tested and have since gone missing, it has emerged.
Any DNA evidence that might identify those who carried out the murders at the James Murray bookmaker shop in north Belfast has now disappeared with them, according to an investigation by the Police Ombudsman.
RUC Special Branch have been accused of colluding in the atrocity. Central to this are admissions from police chiefs around the missing balaclavas, and how a RUC checkpoint next to the bookmakers was removed minutes before the killers struck.
Three Catholic civilians were shot dead: John Lovett (72), Francis Burns (62) and 50-year-old Peter Orderley. More than a dozen were injured when UDA serial killer Stevie McKeag sprayed the busy shop with an automatic rifle on a Saturday afternoon.
A second loyalist hurled a grenade inside as they fled to a getaway car that was found abandoned a short distance away. Such was the killers’ confidence in not being caught they did not bother to burn the vehicle.
It was one of a series of sectarian atrocities perpatrated by UDA death squads that year, most infamously the murder of five Catholics in the Sean Graham betting shop massacre on the Ormeau Road.
Families of the dead believe UDA double agents were involved, and their roles have been covered up by the British Crown Forces.
According to the Sunday Life newspaper, the Police Ombudsman has confirmed that an RUC checkpoint next to shop was removed just minutes before the loyalist gang struck in north Belfast.
Padraig McIlkenny, from KRW Law, which is representing the family of murdered Francis Burns and other survivors, said: “The decision by the Police Ombudsman to open up this atrocity to investigation is very welcome, especially given the looming legacy bill.
“These revelations underpin, yet again, the need for a thematic approach to looking at collusion involving RUC Special Branch during the conflict.
“The routine destruction of evidence wasn’t just a series of mistakes and mishaps, it was deliberate, strategic and criminal.”
Central to the investigation is the role of ex-UDA chief Johnny Adair, who planned the attack and was the leader of the gang’s C Company unit at the time.
It has been suggested the attack was part of a rivalry with the UDA south Belfast, who were respondible for the Ormeau Road masacre.
But the disappearance of the forensic evidence points to a collusion cover-up.
It has now been confirmed an RUC checkpoint which had been on Rosapenna Street for some time was removed just minutes before — a fact confirmed in a 2009 PSNI report: “The police were carrying out a security operation involving vehicle checkpoints in the Oldpark area... although a checkpoint had been in Rosapenna Street before the attack, the patrol was moved to another pre-arranged location prior to the incident.”
The murder gang’s red Ford Escort, according to multiple witnesses, sat next to the property for up to 20 minutes before a laughing McKeag got out and started to fire inside.
The attack lasted fewer than 30 seconds, and when McKeag had emptied his rifle, the second UDA member threw a grenade inside, shouting, “You deserve it, you Fenian b******s”.
Crime scene photographs show bodies strewn on the bloodied floor and lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling.
Peter Orderley and Francis Burns died at the scene, while Second World War veteran and concenstration camp survivor, John Lovett, passed away from his injuries later.
More than a dozen others were hurt, suffering bullet and shrapnel wounds in the biggest loss of life inflicted by Johnny Adair’s C Company.
Claiming responsibility, the UDA said the attack was in response to the IRA, adding: “[The] theatre of war will be full of casualties from the republican community.”
Within hours of the slaughter, the RUC were in possession of the names of the UDA men involved, but they were never charged. Last year, as the 30th anniversary of the attack approached, Pat Burns, the son of murdered Francis, asked the Police Ombudsman to probe RUC failings in the original investigation.
Padraig McIlkenny, from Mr KRW Law’s Conflict Litigation Department, said: “The state consistently rails against taking a joined-up approach to looking at linked incidents including the James Murray betting shop atrocity.
“We have invited the Ombudsman to remedy this now and to support a case we have submitted highlighting the whole series of loyalist terrorist incidents during the 10-year period between 1987 and 1997. Looked at collectively, it is clear Special Branch was criminally complicit in this era of the conflict.”