Police are “tantalisingly close” to catching the gang who murdered a father of five in Co Antrim exactly 12 months ago, according to a senior detective.
Brian McIlhagga, 42, was battered, shot in both legs and left to die by masked men who forced their way into a house in Riverview Park, Ballymoney, on January 5 2015.
A 33-year-old woman who lived at the property was also attacked and forced to lie on the kitchen floor while the shooting took place. Four children aged 13 and younger were left traumatised.
Twelve arrests have been made and numerous searches carried out but no one has been charged.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Detective Chief Inspector Michael Harvey, who is leading the investigation, said the suspected attackers and a group of individuals on the periphery had been identified but witnesses were reluctant to come forward.
He said: “It may be that the shadow of paramilitary involvement which hangs over this incident is putting people off coming forward. But I would say to those people with information – put yourselves in the place of those children, Brian’s friends and family and the trauma they’ve been through.
“It is important for people to come forward. I would say we are tantalisingly close to placing the offenders before a court. Nothing justifies this murder in any way whatsoever.”
Mr McIlhagga, a plasterer from Ballymena, Co Antrim, was a friend of the woman who lived in the house and had been a visitor in the months leading up to the attack.
Police believe there may be a link to loyalist paramilitaries but are also investigating the possibility that he was the victim of a personal grudge.
He suffered a brutal and sustained beating in the kitchen of the house before being dragged outside and shot in both knees with a shotgun.
The injuries suffered in the initial attack would have been life-changing, police said.
“The level of violence and brutality in this attack far exceeds anything I’ve experienced in 29 years of police service,” said Mr Harvey.
“One would have to ask why such a level of brutality was used. There was certainly paramilitary involvement in this attack but another line of inquiry is that there may well have been some sort of personal grudge as well.”
As Mr McIlhagga lay dying, the gunmen fled along a walkway running along Riverview Park towards Ballymoney train station.
Mr Harvey added: “People know who was involved. People know where they went afterwards. They haven’t come forward. There are people protecting those killers. I would appeal to those with information, no matter how small, to contact detectives.”
A year on and detectives from the PSNI’s serious crime branch are to revisit the scene to conduct a leaflet drop.
A number of pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints have also been planned.
Mr Harvey said: “For as long as those responsible for this attack remain at large, there is a possible threat to anyone in the north Antrim area.
“I want to appeal to anyone who saw or heard anything in the area of the murder at Riverview Park, and additionally in the area of Raceview Drive, Meadow View and Armour Avenue in Ballymoney, between 10pm and 11pm on the night of Monday 5 January last year, to contact police. I want to hear from anyone who saw men or vehicles moving in and around the area. It is not too late to do the right thing.”