Northern Bank 'insider' changed rota, court hears

The bank official charged with the £26.5m (€33m) Northern Bank robbery in Belfast made last minute changes to the rota of staff who had a key to the vault to put himself on duty on the day, the opening day of his trial was told today.

The bank official charged with the £26.5m (€33m) Northern Bank robbery in Belfast made last minute changes to the rota of staff who had a key to the vault to put himself on duty on the day, the opening day of his trial was told today.

Christopher Ward (aged 26) went on trial at Belfast Crown Court charged with the robbery in December 2004, which at the time was the biggest in British banking history.

He also faced two charges of falsely imprisoning a fellow keyholder and his wife.

Ward, of Colinmill in Poleglass on the western outskirts of Belfast, denies all charges.

However, opening the case for the prosecution, Gordon Kerr QC, said the robbery was a highly organised crime by a gang which had good inside knowledge.

Mr Kerr said: "Based on the proper inference that the robbers displayed a degree of knowledge which is only consistent with them having a high degree of inside knowledge, it will be submitted that the facts as established in relation to the defendant's role are such as to show to the requisite standard that they exclude the reasonable possibility of an innocent explanation and that taken as a whole they show that the defendant was a party to and complicit in the robbery."

The court was told Ward was in charge of drawing up the rota and made changes late on a Friday afternoon to put himself on duty on the late shift the following Monday with a senior keyholder manager in the Cash Centre who also made a swap to help out a colleague.

Mr Kerr said the colleague, Kevin McMullan and his wife Kyran had no children, lived in house in the Co Down countryside which was detached, easy to observe and to guard.

The gang kidnapped Mrs McMullan before ordering her husband to go to work. Mr Kerr said: "It is clear from the evidence to be given by the McMullans that the robbers knew a considerable amount about them and their situation. This suggests, we would submit, a considerable degree of inside knowledge."

"Knowing who the keyholders were and the rota was an essential prerequisite of successfully launching the robbery in the way it was, clearly planned some time in advance."

The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, has insisted the robbery was the work of the Provisional IRA - something which both the IRA Army Council and Sinn Féin have constantly denied.

During his lengthy opening statement outlining the case, Mr Kerr made not a single reference to the IRA.

He said the prosecution contention was that the last-minute switch of Ward’s shift was “deliberate to place him on the rota with Mr McMullan”.

“The evidence would show that both would have been on the rota on the Wednesday but it is submitted that it is common sense that a Sunday night was easier and more suitable to organise and carry out a takeover.”

Ward, said Mr Kerr, had told co-workers at the bank that he planned to go to a Glasgow Celtic game over the weekend – but had not gone.

He revealed that, as well as his job at the Northern Bank Cash Centre in Donegall Square in the centre of Belfast, Ward regularly worked as a barman in the Casement Park Social Club on the Andersonstown Road in republican west Belfast.

On the night of December 19, 2004, Ward did not turn up for work at the club, did not make contact to say he would not be in and did not answer his mobile phone when he was rung up five times to find out why he had not turned up.

Two calls were also made to his home and a text message sent. A female friend even checked hospitals because she so worried she could not get hold of him - all before 10pm when a gang of men called at his home in Poleglass and took over the house containing Ward, his parents, his brother and the brother’s girlfriend.

Evidence would be given that the intruders gathered the family together, collected all their mobile phones, disconnected the house phone and told the family they were armed but if everyone did as told no-one would be hurt.

Ward was told the takeover was in relation to his work and he was told to gather up his work clothes and to leave with members of the gang.

The accused family would give evidence, he said, that after he had gone they were allowed to disperse through the house and told they could make cups of tea, cook and go to bed. Arrangements were made for them to make contact with people who might miss them on the Monday as they would not be allowed to leave the house.

Mr Kerr described the gang as “forensically aware and prepared”, apparently wearing gloves and, before leaving the house on the Monday evening, they cleaned areas they had used.

Also on the Sunday evening a gang called at the home of Kevin McMullan outside Loughinisland, Co Down.

Dressed as police officers, they gained entrance by claiming a member of the banker’s family had been involved in an accident and he was required to make an identification.

Immediately he invited them in, a gun was put to his head and he was attacked, said Mr Kerr.

“He was manhandled pushed against the walls and then knocked to the ground. Both he and his wife had their hands tied behind their back and they were threatened.”

The gang, he said, made it clear they had inside knowledge, checked the position of the house security and asked where panic buttons were.

They even referred to a lecture Mr McMullan had been to the previous week in relation to kidnap situations. “He was told to forget all he had been told and that, if he did anything other than what he was told to do, his wife would be killed.”

Mrs McMullan would also give evidence that she was forced to the floor beside the fireplace, sat on by one of the intruders and a gun put to her head.

She was then put in the back of a car and driven off – her husband again being told she would be killed unless he did not do as instructed.

Ward was driven to the McMullan house where both men were told how the robbery would be conducted and what they were to do, said Mr Kerr.

They were held in the house until the Monday morning when they were told to go to work but to arrive separately. They were given mobile phones on which the gang would contact them.

The accused left the bank a couple of times during the afternoon – on one occasion going to a jeweller’s to pick up a Christmas present.

“It may be considered a matter of surprise for someone under pressure,” said Mr Kerr.

He said Ward stated under police questioning that he was telephoned and instructed to fill a holdall with £100 notes and, if there were not enough, to top it up with £50s.

He was to leave the bank and phone for more instructions which involved being told to get boxes of money ready to be put in a van.

CCTV showed him leaving the bank at 6.19pm, going to a bus stop, handing over cash to a person and making a phone call. The CCTV showed him returning at 6.28pm.

Some time later, what looked like a security van – of a type used to make deliveries and collections – arrived at the Cash Centre, was admitted and cash was loaded on board.

The van departed and came back 15 minutes later for a second load. When it was loaded, one of the robbers said: “Right, that’s it, lads, you can go”, said Mr Kerr.

The two bank workers drive to Ward’s house, where Mr McMullan expected his wife to be held but she was not. Gang members holding the Ward family left at 10.15pm, saying no report was to be made to the police until 11pm.

Mr McMullan was told to drive home, where he would find his wife. He did so, to be met by the security forces who told him his wife had been detained overnight, set free in Drumkeeragh Forest Park in Co Down and her car burnt out.

A short time before, Mrs McMullan, “in considerable distress and dressed in a boiler suit and trainers”, had knocked on the door of a house near the forest and raised the alarm.

As a result of the police investigation, some significant discrepancies into the accounts of Mr McMullan and Mr Ward emerged and the accused was later treated as a suspect, said the QC.

Ward constantly denied involvement in the crime and described police suggestions as ridiculous and nonsense, he said.

But Mr Kerr said Ward was charged “on the basis that the defendant was a party to the whole criminal enterprise and that he was aware of the plan and played his part in it”.

The case was adjourned until tomorrow.

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