A 49-year-old man has been remanded in custody charged with arson in what was described in court as a ‘campaign of intimidation’ against people with links to the Belmont Hotel.
Malcolm Samuel McKeown, Ashleigh Crescent, Lurgan, appeared last Friday (November 21) at Newry Magistrates Court.
He was charged with two counts of arson, destroying or damaging cars by fire in attacks on November 14 and November 19 this year.
McKeown also faces a further charge of conspiring with others not before the court to commit arson on September 24, intending to damage or destroy a Ford Focus car.
The defendant, who spoke only to confirm he understood the charges, was also charged with possession a class C drug, Valium, on November 20.
Detective Constable Flanagan told the court that while McKeown faced three arson charges he had been granted police bail on a further 20 offences of conspiring to commit arson and 12 incidents of criminal damage which took place from September of last year.
Objecting to bail the officer said the owners of all the cars and properties which had been attacked were closely associated with the Belmont Hotel in Banbridge.
Having been previously barred from the hotel, McKeown had been escorted from the premises by the owner and police on September 8 last year.
The detective claimed: “The police view is that this has stemmed from the fact that he isn’t allowed in the hotel and the owner would have concerns about the defendant supplying drugs on the premises.
“To date 25 private cars have been either destroyed or damaged by fire with many more sustaining broken windows and slashed tyres.”
He added that even at a conservative estimate damage in excess of £100,000 had been caused.
“All of the victims of the crimes of arson and criminal damage have links with the Belmont Hotel, employees or family members of employees of the hotel,” said the officer.
He revealed that in the most recent attacks, one in Banbridge and one in Loughbrickland, the modus operandi was the same. A rear car window was smashed; accelerant poured in and then set alight.
Police investigating the arson attack on the Ford Focus car on November 19, a car which belonged to a doorman who had only started working at the hotel in the last two months, has seized CCTV footage of the early morning attack in Loughbrickland.
Despite the fact the arsonist was wearing a balaclava another officer had positively identified McKeown as the culprit. In another incident in Banbridge five days earlier a Renault Clio, belonging to the hotel’s DJ, was completely destroyed and this attack was carried out in the same way.
The offence of conspiring to commit arson related to an attack in September this year and DC Flanagan said one man was already in custody for that offence, alleging McKeown was connected to him through mobile phone communication.
The officer said that during police searches a balaclava was uncovered in McKeown’s home along with track suit bottoms which allegedly match those worn by the arsonist captured on CCTV and that a mobile phone which had been seized was used to contact the man already in custody.
Conceding that the investigation had been ongoing for a year the detective said police were ‘trawling’ in efforts to find other CCTV footage and items had been sent for forensic tests.
He added that police feared if McKeown was released he would commit further offences or interfere with the investigation.
Under cross examination from solicitor Gabriel Ingram, DC Flanagan agreed there was still a lot of work to be done in the investigation such as forensic tests and mobile phones to be examined with associated cell site analysis.
Mr Ingram submitted there were ‘discrepancies’ in what the arsonist was wearing on the CCTV and the items seized, commenting that it will probably take well over a year before this comes close to a trial given the massive investigation.
Refusing the application on the grounds of the risk of further offences and witness interference, District Judge Eamon King said there was a ‘prolonged period of intimidation against a business premises and any person connected with it’.
McKeown was remanded in custody to appear in court again by videolink on December 18.