Significant failures in investigation of 1997 Sean Brown murder

Published Date: 19.01.2004

The Police Ombudsman has concluded that the RUC investigation of the murder of 61-year-old Sean Brown from Bellaghy in County Derry/Londonderry in 1997 was incomplete and inadequate.

PDF: Full Public Statement

Significant failures in investigation, but no evidence of police collusion.

In a statement issued today (Monday) she concludes that while it was clear the RUC officers investigating the murder did not get full cooperation from the community, there were significant failures in the investigation.

The Police Ombudsman has found no evidence of police collusion in the murder, including no evidence that police allowed the murder vehicles 'safe passage' (see paragraphs 12.2-12.5 in the Police Ombudsman's public statement - link at bottom of page).

Mr Brown was abducted from outside the GAA Club in Bellaghy, County Derry sometime after 23.30hrs on May 12 1997 and driven in the boot of his car to a location just off the Old Moneynick Road near Randalstown. He was shot six times. His body was found next to his car, which had been set alight.

The RUC considered it a sectarian attack and launched a full-scale murder investigation. A number of suspects were arrested and interviewed. The Senior Investigating Officer believed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone in the case and in July 1998 the investigation was closed, 'pending new information' (*1 - see footnote). The RUC carried out an assessment of the murder investigation file after receiving notification that the Police Ombudsman had received a complaint. A further analysis has now been completed by the PSNI.

Investigation was not efficiently and properly carried out, and no earnest effort made to identify those who carried out the murder.

The Police Ombudsman has upheld two complaints from Mr Brown's family that the investigation into his death had not been 'efficiently and properly carried out ' and that 'no earnest effort was made to identify those who carried out the murder.'

The statement partially upheld the family's complaint that the police failed to update them about developments in the investigation. It concludes that the Brown family was not properly kept informed of decisions in the case but also notes that they had asked police officers not to visit their home and declined liaison in 2002 (11.6).

Family not kept properly updated by police.

The investigation issues, which the report said were 'cause for concern', included:

Forensic. (5.2- 5.8) The Police Ombudsman records a failure to identify and deal properly with all available forensic evidential opportunities. She notes that a number of discarded cigarettes butts found close to the body were not subjected to DNA Analysis because no 'biological' samples were taken from any of the persons who were arrested and subsequently released.

Witnesses. (6.2- 6.4) The Police Ombudsman statement concludes that there was no proper search for witnesses at the location where Mr Brown's body was found. Inquiries by the Police Ombudsman's Office identified a man who had been in the area the night Mr Brown was murdered and had seen a car in the spot where Mr Brown's vehicle was later discovered. Although the man said he approached the police on the night and provided this information along with his details to an unknown uniformed officer, his details do not appear in the investigative file and his information was not followed up.. With the man's agreement, his details have now been passed to the murder investigation team.

Vehicles. (7.3) The Police Ombudsman discloses that the registration number of vehicles driving through Toomebridge - the main route between the GAA club and the murder scene- were recorded at the time. She says no attempt was made by the RUC to identify the vehicles travelling northwards towards Bellaghy prior to the murder and inadequate inquiries were made about the other vehicles in the traffic at the time Mr Brown's vehicle was driven south towards the murder scene.

Intelligence Issues (8.1-8.2) The Police Ombudsman notes that all relevant intelligence held by Special Branch was not shared with the original investigating team. There are a total of 19 intelligence entries (six of particular relevance.) These have now all been passed to the current murder investigation team.

Missing Material (9.1-10.1 11.3X) The Police Ombudsman records the 'unexplained disappearance' of the Murder Investigation Policy File, critical to determine how and why the enquiry was conducted. The Police Ombudsman says it was in existence when the Brown family had complained to her but went missing when the investigation started. She says this seriously impeded her investigation. She also notes that the 'Occurrence Book' for Bellaghy RUC Station, which recorded what happened on the night of the murder, is also missing (*2 - see footnote).

Murder Weapon (11.3 X11) The Police Ombudsman also records a failure to investigate properly the ongoing history of the murder weapon and to take appropriate action.

She states that the senior officer investigating the case has since retired and cannot be made amenable for any alleged misconduct. (14.0 -14.8). (*3 - see footnote) In the absence of the Policy File, it would not be right or possible to attempt to hold junior officers to account for investigative failures.

Recommendations (16.0) The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, has recommended a full Independent Review into the murder to identify and assess any evidential opportunities, that there be a commitment to carry out the recommendations of that Review and that the Brown family be kept informed of all developments. She recommended that the Review be linked with the investigation of two others murders in which the same or a similar weapon was used.

The Chief Constable has now stated there will be a full reinvestigation of the murder.

Mrs O'Loan said that the Brown family's concerns about the quality of the investigation have caused them significant additional stress and suffering and because of this and the disappearance of the Policy File and the Bellaghy Occurrence Book she has recommended that the Chief Constable pay them the maximum amount permitted under the Police (NI) Act 1988 in recognition of this distress.


(*1) A review of a complaint by the Retired Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) concluded that the SIO had ceased to be in charge of the RUC investigation in July 1998, but the investigation had not closed at that stage. Further actions were taken by police on the case.

(*2) In June 2012, the policy file was located within the PSNI estate. Following a review of the contents of the policy file by the Police Ombudsman, no justification has been found to alter any of ther narrative or findings of this public statement.

(*3) A review of a complaint by the Retired SIO concluded that the inclusion of a reference to potential disciplinary processes in relation to the Retired SIO was inappropriate.

An apology issued by the Police Ombudsman's Office in respect "unjustified criticism" of the Retired SIO can be found here.


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