Waiting for justice

Three of the derry Four, from left, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Tonner. (0608GM04)  Pic: Glenn McIntyre
Three of the derry Four, from left, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Tonner. (0608GM04) Pic: Glenn McIntyre

Four Derry men who spent 20 years on the run after being wrongly accused of killing a British soldier say they are still waiting for justice.

In 1979, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly, Michael Toner and Stephen Crumlish - all aged 17 - were charged with murdering a soldier at Abercorn Road.

All four signed statements after they were “brutalised” at Strand Road RUC barracks.

In 1998, the four men were formally acquitted but have yet to receive formal recognition of their innocence.

Gerry McGowan told the ‘Sunday Journal’: “It was so obvious we were innocent that, after six weeks in Crumlin Road Jail, we were granted bail. This had never happened before for someone charged with murder.”

In October 1980, the men were brought to trial and were told their best case scenario was to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive a 15 year sentence.

Michael Toner said: “On the second day of the trial, we were told that we should go on the run and that was when our nightmare began.”

Gerry Kelly recalled: “We lived the next twenty years looking over our shoulders. We weren’t able to be there when loved ones died and our families tried so hard to make things right but, of course, they couldn’t.”

Gerry McGowan, who, at the time of his arrest, had just signed professional forms with Leicester City FC, said none of the men could allow anyone to get too close in case they discovered their past.

“Even though we had done nothing, we felt we could not tell people the truth,” he said. “I played football for Finn Harps, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers but I couldn’t go North. During that time, my mother died and I had to have her coffin brought to Muff so I could pay my respects.“

The men said that, after their acquittal, it was “like the emotional floodgates opened.”

Gerry Kelly revealed: “Immediately after the acquittal, the police wanted to talk to us about skipping bail. They brought us down past the cells just to intimidate us. They just couldn’t accept what they had done.”

But, because they had not been convicted of anything, the four had little legal redress.

Seven years ago, the men asked the Police Ombudsman to look at their case and their treatment at the hands of the RUC. This investigation is still ongoing.

Michael Toner said: “We are anxious for someone in power to state that what happened to us was wrong and should never have happened.“

Gerry Kelly added: “We want it made official that what happened to us was a gross miscarriage of justice. We were four totally innocent teenagers and they stole our lives from us.”

Gerry McGowan concluded: “We were one hundred per cent innocent and we want the world to know that. We want the Police Ombudsman to state that what happened to us should never have happened. We don’t think that is too much to ask.”