Police and prosecutors surprised reporters this week with an announcement that four people had been taken into custody for questioning in connection with the murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee last year.
Of the four men questioned, one — a 52-year-old man who had served jail time last year for allegedly inciting a riot where McKee was killed — was charged with her murder.
Paul McIntyre, an alleged supporter of the New Irish Republican Army (IRA), is occupying a jail cell once again after being arraigned Thursday morning in a Londonderry court on charges of murder, possession of a firearm and other offenses.
But anecdotal evidence presented in the courtroom combined with mainstream media reports and videos circulated shortly after McKee’s death have added a significant layer of confusion and contradiction in the case — one supporters claim as proof that police and prosecutors are using McIntyre as a political scapegoat as the anniversary of the journalist’s death creeps closer.
The basic facts of what occurred the evening of April 18 in Northern Ireland’s second most-populous city are without question: Police and members of the New IRA clashed in the streets after authorities led raids on several homes in search of firearms and weapons.
McKee was standing next to a police vehicle that had been abandoned and burned when a bullet struck her in the head. She collapsed to the ground as others nearby screamed for help. Paramedics whisked her away in an ambulance, but by the time she reached the hospital, it was too late.
The nuanced details of what in the moments leading up to McKee’s death are more difficult to ascertain.
An attorney representing McIntyre in court on Thursday didn’t deny the man was on the street that fateful evening, but said the criminal charges announced this week appeared to stem from McIntyre’s alleged collection of bullet casings emptied from a gun that was fired by someone much taller and much younger than his client.
“The allegation against Mr. McIntyre is that (he) is at this riot and a male shoots the gun — and that Mr. McIntyre, after the gun was shot, picks up the cases,” defense attorney Derwin Harvey said.
Harvey said a police report contained expert, but otherwise anecdotal, analysis that compared footage and cell phone photos taken the evening of the shooting to videos and photos captured earlier in the day. That report said the clothing of a man picking up the bullet casings closely resembled an outfit worn by McIntyre earlier in the day.
Other police reports contained eyewitness accounts that claimed a man matching McIntyre’s description was around 5-feet 8-inches and 5-feet 10-inches tall. McIntyre’s actual height is 5-feet 2-inches.
McIntyre told police nearly five dozen times he did not shoot anyone last April, and when told he was being charged with murder, he reportedly said, “I did not murder anyone — if police speak to witnesses, it will show it was not me,” Harvey said in court.
Footage widely circulated on social media combined with a national newspaper report on the incident adds more confusion to the case.
Within hours of McKee’s death, cell phone video posted online showed a man who appeared to be in his late teens firing a gun several times near the scene where McKee was shot.
That video, combined with surveillance footage from the scene, was fodder for an April 22 report in the Belfast Telegraph that claimed a “radicalized 18-year-old New IRA gunman murdered writer Lyra McKee in a desperate bid to impress” a documentary film crew from MTV who was sent to cover the riot that day.
The story, penned by writer Ciaran Barnes, did not attribute that information to any particular source in the opening paragraph. But elsewhere in the article, Barnes wrote that a “a baby-faced young gunman was ordered by New IRA chiefs onto the streets. He was filmed clutching a handgun and firing several shots from behind a wall across a burning car at a (police) vehicle.”
“Belfast-born Lyra McKee was among a few onlookers standing next to the vehicle and was struck in the head by a single bullet,” Barnes wrote in the article, which was still available online as of Thursday evening.
Later in the article, Barnes wrote “republican and security sources have identified the gunman as an 18-year-old male…who has been radicalized by the New IRA.”
“Until two years ago, photographs on his social media pages painted the picture of the life of a normal teenage boy, with interests in football and fast cars,” Barnes wrote. “But after being brainwashed by the New IRA, these images changed to those of gunmen and graves.”
The anonymous republican sources, he wrote, charged the documentary film crew with exacerbating tensions that led to the street clashes between police and members of the community. The same sources said the 18-year-old male, who was not named in the story, had been dispatched by a “veteran republican who sent Lyra McKee’s killer and his teenage pals out to riot” in front of cameras used by the documentary film crew.
The man was described as a former member of a drug extortion group that purportedly merged with a second group to form the New IRA eight years ago. Barnes described the leader as a “Fagin-type character, aged in his 60s, and who has battled a recent serious illness” who identifies with Saoradh, a political group closely aligned with the New IRA.
A republican source reportedly told Barnes that the gunman was dispatched by the unknown leader to make “Derry look lawless” in front of the documentary film crew who were working under contract for MTV Networks Europe (now ViacomCBS Europe) at the time.
The documentary crew handed around five hours of its raw footage over to detectives who were investigating McKee’s murder. Some of that footage, among other material, was used to bring charges against McIntyre earlier this week, a prosecutor said at his arraignment on Thursday.
The Belfast Telegraph was among the many news outlets to cover McIntyre’s arraignment on Thursday, relying heavily on wire copy produced by the Press Association even as its own earlier reporting contradicted much of the prosecutor’s narrative in court.
Gail Walker, the editor-in-chief of the Belfast Telegraph, did not respond to an email questioning the contradictions between the newspaper’s report last year and the charges filed this week. Direct contact information for Barnes was not immediately available, and he had not responded to a request to connect via his LinkedIn page as of early Friday morning GMT (late Thursday evening Pacific Time).
McIntyre’s next court appearance is February 27.
Disclosure: The author of this story was a personal friend of Lyra McKee.