Police failed to warn Good Samaritans of booby trap bomb

Scene of the Good Samaritans' bomb August 31, 1988

Scene of the Good Samaritans' bomb August 31, 1988

By Barry McCaffrey

A Police Ombudsman’s report will today confirm that the RUC had prior warning of an IRA booby trap bomb but failed to warn three residents later killed by the explosion.

But the report fails to identify why key facts contained in a previous 2010 ombudsman’s inquiry into the atrocity were dramatically altered by senior member’s of the previous administration without any valid explanation.

Sean Dalton and Sheila Lewis were killed when the booby-trap bomb exploded as they went to check on a neighbour on the Creggan estate in Derry on August 31, 1988.

A third neighbour, Gerard Curran, died from injuries sustained in the bombing seven months later.

The incident became known as the Good Samaritans’ bomb.

A new report into the incident by Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, concludes that despite knowing that a booby-trap bomb was very likely to have been planted at flat 38 Kildrum Gardens police had done nothing to warn local residents.

The ombudsman’s investigation found that police had information five days prior to the explosion that a car which had been abandoned in Kildrum Gardens was ‘convenient to a house’ which had been booby-trapped.

Police received further information three days before the explosion that a note with the name and address of the tenant at 38 Kildrum Gardens had been dropped during a local robbery.

Dr Maguire said there is strong evidence that police had sufficient information that they ought to have known the bomb was in the vicinity of Kildrum Gardens, even if they could not be sure which property it was in.

“We found no evidence of any effort to pinpoint the exact location of the device or to warn the people who lived in and frequented the area,” he said.

While the ombudsman said that police had been justified in placing the area “out of bounds” to officers to protect them from possible ambush, he added:

“Police allowed a booby trap bomb to remain in a location which presented a very real risk to life. There was an obligation on police to protect the lives of the public and I have to conclude that they failed in this regard. They failed to do all that could reasonably have been expected of them in the circumstances.”

RUC records show that police had received reliable information on 5 August – three weeks before the explosion – that the IRA intended to place a booby trap bomb in a house in the city and to stage an incident designed to prompt officers to carry out follow-up enquiries, during which they would be the targets of the concealed bomb.

Four days before the explosion police received information that a car, believed to have been used in an IRA attack the previous night, had been left ‘convenient to a house’ at Kildrum Gardens which was booby-trapped and that, if necessary, the IRA planned to stage another incident to lure police to the property.

On 28 August – three days before the explosion, a local chip shop was robbed during which the ‘thieves’ dropped a competition entry containing the name and address of the tenant living at Kildrum Gardens.

RUC files show senior police officers suspected this was an attempt to lure officers into a trap and decided to delay going to the address.

Read timeline of events leading up to Good Samaritans’ bomb here

However the OPONI report is highly critical of the RUC’s decision not to alert local residents of the bomb threat.

“The failure to warn local people had tragic consequences for Eugene (Sean) Dalton, Sheila Lewis and Gerard Curran,” Dr Maguire said.

“It is my conclusion that the police failed in their duty to protect the victims by allowing an explosive device to remain in a location that presented a real and immediate risk to life and further, that they failed to mitigate that threat or to advise the local community or its leaders of probable terrorist activity in the area.”

Dr Maguire described the subsequent RUC murder investigation as “flawed and incomplete.”

Ombudsman investigators found the RUC murder investigation had failed to complete comprehensive house-to-house enquiries, to follow up forensic lines of inquiry and to preserve or manage murder investigation documentation.

There was little or no communication between the murder investigation and the families of the deceased which had left them “bewildered and frustrated.”

“My staff found evidence that there was an initial flurry of activity by officers investigating the bombing, but that within a short period this was scaled down and lost focus. I am aware of the enormous and competing pressures on policing then, but by the standards of the time this was an inadequate investigation,” he said.

FORMER OFFICERS CONTINUE TO REFUSE TO COOPERATE WITH OMBUDSMAN

Since the establishment of OPONI in 2001 there has been a complaint that former police officers have refused to co-operate with ombudsman’s investigations.

The report reveals that Dr Maguire, who only took up office in July 2102, continues to be faced with the refusal of former police officers to co-operate with his inquiries.

“I am clear that the responsibility for the deaths of Mr Dalton, Mrs Lewis and the injuries to Mr Curran rests with those who planted the bomb,” he said.

“However, my investigation was hampered by both the refusal of a number of retired police officers, some formerly of senior rank, to co-operate and by the loss of investigation documentation.”

At the time of the bomb attack in August 1988 RUC Special Branch had controlled and disseminated all intelligence in relation to the warnings that the IRA had planned to use a bobby trap to kill police officers.

Dr Maguire said his investigators had tried to interview former Special Branch members who had detailed knowledge of the events surrounding the Good Samaritans’ bomb

“My investigators made requests to meet with, and interview, a significant number of former police officers who were in various relevant roles and levels of seniority within RUC Special Branch operating in the relevant area of Derry/Londonderry in 1988.

“No former Special Branch officers co-operated with my investigation. The then Divisional Commander, now retired, also chose not to co-operate with my investigation.”

Both the senior investigating officer in charge of the Good Samaritans’ murder inquiry and his deputy failed to co-operate with the OPONI inquiry.

Concluding that police had failed to protect the lives of residents, Dr Maguire said:

“I further believe that they ought to have known it was in the vicinity of 38 Kildrum Gardens and that steps could and should have been taken to locate the threat and warn the local community and that the failure to do so had tragic consequences for the victims of the bombing.

“This failure and the continued knowledge that there was a device in a house ‘convenient to’ the car bomb (and as such ‘next to’) resulted in the police not fulfilling their duty to protect the public.

“My only conclusion must be that the police were very aware of the threat of the bomb, its location and their own duty to protect the public and maximise the safety of the police and security staff involved in any response.”

Al Hutchinson and Jim Coupland at the launch of the Eames/Bradley report in June 2009

Al Hutchinson and Jim Coupland at the launch of the Eames/Bradley report in June 2009

NEW REPORT MAKES NO REFERENCE TO PREVIOUS OPONI REWRITING OF GOOD SAMARITANS’ BOMB INVESTIGATION

In August 2011 the Detail revealed the contents of a damning report into the Police Ombudsman’s Office under the stewardship of Al Hutchinson.

That report, which was conducted by Dr Maguire as director of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, found a “significant lowering of the professional independence” between OPONI and PSNI.

One of the most damning aspects of the report was the uncovering of major irregularities into how OPONI had investigated the original RUC handling of the Kildrum Gardens explosion.

In 2008 a draft report of the completed Good Samaritans’ investigation had been prepared for Mr Hutchinson’s senior management team for approval before it was due to be made public.

The senior ombudsman investigator in charge of the case believed his report had been approved for publication in October 2008.

In May 2010 the report was again circulated amongst the ombudsman’s senior staff, with the investigator again being led to believe that there had been agreement on the report’s findings.

In 2011 the investigator and another ombudsman director told CJI inspectors that Mr Hutchinson had agreed at that time that the report was ready to be published – with the investigator’s original October 2008 conclusions remaining in place.

However the CJI report found that within weeks the Good Samaritans’ report’s findings had been `substantially’ altered without explanation.

“It is unclear why the report was changed but following a meeting on May 24, 2010 involving the Police Ombudsman, Senior Director of Investigations, Director of History and Director of Communications a further report was redrafted by the Director of Communications at the dictation of the Director of History,” Dr Maguire stated at that time.

“This report was substantially different in content and findings to the one that existed in early May 2010.”

Dr Maguire added: “The case illustrates a process operating by which a report, which has been redrafted several times with no changes to the findings, can be amended in a short space of time to provide completely different outcomes.

“In this instance the draft outcomes seen by inspectors were substantially different from those communicated to families earlier in the process and were less critical of police actions.”

In December 2012 the Detail revealed that Dr Maguire, who had by then replaced Mr Hutchinson as Police Ombudsman, had agreed to quash the findings of his predecessor’s report into the Loughinisland Massacre because of failings in the investigation.

Read the Detail’s account of turmoil within OPONI under Al Hutchinson here

When asked why today’s ombudsman’s report makes no reference at all to the attempts of former senior OPONI officials in 2010 to drastically alter the original findings of the Good Samaritans’ report, a spokesman said:

“When the new police ombudsman Michael Maguire took up office he reviewed what had been done, ordered extra investigative steps to be taken and got all the evidence he required to fully address the questions that had been raised by the family.

“He reached a conclusion on the matters we were investigating. It’s a standalone report.”

Read Dalton family statement here

Read full ombudsman’s report here

© The Detail 2013