07 December 2005

Belfast Bank Supervisor Charged in Heist

Yahoo! News

By CHRIS THORNTON, Associated Press Writer
Wed Dec 7, 9:56 AM ET

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - A Northern Bank supervisor who claimed he aided a gang of robbers under the threat of death was charged Wednesday as a willing participant in the record $50 million heist.

Chris Ward, 24, did not offer a plea as he stood in the dock for his arraignment, but his defense attorney, Niall Murphy, said the accusation that Ward was the gang's inside man was completely circumstantial.

"My client denies absolutely these offenses and, such as it is, the police case in its entirety," Murphy said.

Magistrate Ken Nixon ordered Ward held without bail until a Jan. 4 court appearance. Ward, who did not speak during the 10-minute hearing, offered a "keep your chins up" gesture — touching and lifting his chin — to relatives in the gallery as officers escorted him from the dock.

Police arrested Ward on Nov. 29 at his family home in Poleglass, an
Irish Republican Army power base on the edge of Catholic west Belfast. They interrogated him for 7 1/2 days — a half-day longer than any previous suspect in this British territory.

Government officials, police chiefs and a panel of international experts have blamed the robbery last year on the outlawed IRA, which denies involvement.

Ward said in media interviews after the heist that an armed gang took over his home the night of Dec. 19 and warned him to cooperate with a robbery of the bank's central vault or he and his family would be killed.

Ward said the gangsters drove him to deputy manager Kevin McMullan's rural home south of Belfast, where McMullan and his wife were being held hostage at gunpoint. Ward said both bank employees were given detailed instructions on aiding the robbers when they went to work the next day.

Police have not questioned McMullan as a suspect.

Video footage from bank surveillance cameras the next day showed Ward ferrying about $2.1 million in a gym bag to a gang member outside the vault, which Ward described as a test of the bank alarms.

Then, Ward said, he and McMullan pushed cart after cart of boxed cash to the gang's van within sight of passing Christmas shoppers.

Police said they were not alerted until McMullan's wife stumbled freezing out of an isolated forest where she had been taken and released. The gang had driven off with its second, final load of cash about an hour earlier.

Experts considered the Northern Bank raid the world's biggest cash robbery of a bank in peacetime until it was knocked into second place in August, when robbers stole about $70 million from a Brazilian bank.

Three other people arrested in the Northern Bank investigation were charged last month with offenses that include taking McMullan and his wife hostage, withholding information on the robbers' van and possessing documents and other information likely to be of use to the IRA or other terrorist groups.

Ward is the first figure to be charged directly with the robbery.

Northern Ireland police said they have accounted for about $9.5 million of the stolen cash.

Police in the neighboring Irish Republic seized about three-fifths of that in February raids on the homes and offices of people suspected of involvement in IRA money-laundering. Police believe the remaining two-fifths was burned before it could be seized.

Police said the bulk of the missing money has been rendered worthless because the Northern Bank — which prints and distributes its own versions of British currency — withdrew previous designs from circulation and issued new notes.

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