Funeral ‘could have turned into a bloodbath’

A DISTRICT judge has said a funeral  in Strabane “could have turned into a bloodbath” on Thursday if it had not been for the prompt actions of police officers at the scene. 
Barney McElholm made the comments in Derry Magistrate’s Court on Friday as three men, together with a 17-year-old youth, appeared charged with offences linked to the discovery of dozens of bladed weapons following the funeral Mass in St Mary’s Church at Melmount Road on Thursday.
Before the court were John Anthony Doherty, 32, a father of five from Riverside Caravan Park in Queensbury in Wales, Gerry Stokes, 22, a father of one from Kearney’s Villas in Gulladuff, South Derry, Thomas Lee Scully from Coillanairigid, Donegal Road in Ballybofey and the juvenile who is from Belfast.
The three adults all pleaded guilty to the offences they were charged with and the juvenile was released on bail.
Doherty admitted possessing a Stanley knife and a quantity of cocaine. He also admitted driving a car without insurance and without displaying L plates.
A PSNI officer told the court that police stopped a number of cars following intelligece that offensive weapons could be present at the funeral. He said about 100 men were in the vicinity of the chapel.
When Doherty’s car was stopped he was searched and police found a Stanley knife as well as a small bag of cocaine. 
“He told police following his arrest that he used the knife to free animals from fences as part of his work in Wales and he said he had already snorted cocaine,” the police witness said. 
Defence solicitor Keith Kyle said a few days before the funeral, Doherty had been in the presence of the deceased. He said Doherty had arrived in Northern Ireland on a ferry from Wales and was accompanied by his wife. He said Doherty used the knife for his work as a gardener in Wales.
“It was his first time in Northern Ireland and he was stopped on his way to the funeral. There is no suggestion he used the knife nor was he brandishing it on the street”, Mr Kyle said.
Judge McElholm said while Doherty had no previous convictions in Northern Ireland, “he has two previous convictions for similar offences in England in 2016 for which he served periods in prison. It was a disgraceful incident at the chapel when a group of people were attending a funeral”.
When the police witness gave the judge photographs of the weapons seized, Mr McElholm said “somebody made a few pounds out of this in that they seem to be brand new and it seems they had been bought specifically for the event”.
He then sentenced Doherty to five months in prison, suspended for three years, fined him £400 and disqualified him from driving for 12 months. Mr McElholm gave Doherty 20 weeks to pay the fine.
Stokes pleaded guilty to possessing in Main Street, Strabane, a bill hook which the police witness said “could still cut your leg off”.
Defence solicitor Brian Stelfox said it was a barley cutter which Stokes used in his work to which Mr McElholm commented, “Main Street Strabane, known for its luxuriant overgrowth of barley”.
Mr Stelfox said Stokes left the chapel during the funeral when he heard a commotion outside which he thought was disrespectful.
“When he came out of the chapel he saw a person with the weapon. He took it off him and threw it away under a parked car. He was genuinely attending the funeral Mass for a close relative when on the spur of the moment he saw someone with a weapon. He was caught up in this”, Mr Stelfox said.
Stokes was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months.
The police witness said in relation to the defendant Scully, he was arrested hours before the funeral by police officers following a report of a man “having a psychotic incident”.
Scully was arrested under the Mental Health Act. He was searched and police found a knife and a screwdriver. The police then took him to Altnagelvin Hospital where Scully was verbally abusive to hospital staff and to the police officers.
Scully, who pleaded guilty to possessing a knife and screwdriver as well as to being disorderly in hospital, was sentenced to three months in jail, suspended for two years.
The police officer said the 17-year-old, who is charged with possessing two axes, was arrested when a car stopped at the scene was searched by the police. The weapons were found inside the youth’s holdall and he admitted they belonged to him. Following his arrest the juvenile told the police the axes had been bought for him by his father for use in a gardening business.
A defence solicitor said the case would not trouble the court and he said the juvenile had no previous convictions.
The juvenile was released on his own bail of £500 together with a cash surety also of £500 to appear before Strabane Youth Court on March 20.

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