A 32-year-old man has been remanded in custody charged with the murder of Natalie McNally in Lurgan, Co Armagh in December.
Stephen McCullagh, from Woodland Gardens, Lisburn appeared before a district judge in Lisburn Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.
Ms McNally, aged 32, who was 15 weeks pregnant, was stabbed in her home in Silverwood Green in Lurgan on December 18th.
Mr McCullagh was previously arrested on December 19th but released and ruled out as a suspect. He was rearrested on January 31st.
During a remand hearing that lasted almost an hour, the court heard Mr McCullagh, who has a YouTube channel, staged a live broadcast on the night of the murder, with footage appearing to show him playing the video game Grand Theft Auto for six hours.
A senior detective told the court that extensive technical examination of his devices by cyber experts has indicated the footage was pre-recorded and played out as if it was live.
PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Neil McGuinness noted that on the footage Mr McCullagh tells his 37,000 subscribers that he is unable to interact with them live due to technical issues.
Mr McGuinness told district judge Rosie Watters that while Mr McCullagh denies involvement in Natalie McNally’s murder, he has conceded in police interview that the purported live stream was pre-recorded by him days earlier.
“At the conclusion of the interview process last night or early this morning, after consultation with his legal representative, Mr McCullagh has given us a written statement essentially and in that written statement he has acceded that that live stream was not live and was in fact recorded by him on the 13th into the 14th of December and that he had streamed it on the night of Sunday the 18th,” he told the court.
The court was told that Mr McCullagh was initially arrested in the wake of the murder but then ruled out as a suspect on the basis of the alleged live stream alibi.
He said Mr McCullagh, who works in the local media industry, then went on to interact with the McNally family in the weeks that followed.
He claimed the accused left his phone in the home of Ms McNally’s parents and recorded 40 minutes of audio.
Mr McGuinness said he believed this was Mr McCullagh attempting to determine if the family suspected him of involvement in the murder.
“It’s particularly hurtful to the McNally family who, as everyone in Northern Ireland is aware, have exercised enormous forbearance and welcomed this man into their home,” he said.
“I feel that that is an attempt to inquire into the progress of the police investigation and to see whether there’s any suspicions around him. And I believe that is a heinous way of interfering with grieving parents.”
Judge Watters described the alleged recording as a “gross invasion” of the McNally family’s privacy.
Ms McNally’s parents Noel and Bernie and brothers Declan, Niall and Brendan were in court, accompanied by several supporters, as this evidence was outlined.
Mr McCullagh watched proceedings via video link from a police custody suite. He did not speak at any stage in the proceedings.
He was remanded in custody to appear before Craigavon Magistrates’ Court on February 24th via video link after his bail application was rejected by the judge.
A Public Prosecution Service (PPS) lawyer had urged the judge to refuse bail, insisting there were no conditions that would alleviate concerns about releasing the murder accused.
“The defendant has in this case hatched a sophisticated, calculating and cool headed plot to kill Ms McNally,” she said.
“Every detail had been carefully thought through and it’s only due to painstaking police work and sophisticated cyber evidence that he hasn’t got away with it and the plan has cracked.
“He will be desperate at this point. Over the last six weeks he has behaved in such a way that he displayed a confidence that he had got away with this.
“He was liaising with the family. He was at their home. He will be absolutely desperate now. He has shown he is capable of deception beyond imagination.”
The PPS lawyer said Mr McCullagh could potentially interfere with witnesses if bailed.
Mr McCullagh was the person who claimed to have discovered Ms McNally’s body in her home the day after the murder.
Mr McGuinness said after Mr McCullagh was initially ruled out as a suspect he refused to co-operate with detectives to give them details on how the murder scene looked when he arrived and before paramedics attended.
“Stephen McCullagh did not have a long-standing relationship with the McNally family prior to Natalie’s death,” he said. “They had only been introduced to him on two occasions.
“However, since the investigation has begun, whilst in parallel with refusing to assist the investigation, knowing that he was a very significant witness to the crime scene, he has been in constant contact with the McNally family and inquiring into the progress of the police investigation.”
Defence barrister Craig Patton questioned the evidence against his client as he challenged the basis upon which the police connected him to the charge.
Making a bail application, Mr Patton added: “Essentially, what the evidence seems to all hang on is that this man did not livestream when he said he livestreamed”.
The court heard that police also believe they can trace Mr McCullagh from the murder scene back to his home in Lisburn through a combination of CCTV evidence, including on board a bus to Lurgan, and from the account of a taxi driver who police believe drove him on the final part of his journey home after committing the murder.
Mr McGuinness said a man police believe is Mr McCullagh is shown revealing a yellow glove underneath a black glove while giving change to the bus driver.
He said the yellow glove would be consistent with a trace of a marigold cleaning glove on a stain of Ms McNally’s blood at the crime scene.
The court heard that there was no activity on the accused’s phone on the night of the murder from 6pm to 11.16pm – three minutes after the taxi allegedly dropped him off at his home.
Mr McGuinness said in the statement in which Mr McCullagh acknowledged he was not livestreaming on the night of the murder, he claimed he was instead drinking on his own in his house and fell asleep.
The senior detective said Mr McCullagh claims he woke up at some point and swiped his mobile phone.
“I believe that reference is to the swiping open at 11.16,” said the officer.
“He did further say that he denied involvement in Natalie’s murder.”
Mr McGuinness said Mr McCullagh acknowledged that “the assailant had taken a taxi to his home address and come in”.
He added: “He didn’t know who that was. He then posits some suggestions who that may have been, not by name, and said that he had no further information about who that would have been.”
Declining bail, district judge Watters said: “I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a case that is so complex.
“And if the police are right, this was a cold-blooded attack which was meticulously planned with absolutely tragic consequences and, in all the circumstances, I also am concerned about the issues which the prosecution are concerned with.
“The risk of further offending – if he can carry out an attack like this, if the police case is right, then who knows what else he is capable of?” – PA