Gary Haggarty had been billed as the "mother of all supergrasses" who could put away for life several senior Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members and former RUC special branch officers for a litany of crimes, including numerous murders and, in the case of the ex-officers, for turning a blind eye to murders.
But it wasn’t to be. Now there are 11 UVF suspects and two former RUC officers who handled UVF agents who can sleep more easily in their beds.
The North’s director of prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, decided he would not use the evidence of 45-year-old Haggarty against the 13 suspects. He said that while Haggarty provided information about the suspects, he didn’t have sufficient corroborating evidence to prove the claims against them beyond reasonable doubt.
He is now ruminating over whether Haggarty's evidence could be used against a final three UVF suspects – one who Haggarty said was involved in the 1994 murders of two Catholic workmen in north Belfast, Gary Convie and Eamon Fox, and two he named as implicated in the 1997 murder of a Protestant, John Harbinson, also in north Belfast.
Mr McGrory will make his decision on these three suspects sometime before October 25th when former UVF leader Haggarty is to be sentenced for a catalogue of crimes including five murders carried out by the notorious north Belfast Mount Vernon UVF.
Despite his record as a ruthless killer, Haggartyis guaranteed a heavily discounted sentence during the two-day sentencing at the end of this month because he agreed to become what is officially titled an “assisting offender”. Already he has been three years in custody on remand and when sentence is passed could walk free based on time served.
If he does he will walk into a witness protection scheme where he will be financed and provided with a new identity and barring some unexpected circumstances live out the rest of his days in safety and relative ease.
That is a comfort not afforded the relatives of the UVF victims. They had hoped that Haggarty’s evidence would lead to the conviction of other UVF killers and of some of the police officers who handled them as informants.
Mr McGrory acknowledged the disappointment and anger they would feel. But he said he was legally bound to exhaustively examine what Haggarty had to offer, even if ultimately it led nowhere in terms of 13 of 16 suspects.
That pain and anguish was reflected in the reaction of Ciaran Fox, whose father of Eamon Fox was murdered in 1994. "It is hard to stomach," he said.
While he didn’t comment on the broader implications, Mr McGrory must also realise that there appears to be little prospect of the “supergrass” system being used in any other major Troubles-related cases.
Due to Haggarty and to two other high-profile cases of recent years the “assisting offender” scheme must appear a multi-million pound investigative waste of time.
The “supergrass” system was used widely in the 1980s but after more than a dozen so-called supergrasses retracted their evidence it became badly tarnished.
It was resurrected with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa) 2005. That promised greater checks and balances to the 1980s system. It was mainly designed to address organised crime, but was also used to deal with paramilitary cases from the Troubles.
But generally it hasn't worked. Two brothers, Robert and Ian Stewart gave evidence against their former UVF colleagues alleging their involvement in a series of crimes, including the murder of UDA leader Tommy English, but their evidence was dismissed by a judge as worthless after a lengthy trial in 2012. The Stewarts served just three years for their crimes and are in a witness protection programme.
LVF member Neill Hyde also served three years for his involvement in the 2001 murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan after he too turned assisting offender and offered to give evidence against other of the LVF killers. But ultimately the DPP's office found Hyde's evidence could not be trusted and the trial did not proceed in 2013. He also is in witness protection.
With such a disastrous strike rate it seems clear that in future McGrory and whoever succeeds him as DPP will be extremely wary about persisting with the “supergrass” system.