Saturday 21 July 2018

Laughter over 'prank' turned to screams at the Regency

Patrick Hutch Jr's trial has heard chilling accounts of how terror unfolded at the hotel, writes Andrew Phelan

The Regency Hotel
The Regency Hotel
David Byrne
Witness boxing chief Mel Christle

Andrew Phelan

There was a moment during the terror and mayhem of the Regency Hotel gangland attack when the desperately fleeing patrons thought they had been rescued. People had run or taken cover in panic after the first two gunmen, one dressed as a woman, hurried in wielding pistols and began shooting.

Then, someone called out: "It's OK! It's the ERU!", just as two more figures, helmeted and dressed in blue Garda jackets, walked calmly into the chaos of the function room.

If the details were a little off - like the scarves over the men's faces or their oversized guns - it doesn't seem to have registered with the frightened crowd who began to move toward them in relief.

But far from being saved, their nightmare was only beginning as one of the supposed gardai aimed his rifle and opened fire.

By the time the getaway van screeched off, one man lay dead, two were injured and a boxing weigh-in had been turned into a bloodbath.

The 2016 gang raid, unprecedented in its audacity, was recalled last week at the Special Criminal Court, where Patrick Hutch Jnr (25) is being tried for the murder of father-of-two David Byrne (33).

Mr Byrne, from Crumlin, was shot dead by what was described as a "tactical team" of armed raiders who stormed the hotel along with two accomplices - a man wearing a blonde woman's wig and another in a flat cap.

Prosecutors claim that Mr Hutch, from Champions Avenue in Dublin's north inner city, was identified as the man in the wig. They do not allege he shot Mr Byrne, but maintain he participated in the raid and shared an intention to commit the killing.

"Not guilty, your honour," Mr Hutch answered in a clear voice to both charges as he stood to be arraigned for murder and possession of three assault rifles.

Lead prosecutor Sean Gillane then detailed what he described as a "resourced, carefully-planned, targeted, murderous attack" carried out by six people.

These, he contended, were three dressed as a "tactical team" of armed gardai, dubbed for the purpose of the trial 'Tac 1, Tac 2 and Tac 3', along with the young man dressed as a woman, an older man in a flat cap and a presumed driver.

The targeted event on February 5, 2016 was a boxing weigh-in for a tournament taking place that weekend which was billed as the 'Clash of the Clans'.

It was promoted by British boxing manager Frank Warren's Queensberry Promotions, and the Marbella-based MGM gym. The presence of a number of people associated with the gym "may well have been anticipated", Mr Gillane said.

The since-renamed Regency in Whitehall on Dublin's northside had never hosted a weigh-in before and ended up being the venue because a Six Nations rugby match was also on that weekend and hotel space in the city centre was scarce.

Its Regency Suite function room was packed with boxers, managers, trainers and families with children as the weigh-in got under way at 2pm.

The court heard that, unknown to them, 20 minutes later a silver Ford Transit van parked up at the gate separating the hotel from Gracepark Manor Housing estate.

Captured by CCTV, the men in the wig and flat cap were seen first going in through the hotel's unlocked laundry entrance.

Moments later, at 2.29pm, the van was seen driving through the gate to the front of the hotel, where the "tactical team" of three entered the building.

Inside, hotel accountant Margaret Christie saw the men in the wig and flat cap make their way through the hotel, arm in arm.

She told the court she saw that the 'woman', wearing a dirty blonde wig, black horn-rimmed glasses, "goldy" coat and knee-high brown heeled boots, was having trouble walking.

"That's a man dressed up as a woman," she shouted, laughing, when she saw him go over on his ankle.

The wig slipped and she saw his locks were jet black. She thought that he was "going in to do something funny in the weigh-in room," some sort of "prank" and followed the pair.

But when they got into the Regency Suite, she heard a bang and people began throwing bottles at the two men, she said.

She saw both holding black handguns, firing them.

Witness Paul Spencer said there had been a good atmosphere when he arrived, and he saw Daniel Kinahan among those attending the event.

He then noticed the men in the wig and the flat cap come in. He initially thought the blonde was a woman but he too saw she was "a bit bockety on her legs and unsteady on her feet". He then heard a shout: "Gun! Gun!"

The pair pulled two handguns out of their jackets and pointed them over the crowd. He heard three to four gunshots before he dropped to the floor.

People were running, tables were knocked over and he saw the two men run out of the fire door.

Mr Spencer got to his feet and heard three more gunshots.

After this, a "fella" walked in and said: "It's OK, it's OK, the ERU are here."

This made him feel "a bit more at ease because he thought police had arrived".

Two men in dark helmets with scarves under their noses, wearing blue police jackets and carrying "huge guns" walked calmly into the centre of the room, he said. People started to walk toward them.

Mr Spencer heard three to four more gunshots and saw they came from one of the men dressed as gardai. He saw one aim his gun at somebody and heard someone screaming "help me, help me".

Mr Spencer said he saw the two men "tilting their heads," looking at people on the ground and felt they were looking for someone.

After he thought everything had finished, the men in the cap and wig ran back in. The man dressed as a woman said: "I can't see him, he's not f**king here" and Mr Spencer saw the two of them looking around the room before they ran out again.

Mel Christle, the then president of the Boxing Union of Ireland, was on the stage for the weighing in of boxer Gary Sweeney when he heard the first gunshots. In the commotion, he could hear "children being quite upset".

The man in the wig "was holding a pistol close to his stomach and running, not very fast. He was doing his best to stay calm," he told the court.

There were at least eight more, louder high-velocity shots.

Mr Christle said that after the shooting he heard "groans and tearful utterances". A boxing 'cuts man' was tending to two injured men, staunching wounds. As he left, he said, he saw the body of a man slumped with his head resting against the reception desk.

"There were huddles of people in a highly frenzied mood as if something horrific had happened," he said. "A number of these people you could see were looking for vengeance."

In cross-examination, Michael O'Higgins SC for the defence, showed Mr Christle a photograph of a man in a wig and said it was "not obviously a man".

"The hands don't look very feminine, Mr O'Higgins," Judge Tony Hunt said.

"The longer you look the more male it gets," Mr Christle said.

Occasional moments of dark humour aside, the account of the shootings heard by the non-jury, three-judge court was chilling.

According to the prosecution, Tac 2 and 3 shot two men, who were injured but survived and later did not co-operate with the Garda investigation.

David Byrne ran from the Regency Suite into the reception, where he was shot by Tac 1 and again by Tac 2, the court heard.

Mr Byrne fell "clearly injured" to the ground and made his way to the reception desk. Tac 2 first pointed his gun at a BBC reporter there, then jumped over the counter to where Mr Byrne was lying.

"He calmly and coldly discharged the weapon again, discharging further rounds into the head and body of Mr Byrne," Mr Gillane said.

Mr Byrne died from six gunshot wounds to his face, abdomen, hands and thighs in a killing that according to the prosecution displayed "perfected callousness".

The trial continues.

Sunday Independent

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