Women 'could have died from drink', stonemason murder trial told
Two woman allegedly murdered by a stonemason who had dated them both may have died from alcohol abuse, a court has been told.
A defence lawyer for Co Down pensioner Leslie Ross, 66, insisted drink could have claimed the lives of his former partners Michelle Bickerstaff, 47, and Margaret Weise, 50.
Justin Byrne made the claims in Newry Magistrates' Court during an unsuccessful application for his client to be bailed.
Ms Bickerstaff, a mother of four, was found dead in April 2012, while Ms Weise's body was discovered in August 2007.
Both women lived in the quiet market town of Dromore.
Ross, from Meganlis Park in Dromore, was charged with their murders last August along with three other offences - namely indecent assault, gross indecency with a child and indecently assaulting a female child - all on dates between 1979 and 1990.
During the hearing in front of District Judge Paul Copeland, a police officer conceded there were no eye-witnesses to the alleged murders and the case against the defendant was circumstantial, and based on pathology and medical reports.
Detective Sergeant Mark Gibson said: "Police believe it is a very strong circumstantial case."
But Mr Byrne, who said his client "vehemently denied" the charges, insisted there could be another explanation.
He claimed both women had problems with alcohol, with Ms Bickerstaff awaiting a liver transplant at the time of her death.
"The reason for these women's deaths could be down to alcohol and liver problems," he told the officer.
Mr Gibson said he was aware the women had "difficulties with alcohol".
Ross, appearing via video-link from Maghaberry high security prison in Co Antrim, watched proceedings on the screen in front of him.
Dressed in a stripped polo shirt and cream and brown jacket, the white-haired accused spoke briefly at the outset of the hearing to confirm his name.
Addressing Judge Copeland, Mr Byrne, who is instructed by Arthur Downey solicitors, Banbridge, questioned the strength of the police's case against his client.
"This is essentially a circumstantial case based largely on the basis of pathologist Mr (Jack) Crane (Northern Ireland's state pathologist) and perhaps some other medics," he said.
"There may well be some other explanation."
A prosecution lawyer told the judge there were "substantial grounds" for refusing bail - namely concern that Ross was at risk of offending on his release, the potential for him to interfere with witnesses and doubts he would comply with bail conditions.
She said a police file on the case was with prosecutors.
The judge acknowledged that the gravity of the charges was not in itself a reason to refuse bail.
But he agreed with the prosecution and police that there were sufficient reasons to continue to remand the defendant in custody.
"It would be inappropriate to release the accused at this particular stage," he said.
Ross was remanded in custody to appear again via video-link on March 6.
Police in Dromore are currently investigating the deaths of two other women in the town - mother-of-one Lily McKee, 52, in 2002 and Margaret Stronge, 58, who was known as Peggy, in 1982.