A man accused of murdering Natalie McNally allegedly staged a live online gaming session on the night she was killed, a court has heard.
Stephen McCullagh is charged with the murder of Ms McNally on December 18 in what a court heard was a “sophisticated, calculated and cool-headed plot”.
The 32-year-old, of Woodland Gardens, Lisburn, appeared at Lisburn Magistrates Court on Thursday morning.
Ms McNally, who was 32, and 15 weeks pregnant, was killed in her home in Lurgan.
Objecting to bail, a prosecution lawyer said McCullagh had shown “he is capable of deception beyond imagination”.
During a remand hearing that lasted almost an hour, the court heard allegations that last week, McCullagh had left a mobile phone in the McNally family home, which was set to record. He later returned to collect it, claiming he had forgotten it.
It was outlined how McCullagh was initially downgraded from suspect to witness, based on a belief that he livestreamed a six-hour online gaming session at the time Ms McNally was killed.
Friends and family of Natalie McNally leaving Lisburn Magistrates Court on Thursday morning.
McCullagh, a part-time assistant audience editor for the Belfast Telegraph, was dressed in a grey tracksuit.
He showed little emotion as he watched proceedings via video link from a police custody suite.
Ms McNally’s parents Noel and Bernie and brothers Declan, Niall and Brendan were in court as the evidence was outlined.
It was outlined how McCullagh, who has a YouTube channel, staged the live broadcast on the night of the killing, with footage appearing to show him playing the video game Grand Theft Auto.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil McGuinness 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.
The detective noted that on the footage the accused tells his 37,000 subscribers that he is unable to interact with them live due to technical issues.
DCI McGuinness told district judge Rosie Watters that while McCullagh denies involvement in Ms McNally’s killing he has conceded in police interview that the purported live stream was pre-recorded by him days earlier.
Describing the investigation as “complex”, DCI McGuinness said police believed the accused, carrying a “distinctive” Asda bag for life, travelled by bus to Lurgan, taking “careful” steps to conceal his face using a hood and face mask.
At one point the person on the bus takes a drink from a bottle of Coca Cola, he explains: “Rather than lowering the face mask to take that drink, the person lifts the face mask from beneath and surreptitiously sips it from beneath, which is a very awkward-looking action.
"It is quite clear to me that that person is taking great pains to disguise their identity on that bus.”
It is the police case, the detective said, that McCullagh later returned home via taxi.
Friends and family members leave today at Lisburn Magistrates Court.
The court heard that there was no activity on the accused's phone on the night in question from 6pm to 11.16pm - three minutes after the taxi allegedly let him off at his home.
The court was told that McCullagh was initially arrested in the wake of the killing but then ruled out as a suspect on the basis of the alleged livestream alibi.
Objecting to bail, a prosecution lawyer cited a risk of further offences and a risk of absconding.
“The defendant in this case has hatched a sophisticated, calculated and cool-headed plot to kill Ms McNally. 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,” she said.
She added: “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.
“There are absolutely no bail conditions that could alleviate the risks posed here.”
The court heard that “just last week”, McCullagh visited the McNally home and left his phone there, claiming he forgot it.
The prosecution lawyer added: “That phone was recording what was happening in the home, and the theory is that he wanted to see if there was any suspicion about him.
“Your Worship, this is chilling.”
The recording was later transferred to a computer, the court heard.
The prosecution lawyer added: “Had there been any suspicion voiced by the family and any, you know, expression of an intention to talk to police, you just don’t know what would have happened.
“He is a dangerous person, Your Worship, and I would ask you to refuse bail.”
DCI McGuinness told the court the discovery that McCullagh had allegedly left his phone recording in the McNally family home was "shocking".
"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,” he said.
Defence barrister Craig Patton questioned the evidence against his client as he challenged the basis upon which the police connected him to the charge.
Applying for bail, Mr Patton added: “Essentially, what the evidence seems to all hang on is that this man did not live-stream when he said he live-streamed.”
Refusing 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?”
He was remanded in custody to appear before Craigavon Magistrates Court on February 24 via video link.