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Inquest into garda death at bank raid delayed due to appeals

A GARDA detective sergeant was shot dead with a bullet fired by another garda which ricocheted during a bank robbery, an inquest heard yesterday.

The sound of a tyre bursting led gardai at the scene to believe they were being fired on, causing them to open fire, the inquest heard.

Det Sgt John Eiffe was shot dead when hit with a ricochet bullet fired by a colleague in an operation to arrest four suspected bank robbers in Abbeyleix in Co Laois on December 7, 2001. The four were subsequently convicted of conspiracy to rob a bank.

The Portlaoise inquest into circumstances surrounding his death in the friendly fire incident opened and was then adjourned suddenly yesterday afternoon.

Coroner Eugene O'Gorman adjourned the inquest shortly after 3.30pm when it emerged two of the men convicted had appeals pending. He was not happy to proceed, he said, as evidence which could be prejudicial to the appeals was being heard.

The Eiffe family said they hoped the inquest could be concluded as soon as possible.

Earlier, the inquest heard evidence from a number of gardai who were in Abbeyleix with Det Sgt Eiffe when he was shot.

The garda heading the investigation, Chief Supt Noel White, said Det Sgt Eiffe was hit by a bullet fired by a colleague.

The court heard gardai from the National Surveillance Unit, including Det Sgt Eiffe, had been tracking four men who it was believed were going to rob a bank in the midlands that day. The four were using three stolen vehicles - a green BMW, silver Mercedes and black Porche. Det Sgt Eiffe and his commander, Det Insp Noel King, lay in wait for the gang in Abbeyleix. Gardai believed the raid would either be in Carlow or in Abbeyleix, had units deployed in both places, and believed the men were armed. The NSU's job was to track the gang, while the heavily armed ERU were to apprehend them.

Shortly after 4pm the four men and three cars were seen driving into a car park beside the AIB bank. Senior officers gave the order to arrest them. Gardai in two garda ERU jeeps drove into the car park, stopped the Mercedes and arrested the driver.

Det Sgt Eiffe and Det Insp King made their way to the car park as the arrests took place. They heard gunfire and were standing at the exit of the car park when the Porche drove at speed out of the exit. Both had guns drawn.

Det Insp King, in evidence, said at this stage he noticed Det Sgt Eiffe fall. The Porche sped away but was stopped by other gardai. Only then Det Insp King realised his colleague was hurt.

Det Insp King also said he had been shot in the leg, but could not say if it was the same bullet that hit Det Sgt Eiffe.

The inquest heard from ERU Det Garda John Holland, who fired three shots at the Porche when the driver tried to escape. One of these shots ricocheted and then hit Det Sgt Eiffe. Det Insp John Gantly of the ERU defended his officers, saying the Porche was being driven as a lethal weapon.

Det Sgt Eiffe's mother Alice and wife Lorraine were at the inquest, which has been adjourned until June 10.