The Shankill Butchers

Feb 7, 2013 - by Robert Walsh - 1 Comment

Over a 10-year-year period, from 1972 to 1982, the Shankill Butchers gang, led by psychopath Lenny Murphy, terrorized Northern Ireland Catholics, becoming the most prolific group of serial killers in British history.

by Robert Walsh

“A lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry.” – The Shankill Butchers, as described by their trial judge, Lord Justice O’Donnel.

Ireland in general (and Northern Ireland in particular) has long had a troubled, violent and dark history. Invasions, rebellions, famine, revolution, civil war and what are generally described as “The Troubles” have cast a long shadow over the Emerald Isle and its neighbor (and former colonial ruler) Great Britain. In recent years, especially after the peace talks and ceasefire of the early 1990’s, both the British and Irish people have begun to bury their differences and to explore their common history, dark and uncomfortable though it often is. One of the darkest episodes was that of the Shankill Butchers.

 The Shankill Butchers were based in the Shankill district of Belfast (a staunchly pro-British part of the city) and laid a nominal claim to being pro-British paramilitaries. However, leader Lenny Murphy’s motives were far more personal than political. Murphy was the lynchpin around whom the Butchers revolved.

The Troubles – A Short History

In order to understand the Butchers they need placing in context. Northern Ireland itself was born of talks between the British and Irish following the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent violence. As part of a treaty between the British and the Irish rebel leadership, six of Ireland’s 32 counties were split from the newly-formed Irish Free State (today’s Irish Republic). These six counties (the six Irish counties possessing the largest Protestant majorities) became Northern Ireland or Ulster under what was called “Partition,” remaining under British rule. The issue of a united Ireland has dogged the British and Irish ever since.

Paramilitary groups and their political wings had long existed on both sides and both readily employed violence. Those supporting a united Ireland peacefully became known as Nationalists while their paramilitaries (and their associated political front groups) were collectively labeled Republicans. Those campaigning lawfully to preserve links to Britain (campaigning according to the law as it then stood, often with the unofficial connivance of an often openly biased police service and judiciary) were known as Unionists, while their paramilitary groups (and their own political front groups) were collectively labeled Loyalists.

One of the many murals that decorate the walls in Belfast and it  depicts the Ulster Volunteer Force (Lenny Murphy's paramilitary group)

There was also a religious difference. Republicans or Nationalists were largely Catholic while Unionists and Loyalists were usually fiercely Protestant. There were both Catholics and Protestants who broke that tradition, but they were exceptions to the rule. It’s important to recognize the difference, on both sides, between those who adopted violence and those who didn’t. Simply supporting either side never meant automatic support for paramilitary methods. Violence was freely employed by paramilitaries on both sides, but their motivations and strategies were very different.

Both sides readily made examples of known or suspected informers, but their other targets differed immensely. Republicans tended to attack members of the British armed forces, officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (nowadays the Police Service of Northern Ireland), part-time soldiers (Territorials, similar to the U.S. National Guard) and Loyalist paramilitaries. The Republicans had clear criteria for selecting potential targets. Their targets were visible and selected for political or military status rather than religious or political sectarianism.

Targeting by Loyalists was far less selective and far more likely to be sectarian. The Republicans had adopted guerilla tactics, emphasized tight security among members, used a cell structure to further separate the activities of individual Active Service Units (known as ASU’s) and generally tried to be inconspicuous, making targeting specific Republicans far harder for Loyalists. Plus the politics of Loyalism (as distinct from Unionism) have been described as “the politics of fear.” Many Loyalists tended to fear the idea of Catholics (and, by extension, Republicans) gaining the basics of equality, seeing it as a stepping-stone towards a united Ireland. Loyalist violence often (but not always) placed sectarianism before strategy, reflecting hatred born of fear.

One of the more notorious Loyalist paramilitary groups was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and it was his links to the UVF that allowed Lenny Murphy to recruit his henchmen, intimidate potential witnesses and informers and for the Butchers in general to kill as openly, brutally and frequently as they did. The UVF’s membership and influence had declined, but had revived from the late-1960’s onward. Violence (and an ever-present, credible threat thereof) was an intrinsic within UVF policy and philosophy. It’s no surprise that Murphy found them attractive.

The “Master Butcher”

Murphy was born into perpetual violence, extremism and sectarianism. He spent his childhood in staunchly Protestant areas and was constantly bullied for having what some considered a Catholic-sounding surname. Where Murphy grew up Catholics were often so loathed that even the wrong surname was considered suspect. He was also taunted over a common belief that he was illegitimate and that his father wasn’t the man who actually raised him. In short, Murphy was a ready-made victim of perpetual abuse and mistreatment.

Lenny Murphy

Murphy grew into a violent bully, usually ready to meet the slightest perceived insult or challenge with instant aggression. Possibly as a direct result of his suffering being (in his mind) related to religious bigotry, he developed a lasting, visceral hatred of Catholics. His venom knew no limits and fuelled his later crimes. Murphy was a classic case of prey turning predator and he may have seen this simply as a means to survive in a dangerous, hostile environment. What separates him from most people with similar backgrounds is his sheer barbarity and his relishing extreme sadism and violence for their own sake.

Murphy was a natural recruit and joined the UVF after leaving school. He was young, fanatical, violent, eager to both learn his chosen trade (paramilitary violence) and fight his perceived enemy (Northern Ireland’s Catholics, Nationalists and Republicans). He was also far from a stereotypical Neanderthal thug and possessed brains as well as brawn. It was through the UVF and other such groups that Murphy combined his unrelenting anti-Catholicism with the technical skills and personal contacts needed to assemble and lead the Shankill Butchers. Murphy furthered his “education” by regularly attending trials as a spectator, becoming a regular feature in the public gallery. Murphy clearly wanted to understand policing and the law in order to frustrate them. Studying the legal system was an excellent opportunity to find its inherent weaknesses and later use them to evade and obstruct law enforcement. If he already intended a campaign of purely sectarian murder, he was actively laying the foundations by this point.

The victims came from an unusually broad variety of backgrounds. Most were Catholics (chosen simply for being Catholics), some were killed in personal feuds with one or more Butchers, a few were other Loyalists killed in factional feuds and others were what the military call “collateral damage” (they happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times). Such was Murphy’s dominance over his gang that, even after he had been imprisoned on unrelated firearms charges, other Butchers continued to kill on his personal orders as he felt that continued killings would hamper police efforts to see him convicted of serial murder. Murphy was so confident of his absolute command that he sometimes called himself the “Master Butcher.”

One of the things that marks the Butchers as serial killers rather than paramilitaries is their collective desire for power and domination, a desire to act as they pleased regardless of the damage to others and to kill out of hatred and sheer enjoyment rather than furthering any political goals. It would be wrong to say that their paramilitary links were purely incidental to their crimes. Their environment (religious, political, social and criminal) was the breeding ground from which they came together and played a sizeable part in local citizens being terrified to speak out. The “Troubles” weren’t by any means a sideshow, but I’d argue that their crimes were far more about personal gratification than devotion to a cause.

The methods varied as much as the victims. The standard method was for a group of Butchers to cruise the Shankill district in a black taxicab similar to those used in London. All the Butchers knew the Shankill district intimately. They knew which routes Catholics used to pass through the Shankill, the best escape routes, that local residents were terrified to co-operate with the police, fearing both the Butchers themselves or the paramilitaries with whom many Butchers had links. The Shankill was their personal hunting ground and they used it to indulge a combined passion for sadistic murder, confident that those who knew or suspected their identities were highly unlikely to inform. They inspired such extreme fear that local people took a different route if they saw a black cab parked in the Shankill that looked remotely out of place.

“The Cut-Throat Murders”

Once victims were chosen they were overpowered and dragged into the back of the cab. Once inside they were beaten, slashed, choked and then (depending on the Butchers’ whim) probably killed and dumped in public places where they were sure to be found. One victim was deliberately left within a minute’s walk of the local police headquarters. If the Butchers were feeling particularly sadistic their victim was kept alive and taken to one of several locations considered secure and safe (especially the Lawnbrook Social Club, a Loyalist drinking den). Victims were then gratuitously tortured until either they died or the Butchers became bored and silenced them permanently. The level of sadism especially distinguished the Butchers from other criminals in Northern Ireland. Not only did they kill for little or no political or paramilitary gain, they reveled not only in killing for killing’s sake, but also in making their crimes as barbarous as possible. Neither sadism nor recreational killing were common practice, even in a place as troubled and violent as 1970’s Northern Ireland.

Other victims died through poisoning, gunshot wounds, a bomb attack and simply being beaten to death. Unlike the victims of many serial killers, they had few common denominators, there was little to indicate a pattern of the kind a psychological profiler might find useful. All that usually linked the victims was their Catholic religion, the violence of the murders and the fact that they all occurred within the Shankill district, but the Butchers did have one particular trademark that stood out. Many victims were found with their throats cut, several were cut so severely that they were almost decapitated before being dumped in public places where they were always going to be found quickly. The victims’ bodies also usually bore the signs of torture before death and mutilation afterwards. Merely killing wasn’t enough for the Butchers; they had to embellish their crimes as well which indicates a greater interest in killing for pleasure over killing on a professional basis. Torture, throat-cutting and mutilation were their hallmarks, leading to local people and the press referring to their crimes as “the cut-throat murders.” In total, at least 30 individual murders have been attributed to various Butchers between Murphy’s first kill in 1972 and the Butchers’ last known killing in 1982.

The Romper Room

Murphy’s first personal victim was Francis Arthurs in July 1972. Arthurs was a Catholic and had been travelling through the Shankill in a taxi from the predominantly Nationalist Ardoyne district. The taxi was hijacked and Arthurs was taken to the Lawnbrook Social Club, a Loyalist drinking den. Arthurs was dragged into what club members called the “romper room,” a room set aside for what they called “rompering.” Rompering always involved violence and degradation, often torture and sometimes murder. Torture sessions and punishment beatings in the romper room were usually conducted in front of an audience as the torturers felt making spectators into accessories made them keep quiet. Arthurs would never leave the romper room alive. He was held prisoner until non-paramilitary customers had gone home and then the remaining drinkers took turns beating and torturing him. Every thug present took their turn before beating Arthurs as a group. He was then shot and dumped on a Shankill street less than a mile from the crime scene.

One of those involved later admitted that one of the gang, a 20-year old man, was especially violent and sadistic. He made a point of delivering more blows and hitting harder than anyone else as though he had something to prove or a particular level of hatred. The same man also tortured Arthurs with a knife just before the shooting. It was Lenny Murphy, the story of the Shankill Butchers had begun and there was no turning back.

Murphy in The Maze

The killings continued. Three more victims swiftly followed Francis Arthurs. All were sadistic, involved considerable torture before death and were seemingly for no political motive while all were similar enough that police believed they were the work of the same killer. After the UVF-ordered murder of William Pavis (a Protestant suspected of selling firearms to Republicans) Murphy and his accomplice, Mervyn Connor, were arrested and Connor folded. He confessed, implicating Murphy as the actual shooter. Both ended up in Crumlin Road jail awaiting trial.

Unfortunately for the prosecution, Connor then suffered fatal cyanide poisoning, a supposed suicide note detailing his immense guilt at “falsely” implicating Murphy. It later transpired that Murphy had dictated the note for Connor and then forcibly fed him the poison. Connor lingered overnight and died the next morning. Two prison officers specifically assigned to guard Connor were mysteriously distracted into watching television with other inmates. Seemingly in spite of their specific assignment to protect Mervyn Connor night and day they didn’t see Murphy approach Connor’s cell, they didn’t hear him dictating the fake suicide note and false confession and they didn’t hear Murphy holding Connor in a headlock while pouring a phial of cyanide into his mouth. Murphy was promptly transferred to Her Majesty’s Prison, Maze and the case collapsed (with the star prosecution witness dead, the remaining evidence wasn’t nearly enough to take to trial).

Murphy’s time at The Maze was equally eventful. Back among other Loyalist paramilitaries he displayed willful, abrasive and confrontational behavior that caused resentment among other Loyalist inmates. That discontent (and his already fearsome reputation) caused many to view him as a problem but also as too dangerous to confront openly. The UVF’s grip on Murphy began to slip even further, giving him an even freer hand. Violent confrontations with other Loyalists, some of whom were far senior to him in the Loyalist hierarchy, further marked him as dangerously reckless and, on his release, even many extremists kept a wary distance from both Murphy and the tightly-knit clique he gathered after his release in May 1975.

Murphy’s Inner Circle

There were three men who were especially keen to follow his lead, marking them out from other Butchers who tended to participate in some murders but not others. William Moore, Sam McAllister and a fellow Crumlin Road inmate, Robert “The Basher” Bates, formed Murphy’s inner circle. They provided weapons, vehicles and extra muscle once victims had been chosen. McAllister and Bates were mainly there for their violence, while Moore supplied the black taxi used in some of the murders, a set of butcher knives and a meat cleaver stolen from his former workplace and often firearms as well. William Moore was perhaps Murphy’s most obedient follower and ever-present in the Butchers’ career.

Murphy was married while in jail and the couple had a baby daughter. With his domestic affairs settled down (as much as they ever would be) it was time for Murphy to stop killing alone and begin leading the Butchers as a unit. The Butchers’ first collective crime was also one of their most destructive, involving an armed robbery at Casey’s Bottling Plant, a local liquor wholesaler. Paramilitaries on both sides often supplemented their income with crimes such as drug dealing, extortion and robberies and the Butchers were no exception. Casey’s was a lucrative target. It would also be the scene of a quadruple murder committed, not out of necessity, but on sectarian grounds. Once Murphy and his accomplices forced their way into the plant and detained the four staff present, Murphy discovered that they were all Catholics. His response was to simply execute them all.

Marie McGrattan, Frances Donnelly, Gerard Grogan and Thomas Osbourne paid with their lives for the crime of following a different religion. Only weeks later, in late November 1975, Catholic Francis Crossen was found dead, severely beaten and with his throat cut, in a Shankill alleyway. Five days later it was UVF member Noel Shaw, shot dead in an internal UVF feud. In January 1976 Catholic Edward McQuaid was murdered in a drive-by shooting and in February another Catholic, Thomas Quinn, was found stabbed to death in the Shankill. Archibald Hanna and Raymond Carlisle were both Protestants but, the Butchers having mistaken them for Catholics, they were promptly shot dead while they sat in their delivery truck only three days after the discovery of Thomas Quinn. Two weeks after they were killed, Catholic Francis Rice was found stabbed to death in a doorway.

Murphy Orders Killings from Prison

Then the Butchers took what was, by their standards, a long hiatus. In March of 1976 Murphy attempted the drive-by shooting of a Catholic woman. He was arrested later the same day and jailed to await trial for attempted murder. After many months on remand (and without a killing attributed to the Butchers) he made a plea bargain in October, 1977 and received a 12 year jail sentence. Shortly after his arrest he received visits from two men still identified for legal reasons only as “Mr. A” and “Mr. B.” Through “Mr. A” Murphy ordered that the killings should continue, partly due to his own desire to kill and partly to divert suspicion for the previous murders away from himself. “Mr. A” and “Mr. B” now became Murphy’s representatives, passing his orders to the rest of the gang.  Such was Murphy’s dominance over his followers that only months after his sentencing the killings restarted.

After Francis Rice’s murder it wasn’t until August of 1976 that another victim was found. Cornelius Neeson was discovered lying on a Shankill street corner having been beaten to death with a hatchet. At the end of October, 1976 Catholic Stephen McCann was discovered, stabbed and shot to death, not far from where Thomas Quinn had been found. Only five days before Christmas of 1976 a 22-year old Protestant, Thomas Easton, was found beaten to death near the sites of the Quinn and McCann murders.

The new year began with a short break for the Butchers, followed by another murder. On January 31 Loyalist paramilitary James Moorehead, a member of the rival Ulster Defence Association (UDA), was found lying on a Shankill pavement having been beaten to death. Moorehead’s death was the result of a personal dispute rather than for paramilitary reasons. He had fallen foul of the Butchers and paid the usual price. On February 3 (again within walking distance of where Quinn, McCann and Easton had been murdered) another Catholic, Joseph Morrissey, was found hacked to death with a hatchet. Late in March of 1977, Francis Cassidy (another Catholic) was found stabbed and shot to death lying on a grassy knoll in the Shankill.

Kevin McMenamin was perhaps the most tragic victim of the Butchers and also by far the youngest. He was only 7 years old when a Loyalist bomb planted by one of the Butchers exploded outside a known Republican club during a parade marking the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The Butchers hadn’t targeted him directly, but the bomb they planted killed him just the same.

Gerard McLaverty (yet another Catholic) was a true rarity among the Butchers’ victims in that he was their only victim to survive an attack. He was found in an alleyway having been slashed, stabbed and beaten. After emergency medical treatment he survived and was driven round the Shankill district by RUC detectives who’d been working to catch the Butchers for several years, albeit with a conspicuous lack of success. McLaverty was actually able to identify the men who had attacked him, spotting them from the car as armed detectives drove him round the Shankill district. McLaverty was the last known victim of the Shankill Butchers until 1982 by which time many of the Butchers were behind bars.

Many were behind bars, but not all. Murphy served only six years of his 12-year sentence on firearms charges, but his influence was still ever-present around the Shankill. While he was in jail, murders attributed to the Butchers ceased for several years but didn’t end with the failed attack on Gerald McLaverty.

One of Murphy’s reasons for often attending trials as a young man was to know his enemy. By accumulating first-hand knowledge of police procedures, criminal law and the workings of the Northern Ireland court system, Murphy had evolved a number of ways to hamper police investigations. Their known links to paramilitary groups inspired fear of retribution. The culture among many living in Northern Ireland was to avoid informing in general, owing to either a distrust or hatred of the police or out of a simple desire to avoid being maimed or murdered. Fear is a very powerful weapon when used wisely and the Shankill Butchers used it to great effect. It was to further confuse the police and aid his own chances of escaping prosecution that Murphy ordered his followers to restart the killings a few years later. He knew that while he was in jail he was less feared (making the chance of somebody informing the police that little bit greater) and he also wanted to lay the groundwork for denying any involvement because the killings continued even after he had been jailed on unrelated charges. 

The Downfall of the Butchers

The Butchers’ downfall finally began with their failed attack on Gerald McLaverty. Having left McLaverty for dead the remaining Butchers seem to have been perfectly confident in their security, confident enough to strut around the Shankill in broad daylight without seeming overly concerned about being caught. Their arrogant carelessness gave McLaverty the chance to identify his attackers and gave the police (perpetually meeting a wall of silence) the breakthrough they so desperately needed. With McLaverty’s attackers firmly identified, chief investigating officer Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt was able to order a series of dawn raids and picked up Sam McAllister, his accomplice in the McLaverty attack (and peripheral gang member named Edwards) and their known associates. With a solid witness who was prepared to talk, Nesbitt knew that there was always a chance that a suspect would either talk to save himself or let slip some vital information accidentally. DCI Nesbitt was proved right.

Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbit

McAllister slipped up during questioning, originally admitting only his role in the McLaverty attack. Unfortunately for him, McAllister let slip that he knew far more than he should about the type of knife used on McLaverty which was very similar to that used on a number of the Butchers’ other victims. Nesbitt pressed the point, pushed every suspect he questioned and eventually many of the Butchers and their associates finally admitted their respective roles in the gang. The prime mover in all the violence was overwhelmingly named as Lenny Murphy. Many Butchers directly implicated him and his two still-unidentified associates (“Mr. A” and “Mr. B”) in both the “cut-throat murders” and various other paramilitary crimes. However, they later retracted their stories after, it is claimed by some, intimidation from the senior members of the UVF. Lenny Murphy (still serving his firearms sentence), “Mr. A” and “Mr. B” were all questioned several times regarding the Butchers’ inquiry but prosecutors (lacking either corroborative witnesses or forensic evidence against these three suspects in particular) decided that none of them would face charges.

The other Butchers were tried during 1978 and on into early 1979. In February 1979 11 men stood convicted of a total of 19 murders and various related offences (not including the murders attributed to the Butchers, but lacking final confirmation). In addition to being the most prolific group of serial killers in British legal history the Butchers also collected the longest combined prison sentences of any criminal gang in British legal history. Describing their crimes as “A lasting monument to sectarian bigotry” Lord Justice O’Donnel handed down 42 life sentences totaling over 2,000 years among them. He also had no hesitation in stating that, in his opinion, those sentences should carry a “full-life tariff,” meaning life without the possibility of parole.

Even though it was curtains for the gang, it wasn’t over for Lenny Murphy. He’d managed to avoid even being prosecuted after principal witnesses were allegedly intimidated into recanting their evidence, leaving the prosecution with nowhere near enough to take him to trial. This didn’t stop him killing for pleasure as soon as he was released. In July, 1982 it was the turn of a Protestant, 33-year-old Norman Maxwell, who suffered from a learning disability. He was a quiet, inoffensive man wouldn’t have been able to spot the attack coming or defend himself when it came. In the end he did neither. He was found on a patch of waste ground in the Shankill, beaten to death, only one day after Murphy’s release. In early September a Protestant, James Galway, disappeared. The UVF suspected Galway of being a police informer, what Northern Irish people call a “tout.” In Northern Ireland even being suspected of “touting” was enough to make him a marked man. After being abducted and shot dead, Galway’s body was eventually found crudely buried in a shallow grave on a local building site.

The penultimate victim was another UVF member, Brian Smyth, one week after the murder of James Galway. Smyth was another fellow paramilitary who had made the mistake of crossing Murphy by not paying a debt. Smyth did pay the penalty. He was drinking in a Loyalist club when his drink was spiked with a lethal dose of cyanide. Staggering out of the club and presumably realizing he was already in grave danger, Smyth was promptly shot dead by a passenger on a passing motorcycle. Murphy killed Brian Smyth over a fairly small debt that could easily have been resolved without bloodshed.

The Butchers’ final confirmed victim was, true to their particular preference, yet another Catholic. Joseph Donegan was passing through the Shankill when he hailed the wrong black taxi. As soon as he boarded the cab Donegan was attacked and murdered. He was found dead in a doorway like many previous victims, having been viciously beaten to death.

Murphy Gunned Down by the Provisional IRA

What goes around, comes around. Murphy had been born into a climate of violence, had inflicted terrible violence of his own and, some might say appropriately, he died violently as well. It was Tuesday, November 16, 1982. Murphy had been followed into the Glencairn estate (in the heart of the staunchly Loyalist Shankill district). He was standing outside his new girlfriend’s house when a van pulled up and out jumped two masked, armed members of the Provisional IRA. Murphy was hit by over 20 bullets, dying instantly. Speculation over who ordered the killing was rife for several days afterward, until the IRA issued a statement openly claiming responsibility. By contrast with Murphy’s indiscriminate butchery, the IRA statement reiterated its policy of “non-sectarian attacks” that were not based purely on religious prejudice. The fact that Murphy was deeply unpopular with some leading Loyalists, his (Republican) killers did the job in the heart of the Shankill and that his killers seemed to know his movements very well has led to suggestions that the Loyalist leadership colluded with the IRA to arrange his murder. The Republicans sought revenge for Murphy’s anti-Catholic atrocities, many Loyalists wanted a man often regarded as a “mad dog” put to sleep permanently. This might explain why IRA gunmen found it so easy not only to track Murphy’s movements, but to enter the heart of the Shankill, murder a well-known Loyalist heavyweight and still escape unscathed.

A popular suspect for arranging Murphy’s death is senior UDA figure Jim Craig. Craig had clashed with Murphy following Murphy’s release and there was no love lost between them. Supporting this theory (unconfirmed though it still is) is the fact that Craig was himself murdered by UDA members for what they considered “treason,” specifically allegations that Craig arranged for several rival UDA leaders to be murdered by the Provisional IRA.  A simpler theory suggests that Murphy was a man who had made many enemies and that one of them finally caught up with him.

Lenny Murphy was buried with full paramilitary “honors” at Carnmoney Cemetery (ironically, home to several of his victims) in late November, 1982. His gravestone bears the phrase “Here lies a soldier.” That gravestone has since been smashed and had to be replaced.

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