A Northern Ireland man was acquitted Friday on charges he helped to kidnap, imprison and murder an undercover British soldier who was abducted from a border pub in 1977.
The killing of Capt. Robert Nairac, who tried to pass himself off as an Irish Republican Army man during intelligence-gathering missions, remains one of the great mysteries of the Northern Ireland conflict. Six IRA men served prison sentences for Nairac's killing, but his body has never been found.
Three years ago, police swooped on the border home of Kevin Crilly. He had told a BBC Northern Ireland documentary team investigating the Nairac killing that he drove an IRA gunman to the scene of Nairac's execution.
Crilly, 60, fled to the U.S. after the Nairac killing and lived under a different name, Declan Power, but returned to Northern Ireland after the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998. The landmark pact offered convicted members of the IRA and other truce-observing groups the right to quick paroles.
He was initially charged with Nairac's kidnap and false imprisonment, but prosecutors in 2009 added a charge of murder. Prosecutors based their case chiefly on Crilly's admissions to the BBC and to a clump of bloodied hair that police had retrieved from a Crilly family car in 1977. Police, who matched the hair to other hair found in Nairac's army residence, said it had been ripped from Nairac's scalp during a struggle.
But in his verdict Friday, Belfast Justice Richard McLaughlin ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that Crilly knew Nairac was going to be killed, nor that the clump of approximately 650 hairs found in the car was definitely from Nairac's head. He said prosecutors even had failed to show that the car containing the hair was used by Crilly on the night of the killing.
McLaughlin said Crilly's comments to the BBC "prove he was involved to some degree in the events surrounding the death of Captain Nairac." However, he said, Crilly's admission that he drove the IRA gunman responsible for killing Nairac into a forest where other IRA members were interrogating the soldier did not prove his "knowing participation in a potential murder."
Even had Crilly been convicted of any of the five counts against him, the prison-amnesty element of the Good Friday deal would have allowed him to apply for almost immediate release.
On the night of May 14, 1977, an IRA gang abducted Nairac from a pub in the outlaws' border stronghold of South Armagh, a close-knit rural society dubbed "bandit country."
The Oxford University-educated Catholic had learned Gaelic-language IRA drinking songs and a rough Belfast accent, and deployed both in his pub-crawling surveillance operations. But his cover didn't work at the Three Steps Inn. IRA men pulled him outside, beat him up and bundled him away in a car _ Crilly's, according to police and prosecutors. Crilly denied this.
Nairac posthumously won the George Cross, Britain's highest civilian award for bravery. His 1979 citation credited him with exceptional toughness and courage for trying repeatedly to escape, and for refusing to reveal anything to his executioners.
The IRA killed more than 700 British soldiers during its failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Nairac was the only one whose remains were never recovered. The IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.