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Killer soldier jailed for life over Shropshire barracks murder

North Shropshire | News | Published:

  A soldier is today starting a life prison sentence after being convicted of murdering a comrade at their Shropshire barracks.

Lance Corporal Richard Farrell was yesterday found guilty of the murder of 32-year-old Corporal Geoffrey McNeill at Clive Barracks, Tern Hill, on March 8.

Dublin-born Farrell, 23, had his head in his hands and wept as he was sentenced.

  • See also: Family plea to remember Shropshire barracks murder victim

Judge Melbourne Inman QC at Birmingham Crown Court, told him: "Richard Farrell, you have been convicted by the jury of the murder of Geoffrey McNeill. He was a corporal in the Royal Irish Regiment of which you were a fellow member. He was obviously a hugely well liked and respected soldier.

"He had served in his regiment on active service and was loved and trusted comrade."

Tern Hill Barracks, where the body of Corporal Geoffrey McNeill, inset, was found

Judge Inman said he was sending Farrell to prison for life.

Farrell must serve at least 15 years before he will be considered for release.

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The jury of four men and seven women convicted Farrell by a majority of 10 to one after a fifth day of deliberations.

Throughout the five-week trial the court heard Farrell had "brutally" attacked and killed Cpl McNeill, from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in his room after returning to the barracks after a night of heavy drinking in Market Drayton.

MoD spokeswoman Sharna Roberts said the Army will review the case to identify whether further lessons can be learned, in line with normal procedures.

"Our thoughts remain with Cpl McNeill's family and friends at this distressing time," she added.

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Tragic end to night

It was a night on the town that ended in tragedy.

A group of soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment, based at Clive Barracks, Tern Hill, were out drinking and having a good time in pubs in Market Drayton, before finishing in the Sandbrook Vaults in the early hours of March 8.

Lance Corporal Richard Farrell had been celebrating being one exercise away from passing his corporal training, while Corporal Geoffrey McNeill was out with some of his friends and colleagues.

Before the night of March 7, Farrell and Cpl McNeill had known each only professionally.

But that fateful night ended with Farrell murdering Cpl McNeill in his room at the barracks.

Clive Barracks, home of the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, where the murder took place in the early hours of March 8

At about 2.25am, after the pair had been talking in the pub, Cpl McNeill punched Farrell, 23, in the face after he had been mouthing off.

Farrell was led out of the pub by the landlord and neither of them was seen together again.

At about 3am both men were captured on CCTV arriving back at Clive Barracks separately within minutes of each other.

There were no further sightings of Farrell until he was woken at 6.30am in the guard house of the barracks, and no sightings of Cpl McNeill from 3.45am until his body was found by Farrell at about 9.30am on the floor in his room.

Farrell tried to administer CPR but Cpl McNeill could not be revived.

Farrell was arrested by police and has always said he has no memory of what happened.

Cpl McNeill died after suffering heavy blows to the face and stomach but the main cause of his death was pressure to the neck, where three vertebrae were broken.

It was an attack the prosecution described as "brutal" when Farrell was tried at Birmingham Crown Court charged with murder.

The 23-year-old maintained his innocence during his four-and-a-half week trial – but he was yesterday found guilty by a majority verdict after the jury spent 19 hours considering the evidence before them.

Throughout the trial the jury heard about the punch in the Sandbrook Vaults, what happened when Cpl McNeill's body was found, and all of the statements given to police.

Soldiers from the regiment, locals in Market Drayton, police, medical staff, pathologists and Farrell himself all gave evidence.

Farrell has repeatedly insisted he could not remember what happened on the night.

But sentencing Farrell to life in prison, with a minimum 15 years before he will be considered for release, Judge Melbourne Inman QC said: "After your return to camp at 3am there is no evidence of your precise movements until you were seen on the floor of the guardhouse at 6.30am.

"You maintained throughout the trial that you had no recollection of what you had done during those three-and-a-half hours. Whether that is true only you know."

The next morning after washing his clothes, which bore traces of McNeill's blood, Farrell said he searched for Cpl McNeill at about 9am to apologise for his behaviour the night before.

He searched for where Cpl McNeill lived after asking if soldiers knew where "McNasty" was.

He found Cpl McNeill dead on his room floor.

Farrell said he used CPR to try to resuscitate him, as well as pinching his eye and grabbing his testicles to try to test if he was conscious.

Cpl McNeill suffered serious injuries to the head, stomach and testicles as well as broken bones in his neck.

A pathologist said Cpl McNeill had nearly 80 visible injuries on his body.

Judge Inman said: "You attacked Mr McNeill in his own room. He had undressed for bed and would no doubt have soon gone to sleep.

"It was not his home but he was entitled to feel safe in it."

Judge Inman said the main cause of death was pressure to the neck.

He said: "You killed him by sustained pressure to his neck with either a ligature of some type, or manually by some form of arm hold.

"The sustained pressure caused severe injury to the neck which caused death."

He said the pressure was likely to be sustained for 15 to 30 seconds.

"You deliberately sought out Mr McNeill and you attacked him within his room within the barracks.

"As to your intention, I am satisfied that at the time you killed McNeill you intended to kill him."

He said the attack was premeditated, but the punch by Cpl McNeill was no excuse for the violence used by Farrell.

Farrell has always denied murder, saying he would "have that feeling" if he had.

DNA evidence included Cpl McNeill's blood on Farrell's shoes, and Farrell's DNA on various parts of his victim's body.

Judge Inman said there was no innocent explanation for these scientific findings.

The murder sent shockwaves around the regiment's headquarters.

Lieutenant Colonel Ivor Gardiner, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, said: "It is always sad when we lose one of our own but it is particularly tragic in these circumstances."

People in Market Drayton were also left stunned by the news. Councillor Tim Beckett, the town's mayor, said: "The community was quite shaken up.

"A lot of the town has direct links with the Army so things like this do have some impact.

"But the town still has a strong bond/link with them.

"Evidence of that was the World War I commemoration event we held. I was involved with some of the local people to help organise the Army race in September.

"We are also going over plans for Remembrance Day, so yes the bond is still as strong as ever."

Sharna Roberts, MoD spokeswoman, said: "Our thoughts remain with Cpl McNeill's family and friends at this distressing time. It would be inappropriate to comment further on the trial, other than to say that we respect the decision of the court.

"In line with normal procedures, the Army will review the case to identify whether further lessons can be learned. All those who are found to fall short of the Army's high standards or who are found to have committed an offence under the Armed Forces Act are dealt with administratively – up to and including discharge – or through the discipline process, as appropriate."

Following his death, Cpl McNeill was described as a dedicated solder who served his country well, and was praised for his professionalism. Family, friends and colleagues of Cpl McNeill attended his funeral in his hometown of Portrush, Northern Ireland, on May 1.

He was given a guard of honour and buried with full military honours.

Born in Ballymoney, Cpl McNeill grew up in Coleraine where he attended Coleraine Secondary Boys' School before joining the Army. He enlisted in November 2000 before joining the Royal Irish Regiment the following year.

He was involved in a number of overseas exercises with the battalion that took him to Spain, Canada and Kenya.

He served in Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2004 before taking part in Operation Talic with Britain's armed forces in Iraq followed by a spell in Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick 13.

Farrell was originally raised in Dublin and left school at 18.

He only had one intention – to enter the Army as generations of his family had done before him, some serving in the Royal Irish Regiment.

Farrell did his basic training in 2009 and joined the regiment in October of that year.

He had served in Afghanistan and had also joined the regiment in Kenya and the Falklands.

He had been working towards becoming a corporal, and was due to pass his final exercise to achieve this just days after the murder took place.

He was in fact out drinking on March 7 in Market Drayton because he was celebrating finishing a lot of the classroom work.

On the early hours of March 9 he was due to take part in the Junior Brecon Course which would have added the weight to his promotion bid to become a full corporal.

Friend's suicide never investigated

One of the soldiers out drinking in Market Drayton on the night of Corporal Geoffrey McNeill's murder later committed suicide and it was never investigated, the trial heard.

Corporal Gordon Cronin was a friend of Cpl McNeill's and was drinking in the Sandbrook Vaults hours before Cpl McNeill was found dead at Clive Barracks. Cpl Cronin committed suicide on June 5 while on leave at home in County Cork.

But in a suicide note to his family, he said he had not remembered anything from the night of Cpl McNeill's death after drinking some shots in the pub. In the note he said he had been trying to remember anything but could not – he did not know how he had gotten back to the barracks and his bedroom door was open.

In his letter Cpl Cronin had said his lack of memory had "done his head in". He said he had gone to Cpl McNeill's funeral but that his lack of memory had "started to eat away at me".

The contents of the note were presented to the jury during the murder trial as part of the defence's case.

The Sandbrook Vaults in Market Drayton

Stephen Linehan QC told a jury he was not there to prosecute a man not in court but said it was his duty to raise concerns.

He said: "Gordon Cronin has never been investigated, because from the moment this man (Farrell) was arrested everything had been done to prove his case."

He said that Cpl Cronin had recounted his memory to police and only later did he say he did not remember anything.

"He hid what he thought might have happened that night," said Mr Linehan.

During his trial Farrell admitted he did not know his whereabouts after arriving back in the camp in the early hours of March 8 and could not account for where he was – with no witness ever coming forward to say they have seen him.

Farrell had been drinking heavily, which he cited as the reason for his lack of memory.

When being questioned during the trial, Farrell said: "I would have a feeling. You don't take a person's life everyday. I would know if I had."

Farrell also denied he was in Cpl McNeill's room that night and said he did not know how Cpl McNeill's blood got onto his T-shirt.

The prosecution directly asked why various parts of Farrell's DNA were on Cpl McNeill's body, and whether he touched certain parts during the CPR. "I can't remember every single thing I touched," said Farrell. "I'm sure there are parts of my DNA on his body that weren't injured."

Murder has caused a divide among soldiers

Since Corporal Geoffrey McNeill was murdered earlier this year a divide has been caused between soldiers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at Clive Barracks.

The camp at Tern Hill, near Market Drayton, is home to the Royal Irish Regiment, where soldiers from all over Ireland are put together to fight in the British Army.

The split among soldiers following Cpl McNeill's death was revealed by defence solicitors during the trial into his murder.

Cpl McNeill was originally from Colraine in the north of the country, and the man found guilty of his murder, Lance Corporal Richard Farrell, 23, is from the Republic's capital Dublin.

During the trial Stephen Linehan QC, for Farrell, told the jury how a division had been caused in the camp, which was bombed by the IRA in February 1989, since the murder took place.

He alleged that since Farrell was arrested and charged with murdering 32-year-old Cpl McNeill on March 8, the harmony in the camp had been disrupted.

The Clive Barracks in Tern Hill

Mr Linehan told the court that on July 11, the day before the anniversary of the July 12 celebrations in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant soldiers had been singing and parading in the barracks, some clad in balaclavas.

One group was singing the Protestant marching song "The Sash", and the other singing the Irish folk song "Fields of Athenry" and there were flutes and drums on the scene. Mr Linehan said this had never happened before.

Corporal Robin McDowell gave evidence during the trial and admitted this had happened, although he dismissed there was a split and said it was "banter" and said that there was nothing in it with connection to the death of Cpl McNeill.

Mr Linehan said: "After Richard Farrell was arrested and charged it has caused damage and division."

Although it can trace its origins back to 1688, the Royal Irish Regiment formed in 1992 when the Royal Irish Rangers was merged with the Ulster Defence Regiment.

This year, the 1st Battalion, based at Tern Hill, near Market Drayton, took delivery of five new types of light-armoured vehicles after officially changing from an air to a ground assault focused organisation.

It has mainly roped or dropped into action from helicopters, but it has officially changed its designation to a light-armoured vehicle based group.

The regiment recruits from all sections of the Northern Irish community on both sides of the sectarian divide.

In September 2008 the battalion completed a tour in Afghanistan and it became the first unit in the Army to receive three Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses in a single operation.

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