By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
A man accused of murdering expectant mother Natalie McNally left “hidden messages” about her death in a staged gaming livestream, a barrister has told a court.
Northern Ireland’s Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan denied a bail application from Stephen McCullagh, 33, at the High Court in Belfast.
Ms McNally, 32, who was 15 weeks pregnant with McCullagh’s child, was stabbed at her home in Silverwood Green, Lurgan, on the night of December 18.
McCullagh, 33, from Woodland Gardens, Lisburn, is accused of her murder. He appeared in court via videolink wearing a grey sweatshirt.
A number of members of Ms McNally’s family, including her parents and brothers, were at the Royal Courts of Justice to hear the bail application on Monday.
Setting out her objections to bail, prosecution barrister Natalie Pinkerton said there was a “strong and persuasive” prima facie case against McCullagh.
She objected to bail on the grounds that she believed McCullagh could interfere with the course of justice, that there was a risk of reoffending and a risk of flight.
She said the Crown case against McCullagh was a circumstantial one but added that the “degree of planning and level of sophistication shown along with the premeditation, deceit and efforts to conceal is something that courts in this jurisdiction will rarely have seen”.
An earlier court hearing had been told that McCullagh was a YouTuber and that police believe he faked a videogaming livestream to provide an alibi on the night he is accused killed the expectant mother.
He was originally arrested the day after Ms McNally was killed but released and ruled out as a suspect. He was rearrested on January 31.
Ms Pinkerton told the court that McCullagh and McNally began a relationship in August 2022 and that she was 15 pregnant weeks by December 18.
On the day of her death she had been at her parents’ house watching the World Cup before travelling to her home at Silverwood Green in Lurgan.
She had liked a social media message from McCullagh where he had stated he would be broadcasting a livestream that evening.
Ms Pinkerton said: “Contrary to what Mr McCullagh led Ms McNally and multiple other persons to believe, including the police, he was not sitting at home on his XBox for six hours.
“The prosecution describe this as an elaborate hoax to establish an alibi for the time Ms McNally was murdered.”
The lawyer said CCTV evidence showed a male, whose face was covered, getting a bus that evening from Dunmurry, two miles from McCullagh’s house, to Lurgan.
She said the figure on the CCTV was of a consistent height and weight as McCullagh.
Separate CCTV later showed a male going into Silverwood Green. Ms Pinkerton told the court that at approximately 9pm two neighbours heard Ms McNally scream.
She said that later a male entered a taxi at Carnegie Street in Lurgan and the driver was asked to go to McCullagh’s home.
The barrister said the driver had identified McCullagh as his fare during a Viper identification procedure at the weekend.
She told the court that McCullagh had gone to Ms McNally’s home the following day and alerted the police. She said McCullagh told police at the scene that Ms McNally’s ex-partner had been harassing her.
Ms Pinkerton told the court that a post mortem had shown that the causes of death were compression of the neck, stab wounds to the neck and blunt force injuries to the head. She said a knife had been recovered but the blunt object had not been found.
She then told the court that police had ascertained that Ms McNally had been in contact with a former boyfriend on December 15 and 16.
She said: “The prosecution suggests sexualised contact with this individual and indeed others over a period of time is the catalyst for what occurred to Ms McNally.”
She said that the prosecution believe McCullagh had unlocked Ms McNally’s phone nine times on the night before she was killed, having previously been given her passcode.
She said: “The prosecution suggest that these communications on Ms McNally’s phone do provide a motive.”
The barrister said that when police rearrested McCullagh on January 31 they established that the footage of him playing Grand Theft Auto on the night Ms McNally was killed had not been broadcast live.
She said: “The prosecution does submit that the pre-recorded video was to provide an alibi for the time it took to travel to Ms McNally’s home, commit the murder and return home again.
“The prosecution say it is notable that Mr McCullagh decided to fake stream a video that he specifically named Violent Night on what was an extremely violent night.”
She said during the pre-recorded broadcast McCullagh had taken on a side mission during the game which involved the player murdering a woman and making it look like an accident.
She added that the prosecution believe this is relevant, and said the defence suggestion that it was a tragic coincidence was “remarkable”.
Ms Pinkerton described the content of the six-hour video game stream as “chilling”.
She said: “At approximately three hours into the video, at around 9pm, around when the neighbours heard the scream, Mr McCullagh chose to undertake this side mission. A side mission that he did not have to do.
“When all of this is put together it is simply implausible that it is a coincidence. The prosecution say it is all entirely deliberate.
“It is what is referred to by gamers as an Easter Egg, a hidden message within a game.”
The barrister then said McCullagh used Ms McNally’s first name during the pre-recorded stream.
She said: “Mentioning Ms McNally’s name is the applicant brazenly taunting and leaving hidden messages behind.”
Ms Pinkerton added that during a break in the stream, during when the Crown stated that Ms McNally was being attacked, a photo of James Bond with the title No Time To Die momentarily flashed on the screen.
She further said that after Ms McNally was killed, McCullagh “ingratiated” himself with her family and attended a rally in opposition to violence against women in Lurgan.
She said: “The prosecution say this is the most ruthless breach of trust.
“There is a reasonable suspicion that the applicant compressed Ms McNally’s neck, repeatedly struck her to head and stabbed her to the neck.
“This woman who was his partner and carrying his child. The prosecution say this shows a chilling disregard for human life.”
Defence barrister Craig Patton told the court that the taxi driver who had identified McCullagh, had also accepted that he had seen his image in the media.
Mr Patton added: “The livestream seems to have been the headline grabber.
“To carry it out as the Crown alleges, with comments made at specific times, which they suppose were the times the killer was in Ms McNally’s home, it is just absolutely unfeasible and the applicant would have had to have gone to extraordinary lengths to work out the times.”
The barrister said his client had to pre-record the stream because his computer system was not working properly.
He said it was commonplace for material to be pre-recorded and then broadcast as live. He said there was a distinction between livestreaming and actually performing live.
Mr Patton added: “You still need to be there, you still need to be activating equipment to stream it.”
He said that any connection of his client to the male in the CCTV images was “minimal at best”.
Mr Patton concluded: “He comes before the court with no record, he comes before the court with ties to the community and with his own address. I would ask this court to find he is a suitable candidate for bail.”
Dame Siobhan Keegan refused the bail application.