(by Anne Cadwallader in Belfast and TL Thousand in Los Angeles, Ireland on Sunday)
Campaigners for an independent inquiry into the murder of Rosemary Nelson have called on the US Congress to inquire into the bizarre arrest, and subsequent dropping of firearms and explosives charges, against a Portadown loyalist detained in California.________________
Convicted LVF man, Jim Fulton, 31, was arrested in California on December 16th last year, along with his wife and three others, and is still in jail on remand facing drugs charges. Reduction of bail was denied a court application this week.
The case is raising so many questions that it was the subject of a question at this week's official State Department briefing for journalists at the White House in Washington. According to a transcript of the press conference one journalist asked "What do you know about the arrest last month of a man in Southern California who is suspected of having planted a car bomb that killed Rosemary Nelson in Northern Ireland?".
The terse answer from spokesman James Rubin was "Yeah, that sounds to me like a domestic law enforcement matter, and I would refer you to the law enforcement agencies". The Assistant chief constable of Norfolk Constabulary, Colin Port, who's heading the investigation into Nelson's murder in last year's March 15th car bombing, however, told Ireland on Sunday last week that he was aware of the arrest, but had no plans to interview Fulton.
Fulton is a brother of LVF leader, Mark Fulton, currently serving a jail sentence in the North on gun possession charges. Jim Fulton has over ten previous convictions himself and served nearly three years, from 1992, for possession of items for terrorist purposes. The other adults arrested are his wife, Tanya, two US-born brothers whose mother is a prominent loyalist from Portadown, and a second woman from Las Vegas. The Fultons' two young children, who were taken into protective care after their parents were arrested, have been returned to Portadown.
Tanya Fulton, 29, is charged with "discharge of a gun in a grossly negligent manner", possession of concentrated cannabis and possession for sale. Her arraignment on the firearms charge is fixed for tomorrow while all five defendants are due back in court on Wednesday to face the drugs charges. Richard Harvey, a New York-based lawyer, of the Rosemary Nelson Campaign is asking how Fulton allegedly came to be in possession of an arsenal of weapons, including explosives, and why all charges, except possession of drugs, were dramatically dropped this week.
He is also asking how Fulton got entry into the US and why he is allowed to remain on in contravention of immigration law. The arrests took place at a house in Murrieta, Riverside County, south east of Los Angeles.
It's understood the explosives and weapons charges were dropped against the wishes of the local district attorney, who was controversially over-ruled. The district attorney and arresting officer were only informed about Fulton's loyalist connections when phoned by this newspaper ten days ago.
Police reported finding a number of .22 calibre rifles, an M-72 "spent" anti-tank rocket launcher, a six-inch cannon, mounted on a wooden base, two inert pipe bombs, hollowed out hand grenades with some gun powder residue, as well as 5.5 ounces of hashish and a small amount of methamphetamine.
It's understood local law enforcement authorities in the arresting town were notified immediately by the FBI to put major security around Fulton almost immediately after they arrested him, but were not told the reason.
The US press, alerted by reports in Ireland, became aware of the implications of the case this week. One national TV network referred to Fulton and those arrested with him as a "cell of a dangerous, international Irish terrorist organization". This change of his national identity will come as news to Fulton.
Although last week, the Californian arresting officer said he had not been approached by the RUC, police reports from Belfast giving details of prior convictions and other background material on the five people arrested have finally been sent to the US.
Fulton now faces trial in California on drugs charges alone. The likelihood of this proceeding to trial is relatively high as the standard of proof required at the preliminary hearing is low. All charges could, however, be dropped if his defence finds fault with the complex legal position.
Prosecutors need only show "reasonable likelihood" rather than "beyond reasonable doubt" to move the case forward to a trial. About the only chance the case has of being dismissed at this point is if the prosecutors have absolutely no evidence.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Service also has an interest in Fulton. Normally, any violation of immigration laws results in deportation, but only after the US justice system has run its course on whatever charges are being filed.
District attorney branch supervisor, Tim Freer, said that the $100,000 bail being asked for each defendant is higher than the normal $5,000 per defendant in such a drug case, but he declined to say why. Regardless of whether Fulton can make bail, the immigration hold will bar his release, jail officials said.
Workers in Murrieta have recalled the day when shots rang out and they ducked for cover. The shots apparently had been fired from a battered yellow home nearby. Johnny Buckles and Nathan Rouse were stacking bricks with a forklift.
"Two or three shots went off. Then the fourth or fifth went zipping by us a little closer," Buckles said. Rouse said they heard at least a dozen shots. The brickyard employees reported the shots to Murrieta police.
Police officers arrived to find the Fultons and three other adults at the home. Inside police said they found two rifles, expended cartridges, ammunition and a gun on a shelf. Court documents show police also seized a .32-caliber handgun and a black T-shirt stating "Loyalist Volunteers lead the way."
Police said Rebecca Coberly, 33, of Las Vegas, and 29-year-old Tanya Fulton admitted to having fired a handgun out a rear window of the home. Tanya Fulton's lawyer said the shooting erupted after Coberly told his client that it is legal to own firearms in the United States.
"Tanya had never fired a gun, and she was told there was a big open field there and apparently a couple shots were fired out of window," he said. Police arrested Coberly, William and Tanya Fulton, as well as residents Odysseus Landry, 29, and Mahatma Landry, 28, on child-endangerment, drug and weapon charges.
Although all weapons and explosives charges have been dropped, the local "Press-Enterprise" newspaper of Riverside County reported on January 19th that "missile-launchers" were found in the house. It was also reported that four of the five adults at the home appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
A national TV news network reported that "The FBI would have never learned that Fulton was hiding out in Murrieta if Fulton and his friends hadn't attracted the attention of the local police when they fired guns at a kitchen window to celebrate the United States' more lenient gun laws".
"They were trying to show the freedom of owning a firearms in the US and (the fact that) everyone here, practically, had firearms," it quoted one police officer saying. At a press conference after the court hearing, the district attorney's office was accused by one local Irish American journalist of being in league with the RUC.
This was "emphatically" denied by Freer who went on to say there was no "criminal conspiracy" between the district attorney, the RUC or the FBI.
He also denied that initial reports about Fulton's arrest were leaked by anyone from the district attorney's office. Courtroom security has been increased considerably each time Fulton has appeared before a judge.