Court told Stephen McCullagh planned Natalie McNally murder after finding WhatsApps from ex

Stephen McCullagh is accused of the murder of Natalie McCullagh
Stephen McCullagh is accused of murdering expectant mother Natalie McNally

The partner of Natalie McNally allegedly planned and carried out her murder after discovering communication with an ex-boyfriend, the High Court heard today.

Prosecutors claimed Stephen McCullagh killed the 32-year-old, who was 15 weeks pregnant with his child, in a “cold and clinical” plot which involved staging an online gaming stream to manufacture an alibi.

He also left brazen and taunting hidden messages about her death in the bogus session, it was contended.

Natalie McNally was 15 weeks pregnant when she was murder in December 2022

Ms McNally was stabbed and beaten to death at her Silverwood Green home in Lurgan, Co Armagh on December 18 last year.

McCullagh, 33, of Woodland Gardens in Lisburn, Co Antrim, was refused bail on a charge of carrying out her murder.

The accused, who has more than 35,000 subscribers to his own YouTube channel, appeared remotely from HMP Maghabbery as relatives of the victim packed the courtroom for his failed bid to be released from custody.

Crown counsel Natalie Pinkerton said McCullagh faces a circumstantial case which includes CCTV evidence of a bus trip to Lurgan by the suspected killer and an account from a taxi driver.

Detectives believe they can trace him from the murder scene back to his home in Lisburn.

Natalie McNally's brothers leave court Credit: Press Eye

The court heard that three days before she died, Ms McNally had exchanged 33 WhatsApp messages with an ex-boyfriend.

Those messages were part of the suspected “catalyst” for her killing, it was contended.

Ms Pinkerton claimed that on the night before the victim died her device was unlocked nine times.

“It is inferred that it was the applicant who accessed Ms McNally’s phone and viewed the information within,” the barrister submitted.

“The prosecution suggests that these communications on Ms McNally’s phone do provide a motive.”

McCullagh was arrested but initially ruled out as a suspect because he appeared to have been playing the video games Grand Theft Auto and Robot Wars in a six-hour livestream on the night of the murder.

Natalie McNally's parents at court Credit: Press Eye

In the footage McCullagh was said to have told viewers he could not interact with them live due to technical issues.

Examination of his devices by cyber experts then established the footage was pre-recorded days earlier and played out as if it was live.

On that day he advertised what he called the ‘Violent Night Christmas Live Gaming Stream’, the court heard, and texted the victim asking her to wish him luck.

“Ms McNally did just that, replying ‘I might have a peek at your live stream later’,” counsel said.

“This stream was a lie. It was not live, it was pre-recorded by the applicant to specifically play between 6pm and midnight on December 18.

“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 describes this as an elaborate hoax to establish an alibi at the time Ms McNally was murdered.

“That time could only be known by the person who committed this crime.”

McCullagh, who denies involvement in Ms McNally's murder, claimed that at the time of the killing he was drinking on his own in his house and fell asleep.

Even though the accused was said to be the first person to discover the victim’s body, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan was told he refused to cooperate with police as a witness following his initial arrest.

“Is it reasonable, if the applicant is to be believed his partner and child have died in this attack and because he was arrested and released unconditionally he did not help investigators in any way, providing them any of the information whatsoever,” Ms Pinkerton asked.

Dame Siobhan agreed: “Would you not want to know who committed the murder?”

During the hearing it also emerged during the hearing that the pre-recorded video was deleted from McCullagh’s computer just five minutes after the purported live broadcast finished.

“It is notable that Mr McCullagh decided to fake stream a video he specifically named ‘Violent Night’ on what was ultimately an extremely violent night,” prosecution counsel submitted.

Ms Pinkerton highlighted a “side mission” within the violent Grand Theft Auto game involved the player murdering a woman by hitting her with a car and making it look like an accident.

Disputing defence suggestions that it was a tragic coincidence, she contended: “It is the very detail contained in this recording that illustrates the cold and clinical way in which the prosecution say Mr McCullagh planned this crime.”

“The detail of this video is chilling.”

With McCullagh having allegedly promised Ms McNally he would also stay off alcohol due to her pregnancy, at the start of the stream he stated that he was going to have a drink, adding that it would be more fun to get ‘****faced’.

He then made repeated references to the time, being at home and broadcasting live but unable to interact with any viewers because his computer was so old, the court heard.

Dame Siobhan was told police have established that Ms McNally was murdered sometime between 8.52pm and 9.31pm, with neighbours hearing a scream at around 9pm.

It was claimed that McCullagh needlessly chose to play the side mission at that specific time.

“When Ms McNally’s killer was in her home, the applicant says in the video ‘I need to kill this b****, I need to take her down’,” the prosecutor said.

“He fails the mission the first time, but chooses to do it again, saying ‘f***, I will try that mission again because I almost had the f*****’.”

Ms Pinkerton insisted: “Given the nuanced planning of this offence, the cunning and calculated nature of the evidence, it is entirely deliberate.

“Within that relevant time McCullagh says ‘that’s physics, that what would happen in the real world’, he pauses and says ‘Absof***Natalie’ with a smirk.

“He then says ‘in a world of cockroaches be a spider’.

“Only the applicant can know what the final part of that means, but the prosecution suggests mentioning Ms McNally’s name is the applicant brazenly taunting and leaving hidden messages behind.”

At one point in the broadcast McCullagh stated ‘Pay attention 007’ and then took a break in the broadcast.

Ms Pinkerton said: “In this break only, during the time the killer is in Ms McNaslly’s home, the screen is replaced momentarily with a promotional photo for a James Bond film with the words ‘No Time To Die’.

“When the applicant returns from his break he tells viewers he’s made a terrible error and for some reason the photo came up unintentionally.

“As this is pre-recorded, the prosecution say this could only have been placed there intentionally.

“He knew it was there, kept it and played it on December 18.”

It was revealed in court that McCullagh requested and was permitted to spend time alone with Ms McNally’s body, prior to her funeral, on Christmas night.

“He spent roughly 20 minutes with her undisturbed. What he was doing is unknown,” Ms Pinkerton added.

“But on that night and multiple other occasions he offered up his fake alibi to the family and told them he had been live streaming on December 18.”

On a separate occasion he allegedly recorded grieving conversations between grieving members of the victim’s family without their knowledge by leaving his phone behind at their home.

“This was deliberate, in an effort to see whether the family suspected him at that point in time,” Ms Pinkerton claimed.

Opposing bail , she also suggested McCullagh would himself be at risk if released.

“This crime transcends gender, age, race and religion, but there is strong public feeling at present with regards to this applicant.”

Although McCullagh is being held within a segregated unit, Defence barrister Craig Patton said he mixes with other prisoners and has faced no threat.

Mr Patton argued that his client had provided an explanation for why he pre-recorded the video as a “failsafe” for viewers more attracted to live content.

Referring to the CCTV evidence, he submitted that any alleged connection to McCullagh was “minimal at best”.

“The applicant has put forward his version (of events)... and given an explanation,” Mr Patton added.

Denying bail, however, Dame Siobhan cited the risk of interference with the course of justice.

She also emphasised: “The case is framed by very tragic circumstances - the death of a young woman and her unborn child - but this is not a court of trial.”

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