The Shankill Butchers, an Ulster loyalist gang, undertakes its first “cut-throat killing” on November 25, 1975. Many of the members of the gang are members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that is active between 1975 and 1982 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Shankill Butchers gang is based in the Shankill area and is responsible for the deaths of at least 23 people, most of whom are killed in sectarian attacks. The gang is notorious for kidnapping, torturing and murdering random or suspected Catholic civilians. Each victim is beaten ferociously and has their throat hacked with a butcher knife. Some are also tortured and attacked with a hatchet. The gang also kills six Ulster Protestants over personal disputes, and two other Protestants mistaken for Catholics.
The commander of the Shankill Butchers gang is Lenny Murphy. He is the youngest of three sons of Joyce (née Thompson) and William Murphy from the loyalist Shankill Road area of Belfast. At school he is known as a bully and threatens other boys with a knife or with retribution from his two older brothers. Soon after leaving school at 16, he joins the UVF. He often attends the trials of people accused of paramilitary crimes, to become well acquainted with the laws of evidence and police procedure.
On September 28, 1972, Murphy shoots and kills William Edward “Ted” Pavis at the latter’s home in East Belfast. Pavis is a Protestant whom the UVF say has been selling weapons to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). Murphy and an accomplice, Mervyn Connor, are arrested shortly afterwards and held on remand in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol. After a visit by police to Connor, fellow inmates suspect that he might cut a deal with the authorities with regard to the Pavis killing. On April 22, 1973, Connor dies by ingesting a large dose of cyanide. Before he dies, he writes a confession to the Pavis murder, reportedly under duress from Murphy. Murphy is brought to trial for the Pavis murder in June 1973. The court hears evidence from two witnesses who had seen Murphy pull the trigger and had later picked him out of an identification parade. The jury acquits him due in part to Murphy’s disruption of the line-up. His freedom is short-lived as he is arrested immediately for a number of escape attempts and imprisoned, then interned, for three years.
In May 1975, Murphy is released from prison. He spends much of his time frequenting pubs on the Shankill Road and assembling a paramilitary team that will enable him to act with some freedom at a remove from the UVF leadership (Brigade Staff). His inner circle consists of two “personal friends.” These are a “Mr. A” and John Murphy, one of Lenny’s brothers, referred to as “Mr. B.” Further down the chain of command are his “sergeants,” William Moore and Bobby “Basher” Bates, a UVF man and former prisoner.
Moore, formerly a worker in a meat-processing factory, had stolen several large knives and meat-cleavers from his old workplace, tools that are later used in more murders. Another prominent figure is Sam McAllister, who uses his physical presence to intimidate others. On October 2, 1975, the gang raids a drinks premises in nearby Millfield. On finding that its four employees, two females and two males, are Catholics, Murphy shoots three of them dead and orders an accomplice to kill the fourth. By now Murphy is using the upper floor of the Brown Bear pub, at the corner of Mountjoy Street and the Shankill Road near his home, as an occasional meeting-place for his unit.
On November 25, 1975, using the city’s sectarian geography to identify likely targets, Murphy roams the areas nearest the Catholic New Lodge in the hope of finding someone likely to be Catholic to abduct. Francis Crossen, a 34-year-old Catholic man and father of two, is walking towards the city centre at approximately 12:40 a.m. when four of the Butchers, in Moore’s taxi, spot him. As the taxi pulls alongside Crossen, Murphy jumps out and hits him with a lug wrench to disorient him. He is dragged into the taxi by Benjamin Edwards and Archie Waller, two of Murphy’s gang. As the taxi returns to the safety of the nearby Shankill area, Crossen suffers a ferocious beating. He is subjected to a high level of violence, including a beer glass being shoved into his head. Murphy repeatedly tells Crossen, “I’m going to kill you, you bastard,” before the taxi stops at an entry off Wimbledon Street. Crossen is dragged into an alleyway and Murphy, brandishing a butcher knife, cuts his throat almost through to the spine. The gang disperses. Crossen, whose body is found the following morning by an elderly woman, is the first of three Catholics to be killed by Murphy in this “horrific and brutal manner.” “Slaughter in back alley” is the headline in the city’s major afternoon newspaper that day. A relative of Crossen says that his family was unable to have an open coffin at his wake because the body was so badly mutilated.
Most of the gang are eventually caught and, in February 1979, receive the longest combined prison sentences in United Kingdom legal history. However, gang leader Lenny Murphy and his two chief “lieutenants” escape prosecution. Murphy is murdered in November 1982 by the Provisional IRA, likely acting with loyalist paramilitaries who perceive him as a threat. The Butchers brought a new level of paramilitary violence to a country already hardened by death and destruction. The judge who oversaw the 1979 trial describes their crimes as “a lasting monument to blind sectarian bigotry.”