Two Co Antrim men who admitted murdering a businessman and seriously injuring his wife after ramming their jeep needed to raise money to pay paramilitaries over a drugs debt, a court heard today (Monday).
Nelson Cheung was stabbed 18 times and his wife Winnie sustained wounds to her head and hand in the violent robbery. After the attackers fled, Mrs Cheung was found by the emergency services at the side of the road, covered in blood and cradling her fatally wounded husband.
Belfast Crown Court heard that prior to the murder in the early hours of January 8th, 2015, Mrs Cheung feared she was being followed, and that the killers - Christopher David Menaul (27) and 35-year old Virgilio Augusto Fernando Correia - undertook a ‘dry run’ of the robbery which was captured on CCTV.
The court also heard that in the hours following the killing, there was a botched attempted to order a hot tub using one of Mrs Cheung’s stolen bank cards.
Following Mr Cheung’s murder, his wife Winnie and their children returned to Hong Kong, from where they watched today’s proceedings via Skype.
Crown prosecutor David McDowell QC spoke of the devastating impact Mr Cheung’s murder has had on his family, particularly his widow and their two children.
He handed Victim Impact Statements to the court and said: “They make heart-wrending reading and demonstrate the extreme pain brought to the family by the loss of a much-loved father, husband and brother, who clearly led an industrious and unblemished life prior to his untimely demise.
“He was 64 at the time of the incident and was not a physical match. He was of slight build, he was 64 years old ... and he was unable to defend himself against the vicious attack that befell him.”
As details surrounding the robbery and murder emerged for the first time, the court heard both Menaul and Correia owed money for a drugs debt.
The pair laid in wait for the Cheungs to lock up the Double Value restaurant on Randalstown’s Main Street, and sat in a stolen car which they parked close to the takeaway.
Mrs Cheung left the premises first to get their jeep, and returned a short time later to pick up her husband after he locked up. With Mrs Cheung behind the wheel, as they made their way home to Ballymena in the early hours of January 8th, Mrs Cheung noticed a car driving behind them.
She expressed concerns to her husband as she felt she had been followed in a similar manner in the days and weeks before, and as she drove along the Caddy Road, she slowed down to allow the Seat Toledo travelling behind to pass her.
The Cheung’s jeep was then rammed from behind, which prompted Mr Cheung to get out of his vehicle to speak to the driver of the other car. At this point, Correia got out of the driver’s seat and demanded money from Mr Cheung.
Mrs Cheung said she saw her husband being dragged away by Correia, who struck the Chinese businessman a number of times. Menaul then approached the jeep and pulled Mrs Cheung across the passenger’s seat by her hair.
The court heard that during the violent incident, Mrs Cheung sustained a serious head wound that required staples, whilst an injury to her hand had to be treated initially by stitches but which subsequently resulted in plastic surgery.
Her handbag - containing £200 in cash, bank cards, an iPad, an iPhone and several other items - was taken during the incident. Correia and Menual then fled the scene in a silver golf registered to Correia.
Mr McDowell said that when the duo fled, Mrs Cheung realised her husband was seriously injured and ran to a nearby house for help. As she was covered in blood, the occupants were alarmed by her appearance and wouldn’t let her into their home. They did, however, call the emergency services.
Mrs Cheung also tried to flag down passing traffic, and when the police and ambulance arrived a short time later, they found at the side of the road, covered in blood and on her knees cradling her husband.
An ambulance worker realised Mr Cheung had no pulse, and after attempting CPR, when his hands came away wet, he checked under Mr Cheung’s fleece and realised he had been stabbed multiple times in the neck, chest and upper body. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
A post mortem revealed he had been stabbed 18 times, with wounds inflicted to his jugular, lung and liver.
Following the murder, Menaul and Correia drove to home of Gary and Lisa Thompson, at Cunningham Way in Antrim. The couple, who now live Felden Avenue in Newtownabbey, allowed the killers to use their home for refuge, to remove clothing worn during the incident and to clean themselves.
There was also an online attempt to buy a hot tub using PayPal from that address using one of the stolen bank cards in the hours after the murder.
All four accused initially denied involvement or any offences arising from the robbery and murder. However, forensic evidence against the accused including a pair of boots seized from Correia’s home which bore Mrs Cheung’s blood.
Mr McDowell said Menual “broke rank and pleaded guilty first, which made life extremely difficult for his co-defendants.”
Originally from Barra Street in Antrim but who is now at HMP Maghaberry, Menaul pleaded guilty to murder on the grounds he was a secondary party, was not armed with a knife and didn’t intent to harm or kill anyone. He also admitted wounding Mrs Cheung with intent to do her grievous bodily harm, and stealing her handbag.
Correia, of Portuguese birth and whose address in January 2015 was Grant Avenue in Randalstown, also pleaded guilty to the same three charges. Also with an address as HMP Maghaberry
The court heard that prior to the murder, both Correia - Also with an address as HMP Maghaberray - and Menaul owed drug money to paramilitaries and had been threatened as a result. Correia was also heard talking about Chinese people and how they had lots of money.
Regarding Gary and Lisa Thompson, the couple both admitted a charge of assisting offenders by allowing Correia and Menaul to clean up in their home, and also a charge of perverting the course of justice - namely threatening Virgilio Agusto Fernando Correia so as to discourage him from providing his account of police, on January 12, 2015.
And whilst Gary Thompson (34) admitted a charge of robbing Mrs Cheung of a handbag and its contents, his 35-year old wife Lisa admitted handling the stolen goods.
Defence barrister Gavan Duffy QC, representing Correia, apologised on his client’s behalf, saying Correia “regrets his actions and feels sick and sorry for both victims and their family.”
Mr Duffy spoke of the devastating impact drugs have had upon Correia, pointing out there was nothing on his criminal record that “hints he was a person capable of such violence.”
Revealing Correia was born into poverty in Portugal before emigrating to Northern Ireland in 2004, Mr Duffy said that in the days prior to the murder Correia was “frantically trying to acquire, by whatever means, the financial resources” to pay paramiltaries for the unpaid drugs debt.
At this point, Mr Justice Treacy asked why, if robbery was the motive, had Correia used such force to subdue an older and much smaller Mr Cheung.
Mr Duffy attributed this to a combination of being under the influence of drugs, desperation and the stress of being under threat - which the barrister said resulted in a “devastating over-reaction.”
Christopher Menaul’s barrister Martin O’Rourke QC spoke of the value of his client’s plea and detailed account of events, pointing out it was accepted Menaul was “a secondary party to murder.”
Telling the court Menaul “did not intend the deceased would be killed” or seriously injured, Mr O’Rourke said it was Menaul’s case he did not have a knife or inflict the wounds.
Brian McCartney QC, representing Lisa Thompson, said the mother of two became involved by a combination of features - “misguided loyalty, stupidity and greed.”
Saying she had no role or knowledge of the principle offences, Mr McCartney said she is currently being treated for stress and anxiety.
Charles MacCreanor QC, reprsenting Gary Thompson, said his client “got a phone out of this”, and had no idea that a knife was going to be used to rob the Cheungs.
He also reiterated the fact his client “played no part” in the murder, adding that when Menaul and Correia called to his home after the stabbing, he wasn’t even living there at the time as he was residing at a bail address - but returned in the early hours of January 8th when he was told what had happened.
After listening to the lengthy submissions, Mr Justice Treacy said he wanted time to consider all the material before the court, and confirmed he will pass sentence next Tuesday.