Northern Ireland

Christine Connor: Swedish model to 'lone wolf dissident'

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Media captionRecording of hoax 999 call made by Christine Connor claiming domestic violence

Christine Connor pretended to be a blond-haired Swedish model who lived a life of glamour.

In reality, she was an unemployed dark-haired woman who lived with her mother and brother in a terraced house in north Belfast.

Police have described her as a "lone wolf, dissident republican".

She used a fake social media account to trick a man from England into helping make improvised grenades that she threw at police officers.

An American man was also duped into sending her hundreds of dollars to support a group she claimed to lead called United Struggle. Police say she was its only member.

Both men have since taken their own lives.

"She is a highly dangerous and cunning woman who exploited others to further her own twisted ideology," says Det Supt Richard Campbell, the officer who led the investigation that resulted in her conviction.

Image caption Detectives found another mobile phone, SIM cards and a laptop computer stuffed inside the mattress of a bed at Connor's home

Connor's attempt to kill police officers in May 2013 had been planned for months.

She created a fake social media account using a photograph of a Swedish model called Sanne Andersson.

A man called Stuart Downes from Shrewsbury in England began communicating with her and was persuaded to help construct bombs.

He purchased the parts and materials needed and sent them to Connor.

Luring officers

Evidence recovered by detectives after her attack included mobile phone footage Downes recorded of himself testing the explosive mix that was used.

Connor also filmed herself walking along the Crumlin Road talking about what she planned to do and sent the video file to him.

Image copyright PSNI
Image caption The mobile phone used by Connor was found in a garden close to the scene

She made two attempts to lure police officers into attacks.

On 16 May 2013, she made a hoax call claiming to have seen "a pipe with wires sticking out" on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast.

Twelve days after that attempted ambush failed, she used a different tactic.

In the early hours of 28 May, she called police and claimed to be a victim of domestic violence.

An audio recording of the call sounds very authentic, with a breathless Connor claiming to be a woman who had been punched in the face by her boyfriend and was in desperate need of help.

Litany of evidence

When police arrived at the house where she claimed the attack had taken place, Connor emerged from a lane and threw two home-made grenades.

None of the officers was injured, but both devices exploded, sending pieces of shrapnel up to 35 metres.

One of the officers heard a fizzing noise and said a device "about the size of a Coke can with sparks coming out of it" landed at his feet.

The officer ran and seconds later heard a loud bang.

"These devices undoubtedly had the capability to kill anyone who was within the blast radius," said Det Supt Campbell.

Image copyright PSNI
Image caption Connor's gloves were also found close to the scene of the attack

"We are very fortunate that we didn't have very seriously injured or killed police officers as a result of this incident."

While Connor was determined, she was also careless. She left a litany of evidence of her involvement.

A mobile phone used to make the hoax call to police was found in a garden a short distance away. A pair of gloves she wore was found in the lane from where the attack was launched. A hoodie she wore was found discarded in a skip.

There was also CCTV footage.

A camera operated from a nearby police station recorded her walking in the area carrying a plastic bag around half an hour before the grenades were thrown.

Another camera recorded the immediate aftermath of the attack, with a plume of smoke in the area where the grenades exploded.

A short time after the attack, Connor was filmed walking quickly away from the scene towards her home on nearby Ligoneil Road.

She was no longer carrying a bag. Police believe it was used to transport the grenades.

Bullet in the post

Just 17 hours after throwing the grenades, Connor was arrested at her home.

There, detectives found another mobile phone, SIM cards and a laptop computer stuffed inside the mattress of a bed.

The material included the mobile phone recording of her planning the attack and details of communications with Stuart Downes.

He was arrested by detectives from West Mercia Police a short time after making a call from a public phone box in Shrewsbury claiming responsibility for the attack which, he said, had been carried out by United Struggle.

Downes had been due to stand trial on five charges, including attempted murder.

During his time on bail, he was sent a bullet in the post. Police cannot say for certain if it was sent by Christine Connor, but they said it was a clear attempt to put pressure on him not to give evidence against her.

Downes took his own life in June last year.

At the inquest into his death, a coroner said the possible outcome of the criminal proceedings had been weighing heavily on his mind.

Surprise plea

The detectives who searched Connor's home also found evidence of another fake social media account she used to communicate with a 28-year-old American called Zachary Gevlinger.

Described as a vulnerable person, he was a graduate of Wisconsin University. He went on to have a job as a maintenance worker there.

Detectives found evidence that he had sent cheques to the value of hundreds of US dollars to Connor.

Image copyright Justin Kernoghan
Image caption Christine Connor created an alter ego who was blonde, glamorous and Swedish. The reality was miles removed

He was arrested by the PSNI in the car park of Hydebank women's prison in June 2013, minutes after visiting Connor while she was on remand.

Zachary Gevlinger was questioned for nine days, and his home was also raided by the FBI. He took his own life in May.

Christine Connor had been due to stand trial on six charges, including the attempted murder of a police officer, possession of explosives, and preparation for terrorist acts.

But in a surprise move last month, she pleaded guilty.

In spite of the fact that Connor and Downes managed to construct what have been described as two "sophisticated" fully functioning bombs, police said there was no evidence that they were part of any dissident republican organisation.

Det Supt Campbell said the PSNI was satisfied that the pair acted alone.

"During the course of the investigation, we found a substantial amount of evidence that showed that both Christine Connor and Stuart Downes were involved in the sourcing of material, the construction on the devices, and in Christine Connor's case, actually throwing the devices," he said.

"There's no evidence that I have that anyone else was involved. We're not looking for anyone else in connection with the attacks."

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