Although one of the trio of would-be robbers had an artificial leg, they planned to be in and out of the premises they proposed to raid within seconds, with no need to use their weapons. Their target was the premises of a firm of sculptors, opposite a police station in Belfasts College Square, and they planned their raid for Friday, MARCH 7th, 1924, when the firms cashiers would be counting money in preparation for paying the staff the next day.
At 3.20 p.m. assistant cashier Alexander Briggs was busy with this task when the three masked men entered the office, shouting Hands up!
Nelson Leech, the 30-year-old chief cashier, dashed to a telephone cubicle in a corner of the office. A bullet whistled over his head as he made a dive for the phone. At the same time Briggs, unobserved by the raiders, was desperately stuffing the money hed been counting into his pockets.
One of the raiders wrenched open the door of the cubicle and Leech came out, making a grab for the mans gun. A second shot rang out and Leech collapsed, clutching his stomach. Pocketing their pistols, the raiders dashed out, pursued by two female clerks whose screams alerted Constable Francis Morteshed.
Sizing up the situation, he soon cornered the raider with the artificial leg and ordered him to surrender. In response the raider thrust his gun into the officers side and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened! The pistol had jammed.
Nelson Leech died in hospital at 10 oclock that night, leaving a widow and four children.
The arrested raider was identified as Michael Pratley, a 30-year-old tailor. He admitted shooting over Leechs head, but denied firing the fatal bullet and refused to name his accomplices. Charged with murder, he pleaded Not guilty when he appeared at Belfast City Commission on April 10th.
His defence counsel submitted that this was not a case of murder, because this required malice aforethought, of which there was no evidence. Leech had simply been killed accidentally during a struggle in which the gun had gone off.
The prosecutor said that it was not alleged that Pratley was necessarily the killer, but if death occurred even accidentally during a robbery, all the participants were guilty of murder.
Why hadnt Briggs joined the girl clerks in pursuing the raiders? The court heard that he too had an artificial leg!
Pratley was convicted and sentenced to death, and after his execution on May 8th, 1924, he was said to have been the calmest man present. He died like a saint, said a priest. But it was disclosed that Pratley had also been charged with the murder of a Belfast MP in 1922, the Crown having decided not to proceed with that case.