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Trio are released over plot to kidnap and murder Irish dad

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Colombian military raided a property in Jamundi, near Cali, arresting three men over the murder of Irishman Jimmy Hillis

Colombian military raided a property in Jamundi, near Cali, arresting three men over the murder of Irishman Jimmy Hillis

Colombian military raided a property in Jamundi, near Cali, arresting three men over the murder of Irishman Jimmy Hillis

A judge in Colombia has ordered the release of three men held over the kidnapping and murder of Wexford man Jimmy Hillis after hearing evidence of intercepted phone calls between the 40-year-old and family members following his alleged abduction.

In one intercepted call, Mr Hillis is alleged to have told his ex-partner Rachel that blood seen on his head and clothes in ransom pictures "was chicken blood" and that it was there "to generate pressure".

The three men before the court charged with Mr Hillis' abduction - Juan Pablo Garcia, Mario Orozco and Julian Marin - were arrested last week by members of the Colombian military's Gaula investigation unit during a dawn raid on a property in Jamundi, near Cali.

Farm

It followed a four-month investigation that began last November when Irish diplomats reported Mr Hillis missing to state prosecutors in the South American country.

Last night, Mr Hillis' father, James, said he has not heard from him since October 27 and is "waiting every day" for a text or phone call from him.

Efforts to establish Mr Hillis' whereabouts intensified after images purporting to show him bleeding and being held at gunpoint by his abductors were sent to his ex-partner, the mother of his two children.

Initial investigations indicated he had been kidnapped, the court heard, and that between August and October he had been kept on a farm in Jamundi Valle.

The prosecutor in the case contended that Mr Hillis was kidnapped as collateral for the payment of "a debt he had for drug-trafficking issues".

It emerged during the hearing that his phone was legally tapped as part of a drug- trafficking investigation.

The prosecutor's office noted that he was given a mobile phone to communicate with his family and manage the payment for his release.

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Irishman Jimmy Hillis

Irishman Jimmy Hillis

Irishman Jimmy Hillis

He was in custody and, according to the record, in a conversation he told his family: "I can fly, but if I do, I complicate the situation."

The investigators noted that the kidnapping took place on the estate of Mario Orozco, one of those arrested, and that a conversation in which Juan Pablo Garcia is heard speaking would tell about the fate of Mr Hillis.

However, there is no information about his remains.

The court also heard that Mr Hillis, despite being kept prisoner, had access to a phone and was able to make calls and send messages to his family and friends, especially his father and his ex-partner.

A communication sent by the Irish embassy reporting the abduction was key in the case, the court heard.

The prosecutor noted that the document outlines that by September 2019, Mr Hillis' partner had received photos of him.

One of them showed him apparently beaten, another in a room with two people in military clothes and balaclavas and weapons pointing at his head, and a third, in which he appeared unconscious, tied up and lying on a mattress, with blood on his head.

The letter says that it is not known if the photos are genuine.

In addition, the phones to which they were sent were destroyed, and for this reason the copies of the photos and dates were not confirmed.

The prosecutor also notes that last October, Hillis held a video call with Rachel and told her "he could not call if the boss of those who had it was present".

Days later, he was very positive and told his Rachel he was going to be released.

He then contacted his father and had the reservation organised for a hotel where he would spend a few days as "part of the process of his release" the court heard.

A reservation from last October 28 to November 1 was made at a hotel in Cali and his father's credit card was used.

However, Mr Hillis never arrived at the hotel.

Yesterday, his father said he was aware of the release of the three men, and criticised the Department of Foreign Affairs for failing to keep the family informed.

"The last time I heard from James was October 27, when he sent me a text message saying something like, 'Don't worry about me, I'm OK'," he said.

"But something happened between the 27th and the next day when he was supposed to go to the hotel.

"I haven't heard from him since that day. All we want is to find out now whether he is alive or dead.

"I'm waiting every day for a text or phone call from him."

In the intercepts carried out, it was found that the Irishman, in addition to talking to his family, contacted a man identified as Dimitri.

In one of the calls, he tells Dimitri that he needed the money and "not tell the family" that he was free.

Unimpressed

At the same time, according to reports from the public prosecutor's office, in another call Mr Hillis told Dimitri he was going to meet "the people of Ecuador", without specifying who it was.

The court heard it was striking that in one of the conversations with his ex-partner he told her that the blood seen in one of the photos was chicken blood and it was "to generate pressure".

In addition, the court heard, Mr Hillis was in a hotel in Cali between October 12 and 15 after he was already abducted.

The judge in the case ordered the release of all three men, saying he was unimpressed with "the forcefulness" of the evidence presented by the public prosecutor's office.

He left open the possibility that Mr Hillis' alleged abduction was a "self-kidnapping to obtain the money to pay off the debt to drug traffickers".