A George Best bootlegger who tried to cash in on the football legend’s death has scored a desperate own goal — and landed a four-month jail sentence.
Career criminal Kenneth Lennon was running a scam selling fake Ulster Bank fivers — made to commemorate the tragic Manchester United star — from his south Armagh home.
The limited special edition bank notes, brought out by Ulster Bank on the first anniversary of Best’s death, were launched at a special ceremony in which George’s sister Barbara McNarry was given the first in a million-note run and her father Dickie was given the final note, bearing the serial number 1000000.
Best, in both his Man Utd and Northern Ireland kits, was the first person to be featured by the bank on the commemorative notes. As well as marking the passing of Northern Ireland’s greatest ever footballer, the notes had a dual purpose of raising money for charity as the Ulster Bank donated cash to the George Best Foundation to support the organisation’s promotion of cross-community football schemes.
And the coveted fivers are still being snapped at charity auctions and are changing hands on internet auction houses for up to £70 a time.
But bootlegger Lennon was producing his own ‘bank notes’ on sophisticated printing equipment he had installed at his Camlough home to line his own pockets.
The George Best Foundation — run by George’s sister Barbara and her husband Norman McNarry — was aware that forgers were cashing in on the charity notes and had little sympathy for the counterfeiter who faces jail for ripping off Bestie’s memory.
“The commemorative notes have been valuable to the foundation and they are very valuable to individual charities that use them to raise funds.
“We wouldn’t have much sympathy for a person who for their own gain would deprive our charity and other charities of money for their very valuable causes,” said Mr McNarry.
“We have been warned that there are a number of copies out there, and although we haven’t seen them, I am told that they are of very high quality and could easily dupe an unsuspecting victim.
“We are also aware that there are so many forgeries out there of items that carry George’s signature.
“There are only a few firms that are licensed to sell material that carries George’s signature, but there is a culture out there that will try to forge legitimate goods to cash in for themselves — you only have to look on eBay to see the stuff.
“It’s particularly sad when items that are designed with charity in mind are exploited in this way.”
As well as his line of fake bank notes, Lennon was also churning out hundreds of fake DVDs, music CDs, designer clothes and replica
football kits from the house he had turned into his own crooked factory.
When cops raided his home in the Cambrook estate last July, they were hunting for counterfeit currency.
But they discovered a whole Aladdin’s cave of ripped off goods and a range of sophisticated copying equipment to produce high quality copies of movies and packaging.
And when they searched the boot of the banned driver Lennon’s car they found hundreds more fake DVDs — including the Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was still in cinemas at the time — bundled up to sell on.
At Newry Magistrates Court last week, Lennon pleaded guilty to 19 counts of counterfeiting goods and one count of possessing fake currency.
Among the brand names he was ripping off were Virgin, Universal, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney, Dolce and Gabbanna, Armani and Lacoste.
He had also been caught with fake Manchester United football strips. It’s understood that Lennon was flogging the fakes through weekly markets at Nutt’s Corner and Jonesborough.
According to his lawyer, when he was caught out Lennon let on he regretted running the illegal business “to earn a few extra pounds for his family”.
Lennon’s lawyer added: “He was very frank in interviews . . . he started it (the racket) off and it got bigger than he anticipated.”
But, as his lawyer argued for leniency, the shameless bootlegger was standing just feet away in the dock of Newry Magistrates Court wearing one of the rip-off Fred Perry tracksuits that was about to earn him one of 20 concurrent four-month jail terms!
Lennon — who works as a landscape gardener when he is not bootlegging and was also described in a court as a “talented carpenter” — has a lengthy criminal history that stretches to 14-PAGES.
Among the 149 previous offences he has clocked up are charges of fraud, theft and dishonesty. And last year he was handed a five-month jail sentence when he appeared before Armagh Magistrates Court charged with driving while disqualified, having no vehicle test certificate and no insurance.
That sentence was later reduced to three months in jail suspended for three years, but was hanging over his head last week when he was being sentenced.
Jailing Lennon for counterfeiting, District Judge Paul Copeland said: “This is an extremely serious matter and the type of theft that has far-reaching implications, as you well know, being steeped in the production of these illegal items for some time.
“It appears to me you were engaged on a substantial commercial basis, the phrase ‘factory’ shows it was a dedicated and productive process you have been on.”
Mr Copeland handed Lennon a four-month sentence on each of the charges.
However, he later agreed to free Lennon on bail of £750 while he appeals the prison sentence imposed.