Four men, including a notorious loyalist and a convicted killer, who used a Barbie typewriter in a £15,000 extortion plot have been jailed for a total 17 years.
At Belfast Crown Court Judge David McFarland handed three of the gang, Portadown loyalist Gary Fulton (40), Philip ‘Bug’ Blaney (48) and associate Mark Briggs five-year jail terms each, and Daniel Hamilton (31) a term of two years and eight months for the ‘Red Hand Defenders’ (RHD) plot.
Fulton, from Gillespie Court in Comber and Portadown men Briggs and Blaney, neighbours on the Westland Road, had all pleaded guilty to two counts of blackmailing £15,000 from two victims known only as witnesses A and B on dates between 21 February and 24 March 2011.
Hamilton (30) from the Old Mill Manor, Laurelvale had pleaded guilty at an earlier stage.
Blaney had served a jail sentence for the manslaughter of grandmother Elizabeth O'Neill, who died in 1999 after picking up a blast bomb thrown into her home and Jim Fulton, a brother to Gary Fulton, is currently serving a life term after he was convicted of her murder.
Today (Tuesday) the court heard how the gang had used Hamilton as a "conduit" to target their victims, known only as Witness A and B, because he knew them.
A prosecuting lawyer told the court how the couple had been targeted by two hand-delivered letters containing bullets at their home and business addresses demanding they pay £15,000 or face "action with extreme prejudice by the Red Hand Defenders".
Witness A agreed to pay up after receiving a number of further demands threatening that his house and business would be attacked, but he had also sought the help of police.
A police raid on Blaney’s home recovered a Barbie electric typewriter which police strongly believed was used to type out the gangs' demands, the lawyer said.
He described how the first set of threats were followed up by a petrol canister being placed in a lorry owned by Witness A and, during a mobile phone call the following day, he was asked how he liked his ‘present’ and warning him the next one would be ‘ignited’.
A meeting between Witness A and Hamilton was then arranged under police guidance and surveillance in which Hamilton was handed a bag containing £5k at Rushmere Shopping Centre in Craigavon.
Hamilton, the court was told, was observed by watching police as he drove off - only to stop a short distance away where he was seen dumping items from his car and then driving to the Westland Road home of Blaney.
The pair were seen walking from the house to a Peugot car and handing articles to Briggs and shortly afterwards, Fulton emerged from a nearby green Nissan Primera and the gang then went back towards Blaney’s house while Hamilton waited outside.
Uniformed police swooped on the gang, howeve,r and after chasing a fleeing Blaney who tried to dump the backpack containing the money on a nearby flat rooftop, all were subsequently arrested.
The court heard that the gang had targeted the witnesses because, aside from their legitimate business interests, they had left themselves vulnerable to blackmail and prosecution owing to their cultivating a substantial cannabis farm, for which they had subsequently been convicted.
In mitigation the court heard how Hamilton had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and beyond this incident was not believed to be criminally involved, how Briggs had turned to drugs after the early deaths of his parents and later break-up with his long-term partner, while Fulton came from a "respectable family background" and now expressed his “regret” at becoming involved in the plot.
Blaney, his counsel Andrew Moriarty conceded, was to all appearances by his criminal record “an archetypal old lag” who despite his latest offence was now a landing orderly who was showing the “green shoots of recovery” and was “seriously considering his lifestyle choices.”
Judge David McFarland however pointed out that Blaney had a substantial record of 72 convictions and was currently serving a sentence for another offence.
He said the gang had engaged in delivering letters with bullets and other threatening behaviour, describing how Briggs, Blaney and Fulton “had been behind” the plot with Hamilton the “conduit”.
Giving them credit for their guilty pleas and efforts to rehabilitate themselves he handed Hamilton a two-year, eight-month sentence, to be split evenly, 16 months in custody and 16 on licence before handing Briggs, Fulton and Blaney five years each, to be spent equally in custody and on licence.