Three Englishmen caught red-handed in the garden of one of Northern Ireland's richest men have been sentenced to a total of 17 years for their sophisticated burglary attempt.
However, the plan to raid multi-millionaire Michael Herbert's detached house was foiled following a lengthy covert surveillance operation by the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch, a court heard.
Richard Blundell (52), of Bardsay Road, Liverpool; Stephen Barlow (50), of Hewitson Road, Liverpool; and Craig Murray (33), of Victoria Road, Crosby, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary.
Their target was the south Belfast home of KFC franchise owner Mr Herbert (55) between March 31 and April 9, 2011.
The charge stated that the Merseyside trio, armed with an offensive weapon, namely cable ties, entered the house on the upmarket Malone Road with the intent of stealing.
After their arrests, police found a diamond testing device and false passports in their hotel room.
Four other charges – conspiracy to rob and falsely imprison the Herbert family, conspiracy to burgle and going equipped for burglary – will remain on the books.
A prosecution lawyer told Belfast Crown Court that the three-man gang had been "under observation for a substantial period of time'' by undercover police.
He told Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland that on March 31, 2011, the men arrived in Belfast at 8.45pm on a ferry from Stranraer in Murray's Vauxhall Zafira car.
"Forty-five minutes later they booked into the Beechlawn Hotel under false names. They booked three rooms and paid for this by cash," he said.
He said that the following day the trio appeared to take part in a "reconnaissance operation'' of the target property on the Malone Road near the House of Sport in the Zafira.
The court was told that the seven-seater vehicle then pulled into the car park of St Patrick's Church on the Drumbeg Road and the trio walked along a tow path towards the target house as part of the "recce''.
"The Vauxhall Zafira was fitted with false Northern Ireland numberplates in a clear attempt to avoid detection,'' said the Crown lawyer.
Judge McFarland was told that following the reconnaissance on the house, the suspects, who were under covert surveillance, returned to the church car park and drove back to the hotel.
A further reconnaissance operation was carried out on April 2 when the three suspects parked again in the church car park and walked to the Herberts' home.
The prosecution lawyer said: "All three males entered the garden of the target premises for around 90 minutes. They were under observation by police and they were casing the property.''
A third "reconnaissance mission'' was carried out by the accused on April 3. They left the hotel in the Zafira around 9pm to "case the property again''.
The court heard that on April 4 all three men left Northern Ireland in the people carrier vehicle and took the ferry to Stranraer.
Four days later, on April 8, the three suspects caught the Holyhead to Dublin ferry in the same Zafira car.
"The three same persons booked into the Beechlawn Hotel that evening. No credit cards were used and they paid in cash,'' said the prosecutor.
"The car was observed around 8pm in St Patrick's Church car park and the three male persons made their way along the towpath to the target house.
"Entry was gained to the rear garden of the target house through a broken panel in the fence. One was carrying a rucksack and and they were observed by police carrying crowbars.
"Around 10.20pm, police challenged them as it appeared they were about to leave the garden having not entered the house.
"Police effectively then had to trigger the arrest.''
The court heard that Barlow, who was wearing gloves and a balaclava, was detained in the garden by PSNI officers.
Murray and Blundell fled and escaped through the broken fence but were arrested by police in Newforge Lane. They were also wearing gloves and balaclavas.
A police search in Newforge Lane recovered a backpack which the court was told "appeared to have been deposited along the route the accused took'' to the Herbert family home.
Judge McFarland was told that inside the backpack police found cable ties, knives, a screwdriver, a lump hammer and a can of WD40 oil.
The prosecution barrister told the court: "During a search of their hotel room a diamond testing device was recovered. False passports were also recovered.
"This was a well-planned operation which required areas of sophistication and was conducted over a number of days.'
The court heard that the owners of the home had been kept fully informed of the operation from April 1.
Judge McFarland was told that in 2004 Blundell was jailed for eight years for two counts of aggravated burglary.
Barlow was sentenced to 30 months in 2004 for a burglary offence.
Defence counsel for Murray said he was "deeply remorseful and ashamed'' of his behaviour. He said only got involved after falling on "financial hardship in 2011''.
Judge McFarland said it was clear the trio were planning to rob the home of a "high value target''.
Blundell and Barlow were sentenced to six years, with three in custody and the remainder on licence following their release.
Father-of-four Murray was sentenced to five years, with half in custody and the remainder on licence.
Michael Herbert owns Herbel Restaurants Ltd, which holds Europe's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Mr Herbert has named numerous developments after his wife and business partner Lesley. He appeared at 970th place in this year's Sunday Times Rich List (the 18th richest in Northern Ireland), with an estimated wealth of £75m.