Four men in a gang that claimed to be members of the UDA's notorious 'C' Company (C Coy) were sentenced to a total of 29 years yesterday for their roles in a "significant and orchestrated blackmail" attempt.
The men had sought money from a businessman known as 'Witness A' and continued to plead not guilty despite police surveillance film and phone-tap evidence, Belfast Crown Court heard.
The court previously heard two of the gang approached the businessman at his home in September and October 2009, claiming to be from the UDA, after he supplied them with small amounts of cannabis on a social basis.
On this occasion the pair, who included a former friend, told him he had to pay the group a £10,000 "fine" for his role in growing cannabis. The victim was instructed to meet to gang members at a Newtownards car park to make his pay-offs, telling the victim the codeword was 'Lemonade'.
The court heard sums of up to £6,000 were paid over to the gang and one payment of £3,000 has never been recovered.
The victim and his wife, known as 'Witness B', were also told by gang members that their house would be burnt if he did not pay up, and one of them would be shot if they went to police. Eventually they fled their house under threat from the gang and for a time lived in their car before going to police and making statements.
As part of the operation, Richard Barry (40) of Cairndore Way, Newtownards was arrested by police while sitting in a Newtownards bar counting an envelope stuffed with cash. Barry was sentenced to nine years.
Glen Benson (42) of Barnagh Park, Donaghadee, was given eight years, Andrew McBride (31) from Upper Movilla Street in Ards, seven years, and 42-year-old David Walsh from Kearney Gardens in Bangor, received five years.
McBride's sentence drew loud gasps from a number of women in the gallery, one of whom fled the court while others buried their heads in their hands.
Judge Corinne Philpott told the defendants: "This was a significant and orchestrated blackmail. You all pleaded not guilty and even yet are denying your roles."
Referring to the businessman's own past Judge Philpott continued: "'A' had issues in his own life, but considerable pressure was put on him to make him deliver the sums of money demanded and those are the reasons for my determinations."
The gang was told they would serve half their sentences in custody and half on licence.
A fifth member of the gang, Steve Fleming, is due to be sentenced later.