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Jailed: blackmailing Belfast couple who took up to £21k from neighbour

By Ashleigh McDonald

A west Belfast couple who carried out a year-long blackmail campaign against a neighbour have been sent to prison.

Billy Byrne and his partner Maria Morelli, from Ross Mill Avenue, received between £15,000 and £21,000 from their "vulnerable" victim, who was unable to pay his mortgage and lost his home as a result of their demands.

Belfast Crown Court heard the blackmail began after 39-year-old Byrne exchanged words with his neighbour - a firefighter - over a motorbike left in the communal area of the flats where they both lived at the time.

Several months after the row the firefighter vandalised Byrne's car. He then paid Byrne £1,200 for the damage, and following that payment Byrne and Morelli (46) launched their campaign of blackmail.

Due to fears the couple would tell his employers and family about the vandalism - which the firefighter believed would lead to him losing his job - he handed over money following scores of demands for cash.

Sending Byrne and Morelli to prison, Her Honour Judge McCaffrey spoke of the "catastrophic" effect the blackmail had.

Morelli, who admitted her guilt at the outset, was handed a sentence of three years and four months, while Byrne, who didn't plead guilty until a later stage and who has not displayed the same level of remorse as Morelli, was given a sentence of three years and 10 months.

The couple were informed that they will each serve half their sentence in prison, with the remainder on supervised licence.

Prior to sentencing, Judge McCaffrey was told by Crown prosecutor Gareth Purvis that in April 2011 the victim returned home from a night out and while drunk he vandalised Byrne's car.

Byrne believed the firefighter was behind the vandalism, and around a year later things came to a head when a meeting between the couple and their victim took place. The firefighter "felt in fear" of Byrne during the meeting, confessed and paid £1,200 to cover the damage.

Morelli later sent text messages to the victim demanding money to pay for hair transplants. She sent a total of 16 messages from June 2012 to May 2013, which were also interspersed with calls from Byrne. Around £34,450 was demanded by the couple, with an estimated £15,000 to £21,000 handed over.

The firefighter stopped responding to the texts around April/May 2013, as at this stage he had "exhausted all sources for which he could raise money... a friend realised something wasn't right and refused to lend him any more money".

This led to the firefighter informing his family and employers about what was going on, and he was able to retain his job.

Defence barrister Luke Curran, who represented both Byrne and Morelli, said the couple have expressed remorse.

Regarding Morelli, Mr Curran said she came before the court with a clear criminal record, and "does not live a lifestyle with any trappings of wealth".

Turning to Byrne, Mr Curran said that following the incident with the bike there was "ill-feeling" between his client and the firefighter that led Byrne to believe his actions were "somehow justified".

The barrister said Byrne now acknowledges that his actions were wrong and accepts the hurt and distress he has caused.

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