Belfast Telegraph

Oaklee residents launch petition to oust thief

By Dave Whelan

Vulnerable residents in east Belfast are too scared to leave their rooms because a convicted thief has refused to move out of their sheltered housing unit.

Noel Johnston (66), was convicted of stealing hundreds of pounds from a 92-year-old pensioner on three separate occasions while operating as an active tenant for the Oaklee Holmes Group at the Belle Bashford Court residence on the Woodstock Road, but continues to live there over a month after being charged.

Johnston was given a four month suspended sentence after evidence collected by hidden cameras, installed by the family of 92-year-old Elsie Barr, showed him stealing cash.

There was initial outrage from the family and residents that Johnston was allowed to return to the building on the night of his release and that the only action taken by the Oaklee group was to serve a one month eviction notice.

It has now emerged that Mr Johnston has refused to leave the premises within the time frame and it is expected that Oaklee will launch court proceedings, which could take up to a year.

Residents living at Belle Bashford Court, including Mr Johnston's former associate active tenant, have now sent a petition of concern, signed by the majority of tenants, to the CEO of the Oaklee Group.

The group has previously been criticised by the family of the victim Elsie Barr for failing to change locks and codes that Mr Johnston had access to for nearly a week after he returned and for their lack of communication with residents on the situation.

Margaret Cavanagh (56) a disabled tenant said that residents were horrified to hear that Mr Johnston was still actively living there and said that many of them were staying in their rooms with their doors locked.

"We've tried to get to the doors of as many people as possible with this petition and out of everyone we contacted there was only one person who didn't feel comfortable signing it.

"I think we shocked a lot of people when we told them the situation. They assumed that he was either in jail or gone," she said.

"We have blind, old and disabled residents and you can see that they aren't willing to leave their rooms and go to the main shared space, why should all these people have to be intimidated by the presence of one man?"

Ms Cavanagh accuses Oaklee of "running scared of anything legal".

A spokesperson for Oaklee refused to comment on any individual tenant's particular circumstances but said that they were taking "the appropriate housing management action in relation to Mrs Barr's case and the process is presently ongoing."

Despite Oaklee saying that "Senior management continues to support and keep Mrs Barr's family updated along with other relevant agencies", Mrs Barr's daughter-in-law Marlene Barr has been highly critical of how the company have acted.

"They've told us next to nothing. Any information I have gotten from them has been through me constantly hounding them.

"It took them over a week to come out and change the codes on the doors despite them knowing that this guy was returning and last week was the first time I have met with an Oaklee representative since the whole process began."

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