Pair involved with £50,000 extortion racket avoid jail
Two men who admitted involvment in a £50,000 extortion plot walked free from court after their two-year jail terms were suspended for three years.
Belfast Crown Court Judge Patrick Lynch told 29-year-old James Kearney and Stephen Paul Parker (33) he was freeing them with “considerable hesitation”.
Belfastmen Kearney, from New Barnsley Parade, and Parker, from Westrock Gardens, have both pleaded guilty to assisting offenders in the blackmail of a Co Antrim businessman, known only as Witness A, in May 2007.
Three others who pleaded guilty to blackmailing the victim by threatening to release a video of a “personal nature” to the Press were remanded into custody to be sentenced next Tuesday.
Judge Lynch told the trio, Paul Braniff (47), from Windmill View in Ballynahinch, Eugene McKee (54), from Woodside Drive in Dunmurry and Michael Kearney (35), of no fixed address but who is a brother to James Kearney, they faced an “inevitable” jail sentence.
When their trial initially started last May, the court heard how a BMW car and the video recording belonging to Witness A was stolen back in 2001 and that within weeks he was being blackmailed for £5,000.
Things went quiet but in May 2007 McKee landed at his doorstep demanding a “one-off” payment of £50,000 or the video “would be in the Sunday papers”.
When police became involved, they set Witness A up with a mobile phone and recorded numerous threatening calls made to it.
The man who made the calls was McKee, and eventually a meeting was set up for May 29 in the car park of the Shankill Road KFC fast food outlet where money was to be handed over.
In covertly recorded surveillance footage played to the court and jury, Michael Kearney and Braniff can be seen driving around the area in a Isuzu Trooper 4x4 while James Kearney and Parker are seen to approach Witness A in his car and demand the cash.
Police swooped as a bag containing £15,000 was put into the back of Parker's Chrysler Voyager people carrier.
Braniff, Parker and James Kearney were all arrested but Michael Kearney was not arrested until July.
A short time afterwards police raided Mckee's house where they uncovered mobile phones.
Yesterday prosecuting QC Ciaran Murphy said the pleas of James Kearney and Parker to the lesser offences were accepted on the basis that each “knew or suspected involvment in general criminality” but were not actively involved in the plot itself.
Judge Lynch said he was taking account of the fact that each man had already spend almost eight months in custody before being bailed, and that they had offered to plead at an early stage.
The judge said while he accepted their lesser roles as “gophers... they must have had a pretty good idea of what was going on”.