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'IRA gang' tried to blackmail cash from businessman

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A gang claiming to be from the IRA tried to blackmail £12,500 from a businessman known only as Witness A, a court heard today.

Opening the prosecution case against 37-year-old John Clarke at Belfast Crown Court, Ciaran Murphy QC claimed the west Belfast man had visited Witness A's business and had also been responsible for the majority of demanding phonecalls the alleged victim received.

Clarke, from Ardglen Place, denies a single charge of blackmailing £12,500 from Witness A on dates between 15 to 24 September 2010.

Two other Belfast men, 40-year-old William Barker from Filbert Drive and Christopher Notorantonio (41) from Avoca Close, have already pleaded to the same charge and are awaiting sentence.

Today Mr Murphy told Diplock, no jury trial Judge Kinney that according to the Crown case, Clarke and another man visited Witness A at his work on Wednesday September 15 and demanded that he hand over £8,500 by Friday as the pair knew he had been involved with a man who had been shot in the legs three days earlier.

"The men said it was all about the IRA and Witness A said he would sort something out," claimed the lawyer.

On that Friday, Mr Murphy said the alleged victim received numerous phonecalls alleging that the press were "jumping at the bit for a story" so Witness A withdrew the cash from his bank account and handed it over to two men at an arranged meeting in south Belfast.

One of those men, claimed the lawyer, was Clarke and the other was Barker but Clarke allegedly demanded "a further £4,000" because "the bosses wanted another £4,000...and at the end of the day, it was more money for the army".

Other phonecalls occurred but in fear of his life, Witness A reported the matter to the police on September 21 and all further calls were recorded, Mr Murphy told the court.

A further hand over of cash was arranged for September 24 and the cops gave Witness A an envelope with £3,000 in it, an envelope he handed over the Barker later that day.

Barker was driven away in a black Vauxhall Vectra and when it was stopped nearby, cops recovered the cash from the glove box and arrested Notorantonio who had been driving.

During police interviews after his arrest, Clarke admitted going to Witness A's business with Barker but claimed he had been "collecting a legitimate debt".

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