Northern Ireland

Men on trial over £50,000 video blackmail plot

Scales of Justice

A group of men allegedly demanded £50,000 from a businessman by threatening to release a stolen video to the media, a court has heard.

Belfast Crown Court heard that police arrested two of the five defendants minutes after the alleged victim, known as Witness A, handed over £15,000.

A barrister told the court that the video was inside a car belonging to Witness A which was stolen in 2001.

He added the video "was of a nature that he did not want anyone to see".

'Sent to schools and churches'

The five accused of blackmail are 47-year-old Paul Braniff from Windmill View in Ballynahinch, Eugene McKee, 54, from Woodside Drive in Dunmurry, Michael Kearney, 35, of no fixed address, his brother James Kearney, 29, from New Barnsley Parade in Belfast and Stephen Parker, 33, from Westrock Gardens, also in Belfast.

The prosecution barrister said that within weeks of the car being stolen, two videos were delivered to Witness A's home.

Phone calls then followed from a man demanding £5,000 for the return of the recordings or they would be sent to local schools and churches.

The alleged victim met the man at a fast food outlet in north Belfast and handed over the money.

No videos were ever forthcoming but more demands were made via phone calls, which Witness A ignored.

In May 2007, two men, one of whom was allegedly Mr McKee, went to Witness A's home and told him that they were "looking for a one-off payment of £50,000".

The two men said that this payment "would end it once and for all - or it would be in the Sunday papers".

The barrister said that shortly after the men left, witness A received the first of numerous telephone calls from a man demanding that he hand over money, adding that, according to the Crown case, "the man doing the talking is Eugene McKee".

He revealed that a voice comparison expert was employed by the police and she said that "there were no differences" between known recordings of Mr McKee's voice and the voice which was recorded on the threatening phone calls Witness A received.

When the police became involved, they gave Witness A a mobile phone to use and all the calls and text messages sent to it were monitored and recorded.

'The Boss'

Two days later, while wearing a covert recording device, witness A went to a carpark on the Shankill Road and met a man driving a Rover car.

The jury heard how the man got out of the car and walked over to Witness A's car, handing him a mobile phone and telling him it was "the boss" on the other end who repeated the demands for £50,000.

The alleged victim offered £10,000 but was told that it "wasn't good enough".

On 29 May 2007, arrangements were made for a meeting at the same car park when Witness A would hand over the £15,000 in cash in a plastic bag.

When Witness A was at the car park, a man got out of a people carrier, later identified as James Kearney.

The court heard Witness A had never dealt with him before so he asked to speak to "the boss" on the phone but refused to hand over the money when he spoke to a different person on the phone.

The other man from the people carrier got out, later identified as Mr Parker, and both Mr Parker and James Kearney demanded the money from witness A but again, he refused to give them the cash.

Eventually he did speak with a man whose voice he recognised from earlier telephone conversations and then put the cash-filled bag into the back seat of the people carrier.

Mr Murphy told the jury the man speaking to witness A, allegedly Mr McKee, told him: "It was me you were speaking to - sure I was at your house last week".

'Red-handed'

It was at this point, said the lawyer, that police who had been lying in wait swooped on the car park and arrested Mr Parker and Mr Kearney.

"These two defendants, we say, are caught red-handed," declared the lawyer.

Meanwhile other officers raided Mr McKee's home and uncovered the mobile phone which had been used to contact witness A several times.

At the same time police in the general area stopped a black Renault Laguna car and arrested Mr Braniff but the driver, allegedly Michael Kearney, ran off and was not arrested until July.

During a search of a west Belfast house associated with Michael Kearney, officers uncovered the recordings which had been used to allegedly blackmail Witness A.

All five men were interviewed numerous times but they all denied having anything to do with a blackmail plot.

However the prosecution lawyer said that on the Crown case, each of the five had a role to play in what he described as a "well planned, well co-ordinated blackmail which preyed on the fear of Witness A".