Northern Ireland

Guilty plea halts 'IRA gang' blackmail trial

Belfast court complex
Image caption A plea of guilty to a charge of assisting offenders was accepted at Belfast Crown Court

A blackmail trial was halted after the last of a gang of three pleaded guilty to assisting offenders.

On the second day of the trial, a defence lawyer asked for the charge to be put to John Clarke again.

Clarke, 37, then pleaded not guilty to extorting £12,500 from a businessman known only as Witness A "but guilty to assisting offenders".

The plea was accepted by the prosecution "in satisfaction of the indictment".

Demand

Clarke, from Ardglen Place, Belfast, is the third man to plead guilty after two other Belfast men, William Barker, 40, from Filbert Drive and Christopher Notorantonio, 41, from Avoca Close, have already pleaded guilty to blackmail and are awaiting sentence.

The trial had heard how Clarke and Barker went to Witness A's place of work and demanded that he hand over £8,500 as the pair knew he had been involved with a man who had been shot in the legs three days earlier.

Giving his testimony from behind a screen, Witness A recounted how he withdrew the cash from his account and handed it over but that a demand for a further £4,000 was issued at the time with the gang, which claimed to be from the IRA, warning him that the Press was "jumping at the bit for a story".

The matter was reported to the police the following week and when arrangements were made for the handover of the further cash, cops swooped and arrested Barker and Notorantonio, recovering an envelope stuffed with cash from the glove box of the Vauxhall Vectra car they were in.

Clarke was released on continuing bail. The judge said he would sentence all three men at the end of June.