Northern Ireland

Bail is refused in Belfast blackmail case

A Belfast man charged with blackmailing a man into handing over more than £11,000 has been refused bail at the High Court.

Christopher Notarantonio, 39, of Avoca Close allegedly threatened to shoot the man if he did not meet his demands.

The victim cannot be identified because he is on a witness protection programme.

The court heard that police had photographed serial numbers on cash before it was handed over.

Mr Notarantonio is one of two men charged with two counts of blackmail against the victim, known only as Witness A.

The prosecution has alleged that Mr Notarantonio is the head of a crime gang in the city.

He was refused bail due to the risk of interfering with the investigation and the potential to reoffend.

The court heard Witness A was phoned on 17 September and instructed to go to the Markets area where he would be met.

A Crown lawyer said he was approached by two men - a co-accused and another suspect still at large - and handed over £8,500.

She said he was then told to provide another £4,000 and warned that if he did not comply he would end up like another man subjected to a punishment shooting claimed by dissident republicans.

At that stage, police were notified and launched a proactive operation, the court heard.

A week later Witness A allegedly supplied another £3,150 in an envelope, but was told all the cash was needed before the threat could be lifted.

"The victim then handed over the evidence - bank notes which had been photographed by police in terms of their serial number identities," a barrister said.

Minutes later, Notarantonio was arrested in a Vauxhall Vectra car he was allegedly driving.

His co-accused was detained with him.

According to the prosecution, the money was found in the vehicle's glove box.

A defence lawyer objected to the Crown's reference to his client as a crime gang leader, describing it as an "open-ended allegation".

He said Mr Notarantonio provided a full statement to police denying any involvement in the blackmail threats.

He further questioned the "viability" of Witness A, claiming police were aware of his alleged drug problems.

And disputing the possible risk of interference with the inquiry, the barrister said the alleged victim was now in a witness protection scheme.

But after hearing both sides' arguments, Mr Justice Deeny ruled that Mr Notarantonio should be denied bail.