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Blackmail gang jailed after botched scheme

By Evan Short

Evan Short

Members of a blackmail gang that included a former INLA prisoner were jailed in Belfast Crown Court last Friday after pleading guilty to setting up a fake kidnapping that was foiled when the target informed the PSNI.

Damien Morgan, 44, of Fianna House, New Lodge Road; Colm Cassidy, 37, of Rosehead, North Belfast and Mark McGrann, 31, of Foxes Glen, Dunmurry, all received custodial sentences after admitting their participation in the blackmail that took place in November 2008.

A co-accused, Mary Woodhead, 46, of India Street Belfast, received a two year suspended sentence.

The court heard that Ms Woodhead had worked in an unnamed North Belfast filling station alongside her brother who had a managerial role in the business.

On finishing a shift on November 24, 2008, Gareth Woodhead received a phone call from his sister telling him that she had a gun to her head.

A male voice then came on the line instructing him to go back to his place of work and collect the takings from the safe and await further instruction.

The court heard Mr Woodhead, fearing for his sister’s safety,

immediately contacted the police who put an operation in place to try and track down the gang.

On collecting the cash (£10,500) he was instructed to bring it to the City Cemetery where he was ordered to put the bag through railings and leave.

According to the prosecution, as Mr Woodhead made his way to the cemetery “two persons” in the graveyard became “aware of police” and the bag that had been deposited, was not lifted.

These men – Morgan and McGrann – were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the incident.

Under questioning both said they were in the cemetery to visit graves but through mobile phone evidence the PSNI said they could connect them men with the attempted blackmail.

Senior Prosecuting Counsel Terence Mooney QC said that when Ms Woodhead appeared afterwards it was made clear that she “hadn’t been abducted.”

He said that the PSNI investigation of mobile phone records led them to Colm Cassidy who he described as a “background link” to the whole operation.

It was alleged that he worked with Mary Woodhead when the “scheme was hatched.”

Morgan, Cassidy and McGrann all pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting blackmail, with Woodhead accepting a further charge of making a false statement to claim compensation for being kidnapped.

Sentencing the four accused, Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarlane said he agreed with a statement made to his probation officer by Morgan that it was a “mad escapade”.

“This was an opportunistic crime. It was not a sophisticated crime but I’m sure it was very frightening for Mr Woodhead at the time.

“When he was appraised, as he would have been by the police as to what was happening, no doubt that was some relief to him. And of course the amount of money that was envisaged to be recovered was modest in the overall scheme of things.”

He said the fact there was no paramilitary involvement and the sum of cash was just into four figures put it at the “low end” of blackmail cases.

He said that while all four had criminal records, he would only be considering Damien Morgan’s convictions dating from his involvement with the INLA.

“You have a very serious conviction, although it is of some vintage and goes back to a time in your life from when you have clearly moved on – not in relation to criminality itself as is evidence by the fact that you have involved yourself in this crime – but I do take into account that the offences date back to 1991 and you have served your sentence in regards to that, but I am taking it into account.”

Damien Morgan was sentenced to two years six months imprisonment, with the last 18 months to be served on probation. Both McGrann and Cassidy were sentenced to two years imprisonment, with 12 months to be served on probation.

Addressing Woodhead, Judge McFarlane said he accepted that she was vulnerable and felt under duress; although not to the extent that it met the criminal threshold.

He sentenced her to two years for both offences, to run concurrently, with the sentence to be suspended for two years.

Each of the defendants embraced Ms Woodhead before they were led away.


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