A west Belfast couple who carried out a year-long blackmail campaign against a neighbour were both jailed on Monday.
Billy Byrne and his partner Maria Morelli, who are both from Ross Mill Avenue, received between £15,000 and £21,000 from their ‘vulnerable’ victim, who was unable to pay his mortgage and lost his home as a result of their demands,
Belfast Crown Court heard that the blackmail began after 39-year old Byrne exchanged words with his neighbour - a fireman - over a motorbike left in the communal area of the black of flats where they both lived at the time.
Several months after the initial row, the fireman vandalised Byrne’s car. He then paid Byrne £1,200 for the damage to the vehicle, and following that payment, both Byrne and Morelli (46) launched a year-long campaign of blackmail.
Due to fears that the couple would tell his employers and family about the vandalism to the car - which the fireman believed would lead to him losing his job - he handed over money following scores of demands for cash.
Sending both Byrne and Morelli to prison, Her Honour Judge McCaffrey spoke of the “catastrophic” effect the blackmail has had on the fireman.
Morelli - who admitted her guilt at the outset - was handed a sentence of three years and four months, while Byrne - who didn’t plead guilty until a later stage and who has not displayed the same level of remorse as Morelli - was given a sentence of three years and ten months.
The couple were informed that they will each serve half their sentence in prison, with the remainder on supervised licence upon their release.
Prior to sentencing, Judge McCaffrey was told by Crown prosecutor Gareth Purvis that around September/October 2010, both the couple and the fireman were living in the same apartment block.
Byrne mistakenly believed that the fireman had reported him for leaving his motorbike in the communal area, which contravened the rules of the complex, resulting in Byrne “being hostile” to the fireman and “very confrontational and aggressive over the issue.”
In April 2011, the fireman returned home from a night out, and whilst drunk he vandalised Byrne’s car by slashing the tyres and damaging the windscreen wipers.
Byrne believed the fireman was behind the vandalism, and around a year later things came to a head when a meeting between the couple and the fireman took place. The fireman “felt in fear” of Byrne during the meeting, confessed to the vandalism and paid £1,200 to cover the damage.
Shortly after this meeting, Byrne and Morelli moved out of the complex. Several months later, the fireman was followed home by the couple, who told him he had forced them to move, with Morelli claiming her hair was falling out as a result of stress.
From this point onwards, Morelli sent text messages to the fireman on a regular basis, demanded money from him to pair for hair transplants. She send a total of 16 messages from June 2012 to May 2013, which were also interspersed with calls from Byrne.
Mr Purvis described the text messages as a “lengthy series of demands for money ... to pay for repeated hair transplants”, with texts sent such as ‘do you want people to know about this? I am going to report this to your employers or the police.’
The fireman believed that if this threat to inform his employers was carried out, he would lose his job.
A total of around £34,450 was demanded by the couple, with an estimated £15,000 to £21,000 handed over. To keep up with the demands, the fireman took out loans from the bank and also borrowed off family and friends.
Mr Purvis said that the fireman stopped responding to the texts around April/May 2013, as at this stage he had “exhausted all sources for which he could raise money ... a friend realised something wasn’t right and refused to lend him any more money.”
This led to the fireman informing his family then his employers about what was going on, and he was able to retain his job.
The prosecutor said that while the fireman how suffers from anxiety and depression. the blackmail has had a “devastating impact” on his financially. He not only lost his home, but he also had to enter into a Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) whereby he is paying back £800 a month.
Defence barrister Luke Curran, who represented both Byrne and Morelli, said the couple have both expressed remorse for their actions.
Regarding Morelli, Mr Curran said she came before the court with a clear criminal record, and “does not live a lifestyle with any trappings of wealth.”
Saying that any money taken from the fireman was used to pay household and everyday bills, Mr Curran accepted she “kept the ball rolling” and received “relatively easy money, as far as she was concerned.”
Turning to Byrne, Mr Curran said that following the incident with the bike there was “ill feeling” between his client and the fireman which led Byrne to believe his actions were “somehow justified.”
The barrister said Byrne now acknowledges that his actions were wrong, and accepts the hurt and distress he has caused.