Businessman ‘left €13,000 at graveyard in blackmail over stolen machinery’

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A businessman was allegedly conned into leaving more than €13,000 at a Co Fermanagh graveyard as he tried to recover stolen plant machinery, the High Court has heard.

Prosecutors said he was instructed to drop off the cash after advertising a reward on social media for the return of his trailer and rock hammer.

It was also claimed that he received further menacing phone calls from a man who mentioned kneecappings and being in the IRA.

Details emerged as his alleged blackmailer was granted bail.

Matthew McDonagh, 28, of Hudson Heights in Irvinestown, denies charges of making unwarranted demands for money, threats to kill, possessing and transferring criminal property.

The alleged offences occurred between December 1 last year and January 25.

A Crown lawyer said the victim was phoned by a man stating that he had located the stolen equipment.

During subsequent conversations the caller mentioned connections with a Dublin-based gang a figure of €3,300 was agreed for the recovery of the machinery, the court heard.

The businessman was instructed to go to a graveyard in Ederney and leave the money “on the left pillar”.

When he did this, according to the prosecution, he received further telephone requests for more cash before the trailer and hammer could be returned.

The caller identified himself as “Jim”, said he had “men to pay” and needed another €10,000.

Once again the victim drove to the same graveyard to drop-off the money.

In a call to confirm the money had been received the caller made reference to IRA membership and acts including kneecapping – although there were not interpreted as direct threats to the businessman.

He blocked the number after a third request was made for another €30,000, prosecution counsel said.

She claimed the man then received a voice message from another number warning him: “You’re playing with fire. I’ll see you face to face shortly, and if you’re not about we’ll see your wife.”

Police were contacted and launched an investigation into the alleged blackmail plot.

Records disclosed that the numbers used were registered as ‘pay as you go’ mobiles.

McDonagh is allegedly linked by CCTV evidence from retail outlets where the phone top-ups were bought.

During interviews he denied any involvement in the blackmail or even knowing the victim.

Opposing bail, the prosecutor added: “Large amounts of cash was exchanged ... and has not been recovered despite searches.”

Defence barrister Dessie Hutton insisted nothing incriminating was found at McDonagh’s property.

No voice identification evidence or cell site analysis links his client to the offences either, counsel contended.

Granting bail, Judge Stephen Fowler QC banned McDonagh from having a mobile phone or any contact with the victim.