Post office robberies hit those most in need, says judge

The botched robbery took place at Whitehead post office
The botched robbery took place at Whitehead post office

A Crown Court judge has hit out at those who target post offices in robberies, saying such premises “provide an invaluable service ... often to those who are most in need”.

Judge Brian Sherrard made the comments whilst sentencing men who admitted buying diesel for a car linked to an attempted robbery.

Belfast Crown Court heard the botched robbery took place at the post office in Whitehead last January.

Appearing in the dock were 28-year old Mark McClean from Merville Garden Village in Newtownabbey and 20-year old Peter Clark. A previous court order has banned Clark’s Belfast address from being published.

Both men admitted a charge of assisting offenders on January 4 last year. They each pleaded guilty to a charge of obtaining diesel for the recovery of a vehicle used in the attempted robbery.

Outlining the background, Crown prosecutor Kate McKay said that on the morning in question the post mistress was working behind the counter when a young man she had never seen before – who the Crown say was Clark – asked to withdraw money from his Post Office account.

He left the premises after the transaction was complete, but returned a short time later asking to withdraw the remaining money in his account. Mrs McKay said that while Clark was being attended to, an unknown male wearing a balaclava and brandishing what was either a knife or a pair of scissors approached the counter.

He pushed a black bag over to the post mistress, ordering her to fill the bag with cash. She was able to push the panic button and run out of sight.

Following the attempted robbery, a taxi driver picked up two men and took them to a garage in Carrick where they filled up an oil drum they were carrying with diesel. The taxi was subsequently stopped by police as it was being driven towards the Edenvale area, close to where a Peugeot was parked in a laneway.

The two passengers – Clark and McClean – were removed from the taxi and when the vehicle was searched, the key for the Peugeot was located where McClean had been sitting.

Both men were interviewed by police about their role in the attempted robbery, and while neither gave a clear account, the two accepted they had gone to buy diesel for the Peugeot which was to be used by the third man, who has never been identified or apprehended.

The prosecutor added that while Clark came before the court with a clear criminal record, McClean has 120 previous convictions. McClean also carried out the offence of assisting an offender whilst he was under a suspended sentence.

Mrs McKay added that the robbery was a “failed attempt”, that no-one was injured and that it would seem the post office in Whitehead was well protected.

McClean’s barrister Michael Campbell branded the would-be robbery as a “ham-fisted escapade from start to finish”. The barrister also spoke of both McClean and Clark’s “limited roles”, saying the “major players” were not before the court.

Gavan Duffy QC, representing Clark, said his client had “very complex” health issues which he was receiving ongoing treatment for. Reiterating his client’s complete lack of criminal record, Mr Duffy said the offence was carried out when Clark was undergoing difficulties in his personal life and when he was “very much at a low point”.

Before passing sentence, Judge Sherrard said: “Post offices provide an invaluable service to the community, often to those who are most in need. This was clearly an organised and planned attempt to rob ... as is evidenced by the use of a balaclava and weapon.

“It was an attempt to rob premises where there was likely to be a large amount of money and where there were other customers present and a post mistress working alone.”

McClean was ordered to serve a three-year probation order, part of which will address his offending. He was also ordered to serve 100 hours community service, with Judge Sherrard telling him “this is not an easy option” as his liberty would be curtailed.

The judge then told Clark his “fall from grace can be seen as an aberration” during which he let both himself and society as a whole down, and ordered him to serve 180 hours community service over a 12-month period.