Staff saw ‘shambolic’ robber before he covered his face with balaclava

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A 34-year old Belfast man who carried out a “rather shambolic” attempted armed robbery at a city centre bookmakers was jailed for 18 months on Wednesday.

Paul McWilliams entered the Ladbroke bookmakers on Union Street on July 7 last year - but covered his face with a balaclava after he entered the premises. Despite demands for money, he left empty-handed and was arrested less than an hour later.

After admitting two offences arising from the incident - namely attempted robbery and going equipped for theft - the Antrim Road man was handed a 42-month sentence at Belfast Crown Court. He was informed by Judge Gordon Kerr QC that he will spend 18 months of his sentence in prison, with the remaining two years on licence when he is released from custody.

Crown prosecutor Gareth Purvis said that McWilliams targeted the bookmakers, and took four or five steps inside the premises before pulling a balaclava over his face. A member of staff was able to get a look at his face before he covered it, and was later able to provide a description to police.

McWilliams approached the counter, produced what appeared to be a black gun and shouted at the female employee to give him money. As he repeated the demand, the member of staff hit the alarm.

She then told him she didn’t have any keys, she couldn’t give him any money and that the police were on their way.

Mr Purvis said McWilliams left the bookmakers, but was arrested 55 minutes later on the lower Antrim Road. When apprehended, he was carrying a plastic bag which contained a black balaclava and an imitation firearm.

During police interviews, McWilliams admitted his guilt but said he was forced to carry out the robbery by a paramilitary. He made the case that he was attacked by a man associated with paramilitaries, he retaliated and as a result of this he had to carry out a robbery as penance. If he didn’t do this, he was told he would be subject to a beating.

Mr Purvis told Judge Kerr that the attempted robbery was “rather shambolic in its execution”, adding McWilliams came before the court with a clear criminal record.

Defence barrister Greg Berry QC also branded the incident as “a completely amateurish operation, carried out with no planning whatsoever.” The barrister said McWilliams “goes in with his face uncovered ... anyone with any wit would know there are security cameras.”

Confirming his client’s claims that he was threatened into doing what he did, Mr Berry said those behind the threats even supplied McWilliams with the items he was subsequently caught with.

The barrister also described McWilliams as “vulnerable” due to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety which he said made him “easy prey for some people.”

Sentencing McWilliams, Judge Kerr said: “I accept there may have been a degree of pressure on this man to offend.”

The Judge also ordered that the balaclava and imitation firearm are destroyed.