Gang jailed for trying to rob one of NI's richest men
Three Merseyside men have been jailed for a plot to burgle the home of one of Northern Ireland's richest men.
The plan to rob multi-millionaire Michael Herbert's home was foiled after a lengthy covert police surveillance operation, Belfast Crown Court heard.
Richard Blundell, of Bardsay Road, Stephen Barlow of Hewitson Road - both in Liverpool - and Craig Murray, of Victoria Road, Crosby, pleaded guilty.
Blundell and Barlow were sentenced to six years, while Murray got five years.Cilla Black
They will serve half of their sentences in jail and the remainder on licence.
Almost ten years ago, in October 2004, Blundell and Barlow were both jailed for their role in a plot to target wealthy people in England, whose homes had appeared in Hello magazine and Country Life.
At the time, Chester Crown Court was told Blundell was also part of a gang suspected of burgling the Buckinghamshire home of TV presenter Cilla Black, stealing items valued at £1m.
On Friday, Belfast Crown Court heard that in 2011, Blundell, Barlow and Murray travelled to Belfast for a four-day "reconnaissance" mission outside Mr Herbert's home.
During the trip they used false names, a false number plate and had false passports.
All three men admitted conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary at the Herberts' home when they appeared at the same court last week.'Falsely imprison'
The charge stated that the men, armed with an offensive weapon - namely cable ties - entered the house on Malone Road in south Belfast, and did so with intent to steal.
Four other charges - conspiracy to rob and falsely imprison the Herbert family, conspiracy to burgle and going equipped for burglary - remain on the books.
A prosecution lawyer told the court that the gang had been "under observation for a substantial period of time" by undercover police.
He said that on 31 March, 2011, the men arrived in Belfast on a ferry from Stranraer in Murray's car and booked into a Belfast hotel under false names.
He said that the following day, the trio travelled to the Malone Road area in Murray's car, where they appeared to take part in a "reconnaissance operation" of the Herbert family home.'Casing the property'
The prosecution lawyer said Murray's car, which was under police surveillance, was "fitted with false Northern Ireland number plates in a clear attempt to avoid detection".
He added that over the following two days, 2 and 3 April, the accused carried out two further reconnaissance operations at the house, alleging that the gang was "casing the property".
The court heard that on 4 April, all three men left Northern Ireland and took the ferry back to Stranraer.
Four days later, on 8 April 2011, the three men caught the Holyhead to Dublin ferry in Murray's car.
They booked into the same hotel, again paying in cash for their rooms.
The prosecution lawyer said that on that evening, police observed Murray's car in the same church car park and watched the gang walk towards the house on the Malone Road.Balaclavas
"Entry was gained to the rear garden of the target house through a broken panel in the fence. One was carrying a rucksack and they were observed by police carrying crowbars.
"Around 10.20pm, police challenged them as it appeared they were about to leave the garden having not entered the house.
"Police effectively then had to trigger the arrest," the lawyer said.
The court heard that Barlow, who was wearing gloves and a balaclava, was detained in the garden of the house by the officers.
Murray and Blundell fled and escaped through the broken fence but were arrested by police in New Forge Lane. They were also wearing gloves and balaclavas.Lump hammer
A police search in New Forge Lane recovered a backpack that the court was told "appeared to have been deposited along the route the accused took" to the Herbert family home.
The judge was told that inside the backpack police found cable ties, knives, a screwdriver, and a lump hammer.
The prosecution barrister told the court: "During a search of their hotel room a diamond testing device was recovered. False passports were also recovered from the accused.
"This was a well-planned operation by the accused which required areas of sophistication and was conducted over a number of days."
The court heard that the owners of the home had been kept fully informed of the police operation from 1 April.'Ashamed'
During the hearing, the judge was also told that in 2004, Blundell was jailed for eight years for two counts of aggravated burglary and Barlow was sentenced to 30 months for a burglary offence.
Defence counsel for Murray said he was "deeply remorseful and ashamed" of his behaviour and had only got involved in the Belfast plot after falling on "financial hardship in 2011".
He said that Murray had written a letter to the owners of the home "expressing his heartfelt regret" for his actions.
The judge said it was clear the trio were planning to rob the home of a "high value target" which involved carrying out reconnaissance on the house in south Belfast.
He added that events of 8 April 2011 had an effect on the family who feared their home was going to be robbed.
Mr Herbert's business interests are said to include Europe's largest chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlets.'Experienced criminals'
Speaking after the trio were sentenced, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Organised Crime Branch said he wanted to "acknowledge the courage and perseverance of the intended victims in this investigation who have worked with police to ensure this dangerous organised crime group was brought to justice".
Det Ch Supt Roy McComb said the gang members were "experienced criminals who came to Northern Ireland with the intention of making money through violence or the threat of violence".
He added: "The fact that they did not succeed is due in no small measure to the attitude of the victims in working with police and the bravery and professionalism of PSNI officers who worked with colleagues in the National Crime Agency and the Titan team (North West Regional Organised Crime Unit) in England to bring these criminals to justice."