Man jailed for attempting to extort cash from couple after claiming to hold their relative hostage

February 1, 2023

A man has been jailed for seven years after demanding €15,000 from a Donegal couple while claiming to be holding one of their relatives hostage.

Mark and Michelle Smyth were believed to think that a kidnapped relative would be shot unless they came up with a ransom.

Kevin Harkin, who has almost 100 previous convictions, was nabbed by a Garda sting operation on April 22, 2016 and was before Letterkenny Circuit Court for sentencing this week.

Gardaí caught Harkin when they launched an operation to intercept him and another man collecting what they believed was a bag containing the cash at Ture, Muff.

Harkin, a 37-year-old of 71a Ross na Coille, Derry, pleaded guilty to making an ‘unwarranted demand, namely extorted monies totalling €15,000 or thereabouts from Michelle and Mark Smyth with menaces’. The offence is contrary to the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994.

Garda Sergeant John Joe Gallagher told the court that a woman called at Buncrana Garda Station and informed them of demands made to her and her ex-husband.

Ms Smyth handed her phone to Gardaí. Ms Smyth’s brother-in-law, Anthony, called at 10.48pm and was described as being ‘agitated’.

A man with a Derry accent came on the phone and told the terrified Ms Smyth: “We’ve got your brother. I think you know who we are.” The man demanded €15,000 ‘and whatever stuff you’ve got’ and the woman was told not to contact Gardaí, State prosecutor Ms Patricia McLaughlin BL, said.

After it was agreed that €4,000 could be sourced, the couple were told: “Pay the money or we will put bullets in him.”

While the couple were told that Anthony would be released when the money was handed over, they received a further call the following day, again demanding €15,000.

A Detective Garda answered the phone and pretended to be Mr Smyth. Two voices could be heard on the other side of the line.

Upon telling the callers that he needed more time, he was warned: “If you don’t get what we want, you’ll be put in a hole.”

The men initially asked for the money to be dropped close to the Templemore Sports Complex in Derry, but they agreed to a drop-off point at a cul de sac near the GAA grounds at Ture, Muff.

Gardaí mounted an operation to intercept the men and placed a bag at the agreed location.

Officers set up two observation points near to where the bag was dropped. When the men arrived in a car, the Gardaí pounced and arrested the two men

Harkin has 96 previous convictions in Northern Ireland with 32 for road traffic offences. His catalogue includes four for assaults, nine incidents of criminal damage, five for drug-related offences, 13 for resisting arrest and obstructing police, seven thefts and four assaults.

He has spent eight separate periods in prison, his longest stretch seeing him behind bars for 12 months for a robbery.

Mr Peter Nolan BL, barrister for Harkin, said this incident represented a ‘major step up’ from his client’s previous crimes.

“He was caught red-handed and, while there could have been a technical defence, he wants this matter over,” Mr Nolan said.

“His behaviour was nothing short of appalling. He has no living family and his friends are gone.”

A probation and welfare report said Harkin had ‘many sleepless nights’ over the matter and was deemed at being of a high risk of reoffending.

Mr Nolan outlined to the court that his client grew up in foster care and was moved to a residential children’s home in Belfast.

Harkin, a father-of-four from three separate relationships, lost contact with his siblings and his mother passed away in 2020, but has maintained fortnightly contact with his youngest son from prison via video.

Harkin hopes to attend his son’s First Holy Communion in 2023, Mr Nolan said.

During his incarceration, Harkin has completed a level 3 course in barbering. He has also been engaged in gardening and landscaping in Castlrea.

“He is a well-behaved prisoner,” Mr Nolan said.

In a letter, Harkin apologised for the ‘stress, fear and sleepless nights’ he had caused and said he offered ‘no excuses’ for his actions.

Harkin has spent a total of 882 days in custody and was arrested on foot of a European Arrest Warrant in 2020 after failing to answer bail.

Judge John Aylmer said the incident merited a starting point of eight years in prison due to the levels of ‘fear and upset’ he caused.

Judge Aylmer said an early guilty plea could not be given much credit as Harkin was ‘caught red-handed’.

Prison was proving to be ‘difficult’ as Harkin lost connections with family and friends, but it was noted that he was enjoying enhanced status in prison.

“Time has long since passed when you could point to a difficult background as being deserving of mitigation,” Judge Aylmer said.

Judge Aylmer reduced the sentence to one of seven years in prison, with credit to be given for the 882 days Harkin has served in custody.