'epidemic' | 

Four men charged amid garda clampdown on drug debt extortion and violence

One accused, a pizza chef, is alleged to have mistakenly called to an off-duty garda's home and threatened him

Charlie Cunningham (23), of Kellys Bay Heights, Skerries, Co. Dublin

Andrew Phelan

Four men have been charged following a garda clampdown on an "epidemic" of extortion and violence by drug debt collectors.

One accused, a pizza chef, is alleged to have mistakenly called to an off-duty garda's home and threatened him, while in a separate case, an alleged victim was repeatedly stabbed by another suspect over a supposed debt.

A court heard the problem "bloomed" during the Covid crisis and one garda division in Dublin currently has 30 separate investigations underway into drug-related intimidation.

Three of the four who appeared in Dublin District Court today were granted bail, while the other made no bail application.

Charlie Cunningham (23) of Kelly’s Bay Heights, Skerries, Co Dublin is charged with demanding money with menaces and threatening to kill or cause serious harm.

Ryan Keeley (20) of Coultry Place, Ballymun, is charged with two counts of threatening to kill or cause serious harm and three of demanding money with menaces.

Sean Jones (19), of Kiltalown Way, Tallaght, is charged with aggravated burglary, producing a knife, demanding money with menaces and assaulting a man.

Mr Jones’ stepfather David Savage (30), from Ballymun but of no fixed address, is charged with assaulting the same man.

Gardai objected to bail in all four cases.

Judge Treasa Kelly granted bail to Mr Cunningham, Mr Jones and Mr Keeley but Mr Savage was remanded in custody by consent.

The four are facing trial and their cases were adjourned for the preparation of books of evidence.

Sean Jones (19), of Kiltalown Way, Tallaght, Dublin, leaving Dublin District Court after he was charged with aggravated burglary and demanding money with menaces. PIC: Collins Courts

Detective Garda Domhnall O’Connell said apart from Mr Jones and Mr Savage’s cases, the charges were not related. However, they were investigated under Operation Fógra, a garda initiative tackling drug-related intimidation.

“The whole drug debt epidemic bloomed during the covid crisis, when debts were hard to get back during lockdowns,” he said.

He outlined the allegations in his bail objections.

In Mr Cunningham’s case, the court heard it was alleged the accused, a pizza chef, called to the home of an off duty garda in Donabate, north county Dublin on January 1, 2021. The garda answered the door and Mr Cunningham allegedly asked was a “named individual” living at the address.

This individual did not live there but close by and the off-duty garda said no, the accused must have the wrong house, Det Gda O’Connell continued.

Mr Cunningham left and walked away but returned, insisted it was the right house, said he wanted money and it would be “better for everyone if it was paid”, or he would “get people to come back and break in doors,” it was alleged.

According to the prosecution, the alleged victim told the accused he was a garda at which Mr Cunningham challenged him to arrest him.

He also allegedly said: “now that I know you’re a garda, you are f**ked.”

The court heard there was an audio and video recording of “the entire incident."

In Mr Jones’ case, Det Gda O’Connell said there were two alleged incidents. The first was in Ballymun on January 1, 2021 when the alleged victim was visiting a friend and Mr Jones and a second man allegedly called to the apartment uninvited. There was a verbal altercation before the alleged victim was punched in the head and upper body by the second man.

According to gardai, Mr Jones then produced a knife and proceeded to stab the alleged victim a number of times, before the assailants fled.

The man suffered significant injuries and received 28 stitches in hospital, where he stayed for 12 days.

The following February 13, 2021, it was alleged Mr Jones and a different man called to a house in Swords, the home of a 60-year-old man with chronic health conditions.

These conditions were allegedly “commented on” by the two who then demanded €5,000, saying the man’s son owed it to them in a drug debt.

Ryan Keeley (20), of Coultry Place, Ballymun, Dublin, leaving Dublin District Court after he was charged with demanding money with menaces and threats to kill. PIC: Collins Courts

The other man threatened to “smash his house if he didn’t have the money.” It was also allegedly stated that the son would be shot and killed if the money was not paid.

Det Gda O’Connell said it was alleged Mr Keeley called to the home of a family of African asylum seekers in three incidents at Northwood, Santry in March and April last year.

In the first incident, Mr Keeley allegedly said their son owed money for a drug debt and demanded it was paid. He allegedly said if it was not paid he would shoot the son, and he would kill the family if the gardai were contacted.

The next day, according to gardai, Mr Keeley returned, again demanded payment and threatened to shoot the son and burn the house out.

On the third date, he allegedly called back and did not gain entry but repeated his demands on the intercom system.

Edward Bradbury solicitor applied for bail for Mr Cunningham, while solicitors Paddy McGarry and Roy O'Neill sought bail on behalf of Mr Jones and Mr Keeley.

Judge Kelly granted bail, saying the accused were presumed innocent. Under conditions, they must sign on at garda stations and not contact the alleged victims.

Mr McGarry said Mr Savage was not making a bail application. The accused were all granted free legal aid.

None of the four have entered pleas to the charges yet. The DPP has directed trial on indictment.

Det Gda O’Connell said there were a total of 30 separate investigations ongoing within Dublin’s DMR Northern division alone.

The amounts in other cases ranged up to €100,000 or remortgaged homes and the intimidation included stabbings, threats to kill and arson attacks, he said.

Gardai said in a statement: "If you or someone you know is experiencing drug-related intimidation, there is help and support available. The Drug Related Intimidation Programme responds to the needs of persons who use drugs and family members experiencing drug related intimidation."

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