Two men from Northern Ireland were jailed last month for trying to buy two semi-automatic handguns from undercover police officers through the dark web.
The two men were among six individuals arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in a sting operation targeting Carrickfergus gang feuds between December 2016 and January 2017.
The PSNI believe the guns were intended to be used in South East Antrim in the loyalist feud.
Trial Starts After Year-Long Wait
Their trial began in October after a one-year wait in custody. Both Antrim men pleaded guilty to their involvement in the plot to acquire weapons through the dark web.
Thomas Morgan, a 42-year-old Doagh resident, pleaded guilty to attempting to possess firearms to allow another person to cause fear/harm to an individual.
Darren Bennett, 23, from Newtownabbey also pleaded guilty to attempting to possess two firearms (Glock pistols) and 20 rounds of ammunition, as well as attempted possession of MDMA and cocaine.
Additionally, a third man linked to the case was also arrested and prosecuted. Dubbed as the money man, Scott Colin McMurran, 26, pleaded guilty to facilitating Bennett with over £1,900 which was used in purchasing illicit drugs.
Prosecutors Say Operation Was Unsophisticated
During the hearings back in October, the court was told that Bennett, who was handling the dark web transactions, contacted undercover police officers in February 2017.
The police officers used aliases “Danny and “Joe” and posed as firearms dealers. Unaware that they were police officers, Bennett gave them his real name as well as his phone number.
According to the prosecutor-in-charge, Sam Magee, Morgan was the one who directed Bennett to buy the firearms and was in contact with the latter when the transaction was ongoing.
Morgan was reportedly skeptical about the deal and at some point pulled out of it since the dealer had not arranged a test-fire of the guns before the final purchase.
The prosecution stated that text messages retrieved from the popular messaging app WhatsApp showed that Morgan wanted to make sure that the firearms were working.
The messages further showed that the attempt to acquire the firearms was in line with the feud in Carrickfergus at that time.
The prosecution argued that if the deal were successful, the weapons would have undoubtedly ended up being used by the South East Antrim UDA.
It was also alleged that Bennett outsourced assistance from McMurran to raise £2,000 and £990 for a Glock 19 and Glock 17, respectively, from the dark web.
However, McMurran’s defense counsel, Eilis McDermott, stated that his client thought that the money was to be used to buy drugs and was not aware of any attempt to purchase a firearm.
Bennett was arrested at Yorkgate Shopping Center, the meeting point for collecting the weapons from the undercover officers.
Initially, he was to meet the undercover cop, “Danny,” at Central Station in Belfast but was late. His counterpart Morgan was arrested two days later in Carrickfergus.
Later during investigations, police seized a parcel destined to Bennett from Carrick Post Office, in which they found 55 grams of MDMA and 13.75 grams of cocaine both valued at £4,000.
Through his defense lawyer, Greg Berry QC, Morgan argued that he did what he did to protect himself after receiving deaths threats his mediator role in the Carrick feud failed.
The court was told that police were aware of the death threats and that they visited Morgan to inform him of the threats in three incidents.
Describing him as a man with low IQ, Berry argued that Morgan was not a criminal mastermind.
The judge overseeing the case, Judge Desmond Marrinan, sentenced both Bennett and Morgan to 20 months in prison, with an additional 28 months on licensed parole.
Bennett was given a further 30 months for drug possession. The “money man,” McMurran, was freed on 18 months of probation with a maximum of 100 hours of community service for 12 months.
The judge also praised the undercover officers for their work in ensuring deadly weapons did not get into the wrong hands.
The same sentiments were echoed by Paramilitary Crime Task Force Inspector Lynne Knox, who spoke outside the court after the sentencing.
She stated that she welcomed the sentencing and it showed the commitment of the Paramilitary Crime Task Force of removing firearms and drugs from local communities.
She further claimed the lethal weapons and drugs the men attempted to buy would have ended up in the hands of South East Antrim UDA paramilitaries.
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