A man who one worked for ex-IRA chief of staff, Slab Murphy, has agreed to pay almost half a million euro in settlement of a cross-Border fuel-smuggling case against him.
Patrick Belton's house in 'Millionaire's Row', one of the most notorious cross-border roads in South Armagh, boasts balconies, a large tiered water fountain, and other ostentatious features.
Belton, who traded under the name Value Fuels, is believed to have been behind a multi-million euro fuel smuggling operation. He was a driver for Murphy before setting up on his own.
After an investigation lasting over a year, during which his assets were frozen, it is understood he has agreed to pay the Criminal Assets' Bureau (CAB) around €240,000 and the North's Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) €210,000. Sources said both CAB and ARA regarded it as a very successful outcome to their joint operation.
It is ARA's first successful settlement against a fuel smuggler. Sources say that while the trade remains extremely lucrative, ARA is having an effect and some very "significant scalps" have been targeted this year.
In the past eight months, ARA has frozen over €8 million in assets from suspected fuel smugglers. The trade was once predominantly controlled by Slab Murphy but, in recent years, there has been an increasing fragmentation with more independent smugglers. However, many of these are understood to pay a "tax" to Murphy.
Belton, 44, was a prominent fuel-smuggler along the south Armagh/north Louth border. His claimed occupation was that of garage owner. In 1998, Corporal Gary Fenton, 29, tried to stop Belton driving his oil tanker through a checkpoint on the Castleblaney Road near Crossmaglen in south Armagh. The tanker did not stop and Fenton was dragged 70ft to his death.
Belton was injured when the British Army patrol opened fire on the vehicle. The tanker was abandoned a few hundred yards on the Southern side of the border. When asked for his details, Belton gave a false name and date of birth. He was charged in connection with the incident.
A jury took 45 minutes to find him not guilty of causing death by dangerous driving. He was fined 150 for driving without insurance.
Belton was trying to sell his luxury home before his assets were frozen by ARA. According to previous reports, the house was valued at €1.5 million. However, serious structural defects were discovered in both the foundations of the house and an adjoining oil plant, substantially lessening the value. It is understood Belton is now selling the house to a cousin.
Belton has been previously investigated by customs in Galway where he ran a garage. Customs in the North also raided and closed down two petrol stations he managed in north and west Belfast. Laundered diesel was seized in both premises.
Last month, ARA took action against two other high-profile suspected fuel smugglers. Almost €4 million in assets belonging to Jonathan Sawyers of Sixmilecross, Co Tyrone, were frozen.
Sawyers, who is director of Little Float Farm, has an extensive criminal record which includes convictions for the transportation of unfit animals, deception, conspiracy to fraudulently evade customs' duty, causing unnecessary suffering to livestock, and supplying animals for slaughter unfit for human consumption. The assets frozen include land and property on both sides of the Border.
Around €2 million of assets belonging to Malachy and Patricia Molloy from Armagh were also frozen. The Molloys own four companies, two of which are based in the Republic. The Northern Ireland-based companies are MFS Fuel Supplies and Tile Safe Ltd.
The frozen assets include seven houses in the North, further properties in the Republic, land on both sides of the border, money in a range of bank accounts, and 23 commercial and private vehicles, including a fleet of lorries and tankers.
Over €1 million of assets from fuel smuggling in counties Armagh and Louth were frozen in February. Damien McGleenan, of McGleenan Fuels in Keady, had €600,0000 worth of goods frozen including a pub, numerous other properties on both sides of the Border, and bank accounts.
Around €450,000 worth of assets were frozen in a case against Neil Vallely of NV Oils in Newtownhamilton, Co Armagh, They include land and properties. In September, ARA froze over €1 million in assets from suspected Newry fuel-smugglers, brothers Sean and John Byrne.