Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Cullyhanna kidnap pair jailed

Two Cullyhanna men who kidnapped, robbed and threatened to kill a Dundalk taxi driver have been jailed. 

Former All-Ireland winning minor footballer, Robert Tasker, and his cousin and co-accused, Antion McCooey, both of separate addresses in St. Patrick’s Park, Cullyhanna, were convicted by a majority verdict in April on four kidnap and assault charges.

The pair were sentenced at Newry Crown Court on Monday last (18th June) with 27 year old Tasker – who was also convicted of drug offences – handed three and a half years in prison, while 25 year old McCooey will spend half of his six-year sentence in jail and the remainder on licence.

The trial of the men had heard from victim, Paul Kelly, that Tasker had held a stanley knife to his throat and threatened to “rape and murder” him after he picked the cousins up from a Chinese restaurant in Dundalk in the early hours of 29 November 2016. 

The taxi driver told the court he thought he was going to die as Tasker held the knife to his throat and he described how McCooey threatened to stab him with a flat head screwdriver during the 25-minute journey to Cullyhanna. 

Mr Kelly said the men paid for the fare of 30 euros upfront at his request, before Tasker began to speak in highly sexualised language.  McCooey’s demeanour then changed after the taxi driver told him he felt uncomfortable with the conversation. Despite handing over €120 in takings, the men continued to threaten him with rape and murder, before telling him to bring the car into a church car park in Cullyhanna. 

However, the driver stopped the car on the road and as another car passed, the two men got out and walked away.  

Robert Tasker (left) and Antoin McCooey. Picture by Mal McCann

The taxi driver said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder since the attack and subsequently gave up his job seven months later.  

During the court proceedings, Tasker’s barrister revealed that his client had a £200-a-day “cocaine dependency” which he funded through playing football in the U.S and compensation from a road traffic accident.  He is also said to have owed £10,000 to drug dealers and owed money as a result of a gambling debt.

Mr Orr added that “it may well be that he (Tasker) was under the influence” on the night Mr Kelly was threatened and robbed.

Both men had denied all kidnapping related charges, insisting that they were not in the taxi driver’s car that night, and had refused to give evidence in court.

Tasker received a sentence of five years, and a further two years after pleading guilty to a number of drugs offences, including the possession and supply of cocaine and cannabis, found by police in a search of his home during the investigation. 

The ex-footballer had received character references from coaches he had worked with at a club and county level.

McCooey was handed a six-year sentence – half to be spent in jail and the remainder on licence.

It was also revealed during Monday’s proceedings that McCooey had previously been convicted of a hijacking and attack against another taxi driver in 2011.

Passing sentence, Judge Melody McReynolds said that both men’s demeanour throughout the trial was characterised by “bravado” and that they  had “used humiliation” against a “lone taxi driver with hearing difficulties “ 

She said  former player Tasker’s “major addiction problem is his own ego” and added that he is “a very talented footballer who has to come to terms with being past his best.” 

Speaking after the sentencing, PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Will Tate said, “This was a thoroughly traumatic incident for a man who was simply out doing his job, and I believe the sentence imposed at court today reflects the seriousness and gravity of the incident which has had a lasting impact on the taxi driver and his family.”

Mr Kelly however, said he was “very disappointed” by the sentence.

“I respect the judge, but the sentencing is extremely light for what they did,” he said.

“I really thought, no less than eight to 10, I was hoping for that at least.

“They can start again. Whether they do sell drugs and do it all over again, I have to live with the mental side of it.

“For what they have done, it’s incredible. I live with it every day, I have to move on the best I can.”