Financier gets 10-year term for Belfast bank raid
DUBLIN — A private financier received a 10-year prison sentence Friday for handling millions stolen from Northern Bank in Belfast, a record-setting robbery that overshadowed Northern Ireland’s peace process for years.
Prison guards led Ted Cunningham, 60, away in handcuffs after Cork Circuit Criminal Court Judge Cornelius Murphy ruled that he had deliberately lied to the court about the source of British banknotes worth 2.3 million British pounds (euro3.5 million, $4.5 million).
Police found the mountain of money hidden in his rural Cork home two months after the Belfast heist, and linked him to 700,000 pounds more that he sought to launder through business friends or the purchase of luxury cars.
Cunningham had faced a maximum sentence of 14 years following his conviction last month on 10 counts of laundering money — allegedly on behalf of the outlawed Irish Republican Army — from the 26.5 million-pound (euro38 million, $50 million) raid on Northern Bank’s central vault in downtown Belfast on Dec. 20, 2004. But the judge reduced the sentence, citing Cunningham’s age and deteriorating health.
He also imposed a much more lenient sentence on Cunningham’s 33-year-old son, Timothy, who had pleaded guilty during the trial to four counts of laundering Northern Bank money. His three-year sentence was suspended. The judge said the son had demonstrated courage by pleading guilty in defiance of his father.
“He was under the influence and direction of his father at the time. He was at no time the originator of the crime,” Murphy said.
During his trial, Cunningham insisted that the money came from three unidentified Bulgarian businessmen looking for his help to buy an Irish quarry. Detectives testified that, off the record, Cunningham had expressed fears that the IRA would come after him if he told the truth.
“There’s no doubt there was premeditation and planning involved in the offenses. He persisted to the end with a concocted alibi that Bulgarians were going to buy a pit,” Murphy said.
The judge also ordered the 2.3 million pounds found in Cunningham’s home to be handed over to the state, and authorized anti-racketeering detectives to open a new probe into other aspects of Cunningham’s personal and business finances. Cunningham already faces an estimated euro880,000 ($1.15 million) bill for tax evasion.
The Northern Bank heist — at the time the biggest cash robbery in history, and still by far the biggest ever committed on the island of Ireland — involved raids by armed, masked gangs on the homes of two bank employees with high-level security clearance. Both helped the robbers clear out the vault because their families were being held hostage and threatened with death.
During Cunningham’s trial, the jury was shown videotapes of his police interrogations, during which he admitted receiving nearly 5 million pounds in four deliveries from someone driving a Northern Ireland-registered car. Cunningham told the detectives he suspected that the money came from the robbery, and had contemplated burning it.
Cunningham ran an unregulated private bank, Chesterton Finance Ltd., out of his rural Cork home that offered double-digit interest rates to depositors and charged borrowers more than double that.
One of his business partners was Phil Flynn, a former vice president and treasurer of Sinn Fein, who was arrested on suspicion of involvement in laundering the Northern Bank millions but never faced charges.
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