'We were nice people dragged into a world of crime' - family's chilling story as dealers try to extort cash over son's drug debts
With dealers trying to extort cash from parents over their children's drug debts, one family tell their chilling story to Maeve Sheehan
We meet in a hotel outside Dublin where they hope that they won't be recognised. They are understandably nervous because the ordeal that began for them last summer is far from over and probably never will be, they admit. Needless to say, they do not want where they live, or their names, to be published - so they go by John and Mary. Mary's son, Tom, the source of their worry, is now in hiding.
They are living the sort of nightmare that they really ought to be binge-watching on Netflix. It's that nightmare when your gullible teenage child starts smoking cannabis, gets lured into selling it, and ends up in hock for thousands to criminal gangs, which extort the cash from the terrified parents. To pay or not to pay becomes the paramount question.
Drug debt intimidation is an under-reported side effect of the drugs trade, rarely reported to gardai and almost never spoken about publicly by the families directly involved. The National Family Support Network says drug debt intimidation is a "national epidemic". A special reporting mechanism was put in place within An Garda Siochana but it seems families are too terrified to use it. Gardai admit that the statistics don't reflect just how "pervasive drug-related intimidation is within our communities".
John and Mary contacted this newspaper initially because they felt they were not getting enough support from gardai. Now they have that support, they decided they wanted to share their story.
Mary's son was until recently an "ordinary kid". He did well at school and embarked on a college course. Mary describes Tom as "funny, kind and really loving", while John calls him "conscientious".
"There was never any hassle with him. There was no missing school, no truancy, he played sport, and whilst he was a quiet enough chap in terms of talking about his inner feelings, he had the gift of the gab with his contemporaries, so was popular around town with lots of mates," says John.
"He thought he was streetwise, he thought he was one of the lads. In the end, he wasn't. He turned out to be gullible. But he was, for want of a better word, an ordinary kid."
Last summer, Tom dropped out of college suddenly after two years of studying. Not long after that, gardai turned up at his home with a search warrant. They said they had been told that Tom was dealing drugs. "That was the first I knew of anything untoward," says John.
They confronted Tom that night. To their horror, he confirmed that he had sold drugs. He told them "a version of the truth", John says now. He told them how he was lured in with free cannabis, by a dealer who saw that Tom was a popular lad and told him to give it to his mates. The next time, the dealer ordered him to sell it, and he was swiftly sucked in. Tom told them he was kept in through intimidation, the threat of violence, or conning him into their debt by inflating the drugs they gave him. He insisted he was no longer in debt.
Over time, his parents realised this was not true. He was still deep in the maw of the gang.
At home one night last autumn, he finally broke down. "I'm in serious trouble. I can't do it any more," he said.
Tom's father brought him to the local garda station that night. Tom divulged that he was thousands of euro in debt to the gang. Publishing the exact amount would risk identifying him, but gardai confirm that it runs to five figures. Tom told them he had been given one week to come up with the money or his mother's house would be burned to the ground and he would be killed.
Life changed forever from that point.
"We'd been told by the police, 'go home if you want, we will patrol but cannot guarantee your safety as we cannot give you 24-hour personal protection'. So, we chose to stay away. We were too scared to be anywhere near the house. We stayed in hotels, we stayed with friends, we stayed with family," says John.
Gardai also advised the family not to pay the debt -which John says they couldn't even if they wanted to. "They said 'we cannot guarantee that even if you pay, that Tom will not be harmed. They may demand more money. If Tom gives us a statement, we can go and arrest the guy. But we can't guarantee that they still won't carry out the threat to attack the family home. If Tom believes there is a viable threat to his life, he should leave'."
Tom was bundled into hiding.
A day after the dealer's deadline, the house was duly petrol-bombed, setting the house alight and causing extensive damage. "The thought of being upstairs and trying to escape with the fire blazing below made us sick with fear," says Mary.
That was not the end of the violence. The house was attacked again when someone tried to throw a brick through a window, and weeks later, they learnt that the threat had extended to the wider family.
The effect was devastating. Mary was beside herself with worry. "I was shocked and scared. I thought I was in a nightmare. I didn't sleep, didn't eat, constantly fearful of any noise or strangers," she says. She was unhappy with the level of Garda support she received. Although a crime prevention officer eventually called and patrols drove by her house, Mary felt that she had to do the running.
Those weeks from autumn into winter passed in a daze of fear and shame. "We are just ordinary people who were dragged suddenly into the world of crime by someone else. We didn't know who to turn to, what to do, how to ever get some kind of resolution," says John.
The options were stark. A chief superintendent told them not to pay. To take action, gardai would need Tom's testimony, but that brought with it the risk of having to enter a witness protection programme. They contacted families in a similar position, in cloak-and-dagger meetings arranged in secret. Their advice was "pay".
"It was like a scene out of a John le Carre spy movie. They were absolutely petrified," says John. "But how do you pay when you simply do not have the money?"
As of now, the debt stands and Tom is still in hiding. The threat remains but John and Mary say they have brokered a temporary reprieve - which they won't elaborate on for security reasons.
As they bring their story to a close, Mary turns away and cries. Later she says: "We are ordinary, nice people. You never think that it will come to your door, and then when it does, it is devastating.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought my child could do that. It was like something you would see on Love/Hate. Parents really have to check on their teenage kids - I learnt that the hard way. I don't want people to go through what I'm going through. I don't know if I will see my son again."