Bomb hoax: North Belfast gymnasium owner appears in court over charges of whistleblowing at peace event

An electrician hijacked and ordered at gunpoint to drive what he believed to be a bomb into a north Belfast church has been told his family will be targeted if he fails to carry out his instructions, a source has heard court.

The threat was detailed when North Belfast gymnasium owner Darren Service appeared in court for three offenses relating to the hoax bomb threat at the John and Pat Hume Foundation event at the Houben Center in north Belfast on March 25.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney had to be escorted off the premises by his security staff following the bomb threat.

The 40-year-old defendant, who lives in Ballysillan Road, is charged with one count of “preparing terrorist acts”. He is also charged with the hijacking of a Ford Transit van and another offense of placing “an item in the vicinity of Holy Cross Church, 432 Crumlin Road, Belfast, with intent to cause another person to believe likely to explode or ignite and cause bodily injury or property damage”.

The service was shut down by anti-terrorism officers on Sunday after it voluntarily showed up for an interview. He appeared in court via video link.

He was described in court as a “trusted member” of the organization that carried out the attack, namely the UVF.

Linking him to the crime, the court was told £100,000 was found in a safe during searches at Mr Service’s home, along with two balaclavas and three UVF pins.

An air rifle was also recovered along with a small amount of cannabis.

Opposing bail, police said a phone belonging to the victim of the hijacking as well as his wallet containing personal information were taken from him at the time and have not yet been recovered.

The court was also told that Mr Service can be seen in footage of an anti-protocol riot on April 7 last year watching a tension-related riot in which a bus was set on fire.

They also said the incident at the Houben Center was linked to ongoing anti-protocol protests and escalations linked to loyalist activity and that new bomb threats have occurred since last Friday’s incident.

This included a bomb threat at Warrenpoint and one on the Belfast-Dublin train on Wednesday.

Defense barrister Paul Bacon challenged police, saying his client owned a gymnasium near Lanark Way and was never questioned about the disturbances last year.

He also said his client owned three gyms and had applied for over £150,000 in rebound loans offered to businesses in the wake of the Covid pandemic, adding that his client had been fully accountable for his actions.

The court heard Service claimed the UVF badges were purchased at a group parade because he liked the colors, but disputes any affiliation with the organization. The balaclavas and air rifle were used for pigeon hunting, while the money came from savings, according to Service’s account.

A Detective Inspector said Mr Service could be linked to the case. He said the victim in the case was hijacked by two masked gunmen, one wearing a red shirt.

“The suspects threatened to shoot the IP (injured person) and harm his family if he did not follow instructions. They also took his cell phone and wallet,” the officer said.

The court was told the van driver did as he was ordered and was “in a state of distress” when he told officers at the scene what had happened. They checked the van and observed what they thought was a bomb.

The court heard that a gray Skoda was seen in the Sydney Street area and seen around the neighborhood on CCTV on the morning of the hijacking.

“This incident is linked to unrest around Northern Ireland protocol and the attack occurred due to the presence of the Irish Foreign Secretary at the Houben Center on this date,” the detective said.

The officer also referred to statements in the press linked to loyalist paramilitaries, claiming they would carry out attacks in relation to protocol and Irish ministers, claiming in this context that the UVF pins found in the house of the accused were “significant”.

Mr Bacon defending the accused disputed the police account, saying his client ‘gave a full account regarding the money’.

“He applied for three bounce-back loans for the sum of £150,000,” Mr Bacon said.

The defendant admitted driving the gray Skoda which was a courtesy car used while his own car was being repaired, but denied that his car was the same gray car captured on a recording of a Ring doorbell.

Police objected to bail on the grounds that Mr. Service had the means to flee jurisdiction and the means to interfere with justice, and the risk that the applicant would “influence others” as part of the ‘case.

The detective added that the defendant’s phone was not recovered and that he refused to hand it over to the police.

Continuing, the detective said there was a risk to “public order”, pointing to press reports threatening Irish politicians and heightened tensions in North Belfast.

“On Saturday the UVF claimed to have left a bomb in a bar in Warrenpoint which led to a security alert… loyalist paramilitaries claimed to have left a bomb on a train traveling from Belfast to Dublin… again, nothing was found.

“We believe this shows potential and continuing escalation and if this applicant were released on bail there would be additional risk.”

Denying bail Associate District Judge McStay said it was an “extremely serious politically motivated matter.”

“I find there is a risk in this regard, and it is not a risk of small interferences but of very serious infringements,” he said.

“In terms of theft it is stated that he has access to cash, jewelry and wealth and I have to say that despite the explanation that he owns three businesses and has taken out loans that the money is kept in cash, rolled-up £20 notes in his house, so there are significant suspicions about this money.”

Judge McStay added there were real concerns about the interference saying there was a ‘clear risk to these witnesses’.

“I am not confident that I can safely bail this man out at this stage and, therefore, I decline this request.”

The accused was remanded to appear again in four weeks.

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