A FORMER All-Ireland winning minor footballer with a £200-a-day cocaine habit has been jailed for three-and-a-half years for kidnapping, robbing and threatening to kill a taxi driver.
Robert Edward Tasker gave a wink to family members as he was led away from the dock at Newry Crown Court yesterday.
The south Armagh man was sentenced to a total of seven years for the terrifying ordeal he inflicted on taxi man Paul Kelly combined with drugs offences he pleaded guilty to last week - half to be served behind bars and half on licence.
Judge Melody McReynolds told the one-time rising GAA star, who the court heard had a drug and gambling habit, that his "major addiction problem is his own ego".
She added: "It is clear Mr Tasker is a very talented footballer who has to come to terms with being past his best."
Speaking afterwards, Mr Kelly said he was "very disappointed" by the sentence.
Tasker (27) and his co-accused Antoin McCooey (25), from separate addresses in St Patrick's Park, Cullyhanna, were found guilty in April of kidnapping, robbing, threatening to kill and assaulting Mr Kelly in November 2016.
The taxi driver had picked up the men from a Chinese restaurant in Dundalk but during the journey Tasker threatened to slice his throat with a knife and rape him.
The victim, who has since given up his taxi job, told the trial he thought "I was going to die".
McCooey, who also threatened to stab Mr Kelly with a screwdriver during the 25-minute journey to Cullyhanna, was yesterday given a six-year sentence - half to be spent in jail and the remainder on licence.
He has a previous conviction for kidnapping a taxi driver in 2011.
Judge McReynolds said the case was typified by "bravado" against a vulnerable taxi driver with hearing difficulties.
Tasker received a five-year sentence, along with a further two years after pleading guilty last week to drugs charges, which included possession of cocaine and cannabis as well as intent to supply.
The court heard that during a search of his house in July 2017, police found 2.91 grams of cocaine with 34 per cent purity and three parcels of cannabis with an estimated street value of up to £7,000.
Analysis of his phone suggested he was involved in the supply of drugs, as well as trying feed his own drug habit, with one text message stating he was in "need of a blast of cocaine".
During the court proceedings yesterday, Tasker's barrister John Orr QC revealed his client had a "cocaine dependency" with a "habit of £200-a-day".
"He owed £10,000 to drug dealers and owed money as a result of a gambling debt," he said.
Mr Orr added that "it may well be that he (Tasker) was under the influence" on the night Mr Kelly was threatened and robbed of €120.
The barrister presented several character references to the court, including one from Tasker's former principal at St Joseph's High School, Crossmaglen and another ex-teacher, who wrote that his "forte at school was sport".
He had also received references from coaches he had worked with at a club and county level, including Paul McShane, who was his Armagh GAA Under-15 development squad manager.
The court heard he indicated Tasker's conduct would be "totally out of character", while another reference from Ciaran McConville of St Patrick's GAA, Cullyhanna said he was "clearly a good player".
The judge was also told that Tasker had travelled to America a number of times where he had gained employment due to the "prowess of his football".
Mr Orr said he would feed his drug habit by spending six months of the year working in the US where he was "well paid and was able to bring substantial money home".
A barrister for McCooey said among the mitigating factors in his case was that his girlfriend was expecting twins and the offences were "not a top end robbery or a top end kidnapping".
The court also heard that "both men have made positive steps in relation to their addiction issues in prison".
But Judge McReynolds said that throughout the trial "the defendants' demeanour was characterised by bravado".
She said she had taken account that the men, who had consistently denied the offences against them but declined to give evidence in court, had "used humiliation" against a "lone taxi driver" and the "the gratification here was the witnessing of the suffering and not the €120".
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."
But Mr Kelly, who the court heard now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said while the fact they were jailed is "something", the sentence should have been longer.
"I'm disappointed, I'm very disappointed... I respect the judge, but the sentencing is extremely light for what they did," he said.
"I'm very surprised about the sentence. 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."