Drug trafficker Noel Johnston was living ‘hand to mouth’ for the last few years of his life
Noel Johnston, a former drug mainstay, had been living hand to mouth for the last few years of his life and had been arrested for stealing food from a supermarket.
ohnston died from a third floor window of a building in Ballymena last Friday.
The raid on Ballymena’s apartment was part of a larger drug supply operation across Antrim by the Organized Crime Unit of the PSNI.
However, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that Johnston was not the target of the police raid on the apartment, but had been partying on the property since Wednesday afternoon, when he was told the charges of fraud against him had to be withdrawn.
Among those in Ballymena’s High Street apartment were two people linked to the town’s heroin supply and a relative of Ballymena schoolboy killer Michael ‘Mickybo’ McIlveen.
The 15-year-old Catholic was beaten to death in a sectarian attack in 2006.
Johnston, who had drunk and smoked cannabis for 48 hours before the police raid, climbed onto a window sill as police tried to slash the apartment door open.
He slipped seconds later and fell, dying at the scene despite attempts to revive him.
Those who knew the 61-year-old say he has been on an increasingly downward spiral in recent years.
In recent months, he had befriended a former UDA member and convicted Shankill Road drug dealer Dee Coleman, who moved to Ballymena after an assassination attempt in February.
With previous convictions for blackmail and joining the UDA, Coleman is subject to a 10-year terrorism notification order and is barred from having a cell phone. He therefore used Johnston as an intermediary, paying him a small fee for his services.
Coleman’s Ballymena House has metal shutters on the ground floor windows and doors. Johnston would be a frequent visitor to the walled property.
Coleman is considered a “walking dead man” and remains threatened with death by the West Belfast UDA.
He had befriended the tough local man, thinking it would protect him from any attack in Ballymena.
Until a few years ago, Johnston could move fairly easily among underworld members and paramilitary groups who preferred to be on the right side of the former nightclub bouncer. However, a friend said: “The feeling was that it was only a matter of time before Noel was killed. He hung out with the dregs of society, junkies and burglars.
“He had been the main man at one point, with contacts all over Europe. In the end, he was associating with people who would steal your grandmother.
His “European contacts” refer to one of Ireland’s biggest drug deals – a £ 16million shipment of cannabis discovered on a ship off the coast of Co Clare in 1996.
The cannabis – weighing 1.7 tonnes – was found by the warden and customs officials aboard a vessel called Whiskey Plongeur on November 10, 1996.
The foreign-registered boat was on its way to Malin Head, Donegal, when it had engine problems.
The crew, which included Johnston, abandoned the boat, and for several days the unmanned vessel circled the Atlantic before being embarked by guard six days later.
By a remarkable coincidence, an IRA training unit was using a safe house in Malin Head as a base. The IRA unit was supervised by specialized Garda officers.
Five men from Derry, aged between 30 and 40, have been arrested near Ireland’s most northerly point.
Two Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles were found in the farm buildings and a quantity of assorted ammunition, as well as a primed rocket launcher, were found nearby. Johnston and another man who had abandoned the stricken ship were trying to find alternate transportation when they were pulled over by counterterrorism police, but once they checked them out and realized they were Ballymena criminals and were not part of the IRA unit, they were released. Within 24 hours.
A few days later, however, when the Whiskey Diver was discovered, it was realized that the men were likely linked to the drug trade.
There was an unsuccessful attempt to extradite Johnston. Only one person, North Irish businessman Colin Lees, has been jailed for drug trafficking.
Lees was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2000 for what a judge described as his “pivotal role” in one of Ireland’s biggest drug smuggling operations.
The five IRA men – Patrick Kavanagh, Hugh Wilkinson, Paul Murray, Bernard O’Hagan and Patrick Gerard McCartney – were all sentenced to six years in prison, but were released two years earlier as part of the Good Friday deal.
Johnston was lucky. But the operation revealed that he was operating at the highest level of the underworld.
Known for his love of fine art, he once owned a collection of paintings worth tens of thousands of pounds.
But being a very wealthy man, he had lived in recent years in a modest two-bedroom terraced house in Ballymena which was in disrepair.
His vast fortune accumulated through his criminal activities was long gone, he frequented low-level criminals and street vendors and reportedly became more and more paranoid.
Throughout his long criminal career, Johnston has managed to avoid jail time except for a three-year sentence for possession of £ 250,000 of cannabis.
A complex character, he was revered by some, hated by others and feared by the majority of the inhabitants of Ballymena. While his brother, Sean, was an accomplished boxer, Noel was a street fighter. He once beat up tough Belfast man Paul Daly after meeting him while on vacation in Spain.
He told friends he accepted an offer to go back to Daly’s vacation apartment for a drink, but late at night Daly got mean and punched the man Ballymena . Johnston beat him within an inch of his life, leaving Daly in need of hospital treatment.
Daly was then shot 10 times while sitting in a car on Stephen Street in Belfast in May 2001 – one of 14 drug traffickers shot dead by Direct Action Against Drugs (DAAD), a cover name for the ‘IRA.
Johnston was scheduled to appear in court for massive fraud, involving the laundering of high-powered cars and motorcycles, including a Rolls-Royce Corniche, Audi TT, Holden Monara, MG Midget and Mercedes ML500 4 × 4 in the frame fraudulent fraud insurance.
However, last Wednesday the prosecution said it would withdraw nine of the eleven charges against him.
Johnston’s story is unusual. Described as a calm and thoughtful young man, he was brought up in the Catholic faith, a former student of All Saints Catholic Primary Schools and St Patrick’s Secondary Schools.
Despite this, Johnston had associations with loyalist paramilitary groups. Many of these connections were made during his early years as a club doorman, when the UDA ran many safety rackets in nightclubs.
A fitness fanatic with a formidable reputation, he was working on Gate Security at a time when the Shankill UDA was flooding Belfast with drugs.
The gatekeepers protected their own dealers and ruthlessly kicked out any rivals who tried to impose themselves on their territory.
In the late ’80s and early’ 90s, the rave scene dominated the nightlife in Northern Ireland. Loyalist drug gangs, as well as a handful of Catholic drug dealers – the majority of whom would later be assassinated by DAAD – have cornered the market.
As Northern Ireland was inundated with speed, party drug ecstasy, and later cocaine, millions of cash were being generated, turning criminals from working-class communities into wealthy bosses.
Johnston was involved in the smuggling of ecstasy pills and later cocaine. Despite the information, his relatives deny that he was involved in the smuggling of heroin.
Johnston would not have touched the drugs he supplied to others at first. Friends say he often quoted the character of Frank Lopez from the movie Scarface: “Never get high on your own supply.”
However, that would change in his later years when he drank heavily and consumed both illegal and prescription drugs.
Someone who knew Johnston better than anyone had been his lawyer for 12 years, Ciaran Shields.
He had last spoken to Johnston on Wednesday morning at Madden and Finucane’s offices in Belfast, when it was confirmed that nine of the 11 charges he was facing were to be dropped.
“I don’t remember him having had a lot of money, but he was very fond of art,” Shields said. “Noel, for the last four years of his life, lived from day to day. Two or three years ago his mental health plummeted.
“When I left him on Wednesday, he was in a good mood, because the fraud affair weighed on him for a long time.
“There has been a lot of writing about him over the past week or so, much of which is not true, which is truly baffling as the reality of Noel’s life story is so much more. interesting. “