May 19, 2022, 10:42

    Inside crime empire ruled over by baby-faced boy, 16, who terrorised community

    Inside crime empire ruled over by baby-faced boy, 16, who terrorised community

    A 16-year-old gang boss terrorised his local community with gun rampages and terrifying firebombing attacks for months before he was finally put behind bars.

    Baby-faced gang boss Harry O'Brien, who has been known to local police since the age of 12, was barely out of school when he was getting people double his age to do his bidding.

    He brought fear to innocent families as he went to war with rivals in a campaign of wanton and brazen violence.

    Earlier this year, the now 17-year-old was locked up for more than nine-and-a-half years, after his crime empire was brought crashing down.

    After winning a legal battle to name O'Brien, the Liverpool Echo has delved into his brief reign of terror to tell the story of how a child with ADHD and a "defiance disorder" became one of the most dangerous offenders on Merseyside Police's radar and how it was all brought crashing down by detectives.

    Cash that Harry O'Brien hid at his aunt's home in Aigburth Road

    Liverpool Echo)

    A bullet hole in the passenger door of the BMW

    Liverpool Echo)

    A "lucrative" business

    Harry O'Brien was living in Mountview Street, Toxteth, when he first came to the attention of the law, at the age of just 12. He was arrested over riding electric scooters in the street and a conviction for a public order offence followed in 2017.

    Smoking cannabis was also at the heart of his early offending. A year later, having moved to Buckland Street, Aigburth, he was caught in Dingle with the drug and a black lock knife.

    In 2020, he was convicted of possessing cannabis and dangerous driving. He was placed on a Youth Rehabilitation Order, as the authorities tried to halt his descent into further criminality – an attempt that didn’t work.

    It didn't work. By now he was described as the "head" of a "successful and lucrative business" selling cannabis on the streets of Dingle. The operation involved a "graft" phone line and dealers working late into the night on his behalf.

    "Bulk" text messages, sometimes known as "flare" texts, were sent from his phones to up to 480 customers.

    This was often done by one of his "trusted lieutenants", Aaron Donohoe, but also by a man O'Brien later called upon to carry out a cowardly arson attack – Mohammed Mohammed.

    O'Brien was making significant profits from his drug dealing – police would eventually seize nearly £20,000 in cash from him and his gang.

    And his influence was such that men more than a decade his senior were willing to store his illicit product and the tools of his trade.

    An axe found at the home of Harry O'Brien's aunt in Aigburth Road when he was arrested

    Liverpool Echo)

    "Feud" leads to "callous and cowardly" attacks

    The young gang leader was clearly ambitious. But his ambition drew him into a conflict that spiralled out of control and led to undercover police watching his every move.

    Liverpool Crown Court heard by the end of 2020, O'Brien had become involved in "some sort of dispute" with members of two families.

    They were named in court as the Franchettis and the Rosarios.

    Judge Neil Flewitt, QC, said he had no doubt all of the shootings and the arson attack that followed were "the manifestation of a feud". He said this feud was between O'Brien's gang and "others" with "whom they had a real or perceived grievance" over "an ongoing dispute related to the commercial supply of cannabis".

    The firebombing was the culmination of a wave of attacks.

    As Judge Flewitt observed: "Unhappily, the lives of wholly innocent people, including young children, were put at risk by the callous and cowardly actions of all those involved in these incidents."

    Bullet flies into innocent family's home

    The first of those incidents unfolded late on December 29, 2020, when O'Brien's mum, Christine McPartland, was driving her son, McClean, Donohoe and an unknown fourth male in her BMW.

    At the same time, the unknown occupants of a silver BMW X5 were prowling around Dingle, looking for O'Brien and his gang.

    Ms McPartland rang police at 10.30pm to report that a large silver car had "rammed" into and damaged her vehicle in Beresford Road.

    Just minutes before she made that call, O'Brien and his crew were captured on CCTV running down Beresford Road, heading to Donohoe's home in Bewsey Close.

    Once there, Donohoe rang "trusted" thug Daniel Lawler, then 19, who previously helped acquire a stolen Audi on false plates.

    The gun and ammunition recovered from Nathan Kelly's fish tank

    Liverpool Echo)

    That Audi A1 – taken in a burglary at a family's home in Whimbrel Close, Runcorn as they slept upstairs on November 30, 2020 – had been sold to O'Brien at Sefton Park by Shaun Kelly.

    The "career criminal", then 35, would later reveal to police that he "got the car for doing something for someone in jail" and used it for a month, before selling it to a "kid" – O'Brien – for £300.

    A taxi was ordered to take O'Brien and his friends to Riverside Drive, near the Britannia Pub, where the Audi had been parked up the night before. David Temkin, QC, prosecuting, said: "What happened next was revenge."

    Now armed with a loaded gun, O'Brien, McClean, Donohoe and the fourth male set off in the Audi, with banned driver McClean at the wheel. Their target was the BMW X5.

    CCTV footage showed the two cars came within metres of each other on Dingle Lane. At 11.11pm, three shots were fired from the Audi at the BMW.

    Judge Flewitt said he couldn't be sure, but he strongly suspected the front seat passenger and shooter was Harry O'Brien.

    One shot missed the BMW and pierced the glass front door of a "shocked" mum and dad's home. Mr Temkin said: "They were in the process of going to bed. They heard screeching car tyres and found a bullet on the hallway stairs."

    Judge Flewitt said: "In the house at that time was a seven-year-old child. If anyone had been in the hall when that shot was fired, then those responsible may have been facing an allegation of murder."

    Bullet holes in the windscreen of the stolen Audi used by Harry O'Brien's gang in the first shooting

    Liverpool Echo)

    Shots fired straight through windscreen

    After the shooting, O'Brien and Donohoe got out and fled, taking the gun with them according to prosecutors. McClean and the mystery fourth youth continued to chase the BMW.

    Both cars mounted the pavement, with the BMW hitting and writing off a woman's parked car in Dingle Lane. Eventually the BMW escaped.

    Young criminals Aaron Donohoe (left) and Harry O'Brien (right)

    Liverpool Echo)

    Police found the BMW half an hour later, abandoned on Shorefields Village in Dingle, with a bullet hole in the front passenger door. Enquiries revealed it had been bought earlier that day in Liverpool.

    The Audi was ditched in nearby Caryl Street, where it was recovered days later. McClean's DNA was on the gear stick and three spent bullet casings were in the car – fired from a Glock-type semi-automatic pistol.

    Unbelievably, there were three bullet holes in the front windscreen. Mr Temkin said: "Whoever was in control of the firearm had simply shot three times through the front windscreen."

    The gutted hallway of the home targeted in Harry O'Brien's arson plot

    Liverpool Echo)

    Gunman on an electric bike

    From the day after the first shooting for a period of about three weeks, O'Brien and others used rooms at the Staybridge Suites Hotel in Keel Wharf.

    The gang boss needed new transport, because he was planning another shooting – "a targeted attack on the Franchetti family in their family home". With that in mind, he bought a Sur-Ron electric bike.

    Prosecutors couldn't say which one of the thugs rode the bike and which one sat behind and pulled the trigger on January 8. But they were captured on CCTV heading down Eridge Street – both of their mobile phones now inactive.

    Harry O'Brien and Michael McClean on the Sur-Ron bike

    Liverpool Echo)

    Just after 8.45pm, Donna Rosario rang police to say shots were fired through the living room window of her Sundridge Street home.

    Mr Temkin said: "She, her partner Ian Franchetti, and their daughter were at home in the living room at the time."

    Three bullet holes were found in the living room blinds and curtains, three bullets embedded in the living room wall and ceiling, and three bullet casings in the street. Once again, they came from the same Glock-type gun.

    1am attack

    O'Brien and Lawler were not finished there. Just after 1am on January 20, on the same electric bike, they targeted the Heffey family, in Beloe Street.

    Mobile phone cell site evidence showed they travelled from the area of O'Brien's home to the scene. Once there, a single shot was fired at an upstairs bedroom.

    Mr Temkin said: "This was where 24-year old Joel Heffey was asleep. Joel Heffey and Ian Franchetti junior were associates."

    Police received an anonymous call at 1.05am and attended the address.

    Mr Temkin said: "There were three occupants, all members of the Heffey family. None of them wanted to provide an account. But the police were allowed into the property."

    A bullet had shot through the ceiling of the victim's bedroom and was found in the loft insulation. Outside on the pavement lay a spent 9mm bullet casing.

    Aaron Donohoe, one of Harry O'Brien's lackeys

    Liverpool Echo)

    Children flee from blaze

    The gang next decided to target the Dingle Lane house of Claire Bowness, at home with her three teenage children. Mr Temkin said: "Notably they were all from the Rosario family. Ian Franchetti senior is those children's uncle."

    The QC said this arson attack was the "brainchild" of O'Brien, who sought the help of a then 14-year-old boy, from Toxteth, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

    O'Brien also enlisted Sian Kanu, then 19, who recruited Mohammed, then 19, to carry out the firebombing.

    On the morning of February 5, just after 8am, Mohammed took a bag containing the same petrol canister to Ms Bowness' home.

    CCTV showed the property "bursting into flames" after he poured petrol through the letterbox and ignited it.

    Mohammed fled the burning home. But in a pivotal blunder, he had left the petrol canister outside the house. The screw cap contained his DNA.

    On February 11, the 14-year-old boy was arrested and interviewed. Mr Temkin said: "He revealed a great deal about the plans for the arson and about the meetings before and after the incident."

    The loaded gun and ammunition found in a fish tank at Nathan Kelly's home

    Liverpool Echo)

    The boy told police at the time of the arson he was at home in bed. But when shown a photo of the petrol canister, he said he'd used one like that about two weeks earlier, to fill up his friend's motorbike. He named that friend as O'Brien.

    Tellingly, the boy said he was aware O'Brien had been arguing with someone in the house that was set on fire.

    He said the surname of the person O'Brien was arguing with was "Rosario".

    The boy told police that the next day he went to Kanu's house, where O'Brien, Mohammed and Kanu were talking about the fire.

    He said when Mohammed arrived, O'Brien gave him some money.

    On February 12, police raided the home of O'Brien's grandparents, who lived next door to him in Buckland Street, Aigburth.

    Officers found £13,590 in cash in a plastic bag in the loft. One note bore their grandson's fingerprint.

    Damage from the shooting in Sundridge Street, Dingle

    Liverpool Echo)

    Panicked calls as police helicopter hovers above

    April 21, 2021 was a key date in the downfall of the gang. That evening police raided Nathan Kelly's flat in Lee Park Avenue.

    A regular customer of O'Brien, Nathan Kelly was said to have a "close" relationship with him, and had stored items including the "graft" phone for him.

    When police arrived late that night, they first searched communal gardens outside. There, hidden under soil and gravel, was a black bin bag containing a New Army 1892 Colt .41 revolver.

    As a police helicopter hovered overhead and lit up the area with a floodlight, Nathan Kelly made two "panicked" calls to O'Brien.

    Both went to voicemail.

    At 11.35pm, officers stormed the address Nathan Kelly shared with his girlfriend and child. Officers found a .22 rimfire revolver in a disused fish tank on his balcony.

    Just five days after that raid, O'Brien was pictured with wads of bank notes at the reception desk of the Adagio Hotel in Liverpool city centre.

    Another picture showed him flashing cash when eating at Elif restaurant in Bold Street with McClean.

    The source of the gang’s income was repeatedly being targeted.

    On April 28, officers went to the Llanrwst Close, Dingle home of then 18-year-old Jak Atkinson, and seized a black Adidas rucksack from his wardrobe containing street deals of cannabis.

    The bullet hole through the bedroom window in Beloe Street

    Liverpool Echo)

    A "risk taker" in defiance of authority

    Those said to be involved in the shootings and arson were charged with conspiring to possess a firearm, and to commit arson, both with intent to endanger life.

    Ahead of a trial, O'Brien admitted lesser offences of conspiring to possess a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, and conspiring to commit arson being reckless as to whether life would be endangered, which the Crown accepted. He had already admitted conspiracy to supply cannabis.

    At his sentencing, Richard Pratt, QC, defending, said O'Brien had "diagnoses in the past of ADHD".

    He was described as "a risk taker".

    The court heard he also had "Operational Defiance Disorder" – defined by the NHS as "negative and disruptive behaviour, particularly towards authority figures, such as parents and teachers".

    Mr Pratt said: "It may well be those illnesses, through no fault of his own, have contributed to this conduct."

    O'Brien had been held on remand at young offenders institution HMP Wetherby. There he received "numerous adjudications and loss of privileges for repeated breaches of prison regulations".

    The petrol canister left at the scene of the arson attack in Dingle Lane

    Liverpool Echo)

    "Hopelessness" and "bravado"

    McClean, now 18, of Upper Warwick Street, Toxteth, pleaded guilty to the cannabis and firearm plots. He also admitted two counts of possessing a prohibited firearm, and possessing ammunition.

    Judge Flewitt said McClean was also "dangerous", but he couldn't impose an extended sentence for his offences, due to the law. He locked him up for eight and a half years.

    Lawler, now 21, of Halewood Road, Woolton, was found guilty of the firearm plot. He also admitted unrelated charges of dangerous driving and handling stolen goods – crashing a stolen Range Rover at 70mph and writing off a woman's car in Tuebrook.

    Lawler was locked up for eight years, with an extended two years on licence. He too must serve at least two thirds of that term.

    Donohoe, now 20, of Bewey Close, Toxteth, admitted the cannabis and firearm plots, on the basis he was only involved in the first shooting.

    Donohoe was locked up for six years and four months.

    Cannabis seized at Blaine Woods' David Street home

    Liverpool Echo)

    Jurors couldn't reach a verdict against Kanu, now 20, of Amity Street Toxteth, on the arson plot.

    He later admitted participating in the criminal activities of an organised crime group.

    Judge Flewitt said Kanu recruited Mohammed, knowing the plan was an arson attack on an occupied home. He was locked up for two years and three months.

    Tears flowed in the public gallery as one by the one the defendants in the dock were sent down. Last to be sentenced was the unnamed boy, now 15.

    Mr Finnigan said the boy had to be treated differently to the other defendants at trial and at the sentencing "because of the way he conducted himself once the police started to investigate this matter".

    He added: "I don't wish to go into any more detail about that."

    Judge Flewitt said he was satisfied the boy had been "exploited" and could be rehabilitated. Urging him to "get your life back on track" or find himself locked up like his co-accused, the judge handed him a two-year Youth Rehabilitation Order, with a six-month home curfew, between 8pm and 7am daily.

    Three young men, who had remained in the public gallery, stormed out of court, one shouting "joke" and another "little snake".

    Cash stashed in the loft of Harry O'Brien's grandparents' home in Buckland Street, Aigburth

    Liverpool Echo)

    Nathan Kelly, now 28, denied conspiracy to supply cannabis, two counts of possession of a prohibited firearm – relating to the two guns – and possession of ammunition.

    He was cleared in respect of the gun found in the garden, but convicted of the three other charges after a trial.

    He had previous convictions including robberies and burglaries. He admitted breaching a suspended sentence imposed last April for possession of a bladed article – a "lock knife".

    Nathan Kelly bounced up and down on his toes in the dock as he was jailed for seven years, before he gave the middle finger with both hands to police officers sitting across the courtroom.

    Shaun Kelly, now 36, of Harefield Road, Speke, admitted handling stolen goods.

    The crook, who had previous convictions for robbery and multiple burglaries, was jailed for three and a half years. He was banned from the road for four years and nine months.

    Woods and Atkinson both admitted conspiracy to supply cannabis. They were handed 18-month community orders.

    Mohammed, now 20, of Kingsley Road, Toxteth, admitted the cannabis and arson conspiracies. He will be sentenced on Tuesday.

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