An Irishman who escaped from a notorious jail in Venezuela seven years ago has avoided being sent back to prison after being convicted of a drugs offence here.
Lee O'Neill (32) pleaded guilty at Mullingar Circuit Criminal Court on Friday to a charge of possession of heroin for sale or supply under Section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act at his sister's home in College Park, Athlone, on November 27, 2018.
The court heard that O'Neill, a father-of-three of Manor Valley, Monksland, Athlone, was found with €3,018 of heroin and a list of clients during a garda raid on the property.
Detective Garda Eric Naughton said O'Neill was well-known to gardai in Athlone for his involvement in the drug scene.
In evidence O'Neill claimed he was holding the heroin to discharge a drug debt of €10,000 which he had built up over two months.
"Basically I had no choice but to hold it and to give it out to people," O'Neill said.
Questioned by Judge Keenan Johnson, O'Neill admitted that he could spend around €300 a day at the time to feed his heroin addiction.
However, he said he no longer took the drug and was on methadone and attending a treatment centre once a week before the Covid-19 restrictions.
O'Neill said he had cleared the drug debt with the financial help of his family.
He said he intended to stay drug-free as he had become a father to a baby daughter just three weeks ago and wanted to be around for her.
O'Neill said he did not have access to his two children from a previous partner.
Addressing the judge, he said: "I'm extremely sorry and if you give me this opportunity I will never be in this situation again."
The court heard O'Neill had four previous convictions for theft, robbery criminal damage and a public order offence.
Judge Johnson sentenced O'Neill to two-and-a-half years in prison but suspended the whole term on condition he kept the peace for 10 years and abstained from alcohol and drugs for the same period.
He was also ordered to place himself under the supervision of the Probation Service for the next 18 months.
Noting that O'Neill's brother had died earlier this year from a drug-related incident, the judge said the defendant should know better than anyone how heroin destroyed lives.
"It's a sad tragedy that drug barons manipulate vulnerable people like Mr O'Neill," the judge added.
O'Neill made headlines in 2013 when he and his brother Dermot broke out of a prison in Venezuela where they had been serving an 11-year jail sentence after being convicted on drug charges.
Lee pleaded guilty to the offences, while his younger brother had protested his innocence.
The brothers reportedly walked out of the notorious San Juan de Los Morros prison in Venezuela.
They had been travelling with Martin 'Butch' Beirne (28) from Sligo, who died in a hotel in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in March 2012 after a condom filled with cocaine burst in his stomach.
O'Neill said he had witnessed murders in the jail with prisoners stabbed if they were regarded as having done something wrong by other inmates.