Man accused of scamming money from pensioners in Cookstown and Dungannon

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A man is to stand trial accused of stealing thousands of pounds from pensioners - some from Cookstown and Dungannon - in a debit card scam operated across Northern Ireland, a judge ordered on Wednesday.

Catalin Sandu appeared before Belfast Magistrates’ Court in connection with an alleged racket which involved elderly victims being targeted at supermarket checkouts.

Police claimed the 39-year-old Romanian national headed up an organised crime gang who carried out the thefts.

An investigating detective said one woman aged in her seventies had nearly £7,000 stolen in a 24-hour period.

Sandu, of Crowther Street in Wolverhampton, is charged with stealing cards from eight people, nine counts of fraud by false representation and a further attempted theft.

The alleged offences were committed at locations in Belfast, Craigavon, Bangor, Cookstown, Dungannon and Sprucefield between May 17 and June 23 last year.

During a preliminary enquiry hearing the accused confirmed he understood the charges against him.

No evidence was given or witnesses called at this stage in the case.

District Judge Fiona Bagnall granted a prosecution application to have Sandu returned for trial at Belfast Crown Court.

Defence lawyer Matt Higgins argued that he should be released on bail until then.

The solicitor expressed fears that his client’s deteriorating mental health could put him at risk of self-harm if kept in custody.

He told the court a psychiatrist had assessed Sandu and concluded there could be possible fatal consequences.

At one previous hearing the defendant became so distressed that he started weeping and hallucinating, according to Mr Higgins.

But opposing any release, a detective told the court: “It’s my belief that Mr Sandu is the leader of an alleged crime gang.

“It’s a very well structured gang and it’s been responsible for the theft of thousands of pounds, predominantly from elderly victims throughout Northern Ireland.”

He also alleged that Sandu uses at least three different aliases.

Denying bail, Judge Bagnall said: “On the basis of everything I have heard today it’s appropriate that he is returned to the Crown Court in custody.”