‘I HATED WHAT I HAD BECOME AND THOUGHT I WOULD END UP DEAD’
HOW DRUG DEALER FOUND NEW LIFE AS A PHOTOGRAPHER
CHRISTIAN John O’Reilly knew things had to change when the drug dealers he worked for made him take a lie detector test to find out where their money had gone.
He had been dealing drugs for a gang which saw earn enough money to quit his job and jet off to Puerto Rico and buy all the clothes and cars he wanted.
He was leaving money in empty crisp packets and feared he’d end up dead.
In the end he said he was willing to get caught because he knew that was the only way he would change.
His dream came true when he was busted following a 12-month investigation led by South Wales Police’s Specialist Crime Investigations team.
In 2012 Christian was given a fouryear prison sentence for conspiracy to supply drugs as one of 11 people jailed for a combined term of almost 30 years at Newport Crown Court.
He was part of a drugs gang who tried to smuggle more than £1.7m worth of cannabis into the UK.
Spanish custom officials had seized 413kg of cannabis resin hidden in sandstone pillars in Barcelona which were destined for the UK.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency had tracked the drugs to an unlikely barn on a farm off Cefn Pennar Road in Mountain Ash. It was at this farm that the gang members realised the pillars used to smuggle the drugs were empty.
“We would bring it through the UK border and it would go from Kent to Mountain Ash,” said Christian, who ended up spending two years behind bars. It would be sent to a PO Box in London so they had to follow it. The company in Spain would then post it to the UK. [Customs officials] found it and took all the drugs out. They took it all out in Spain and followed it all the way to me.”
Three people – including Christian – were arrested as they left the farm.
“I genuinely believe if I hadn’t been caught I would have gone further and further and would have ended up dead,” said Christian.
The former drug dealer is now free from prison and is working as a photographer with his own successful business. Most people wouldn’t recognise the man in the police mugshot from 2012.
Today, 31-year-old Christian is slimmer, has longer hair, and is clearly older and wiser.
He admits he made some bad decisions and says he’s worked “incredibly hard” to turn his life around.
Christian said the drug dealing all started when he got in with a bad crowd during his late teens.
He said dealing cannabis started off as a way of earning some extra cash at the weekend. But as he got a taste for the lavish lifestyle he ended up dispatching large amounts.
Christian said he had a good upbringing with a supportive family and when he was growing up he wanted to be an aircraft engineer.
“During my late teens I did not have a social life – my [former] girlfriend got pregnant at 17 so I had a family by the time I was 18.
“I would always want bigger and better things. I started out just dealing socially but then it became more of a business and I was going higher and higher and higher.
“I had more money than you could imagine. I would spend it all on the best cars and would spend loads of money on clothes.”
What started off as an easy way to earn cash got a lot more difficult as time passed, said Christian.
As he climbed higher in the gang he found himself involved in bigger jobs with a lot more pressure attached to them.
The pressure got so much that Christian said in the end he wanted to be caught by the police.
In fact he said going to prison “saved his life”.
“Dealing is a business. If people didn’t pay me then I couldn’t pay people above me,” said Christian, adding there was a specific moment which made him realise exactly what he had got himself into.
One day he found himself hooked up to a lie detector test in a London hotel room along with other gang members after some cash had disappeared.
He said he remembers “hearing his heart beating outside his body” the day it happened.
“Money went missing on this one deal and they had to put everyone on a lie detector test to see who took it,” he said.
“I was glad [the police] came for me because I was in so deep – I wanted it.”
“I pleaded guilty at the first opportunity.
“When I was sentenced my mother was bawling her eyes out, but I said I needed to get away from it because I hated what I had become and I thought I would end up dead.”
For Christian, prison was an escape from a world that was suffocating him – but jail was nevertheless scary when he first arrived.
He remembered being put on an induction wing where prisoners ranged from drug dealers to murderers and rapists.
“Prison is not like people think it is,” he said.
“There are different people in there – at one point I was next to a murderer who had 35 years.
“You’re mixed in with all these people, but I felt like I needed it and I deserved it.”
Christian said he was given opportunities and spent a lot of time reading, learning another language, and doing gym work.
“I went to the gym and started working out,” he said.
“Before I went to prison I was really overweight. I would drink all the time and smoke. The day I went in I gave up smoking and I trained. I was down to about 8% body fat by the time I left.”
Christian also spent a lot of his
spare time in the library. It was at this point that he started reading photography books and remembered the time he spent developing film with his father in their attic.He said: “My dad was so proud of me so – he would go home and send me more photography books.
“My family were there with me through the whole thing.
“When something like that happens you realise who sticks by you – the ones who used to hang around with me because of the money didn’t stay.
“In the end it was just my mum, my dad and my sister. “They didn’t know about [the drug dealing] but they weren’t surprised. I had money coming out of my ears and I wasn’t working.
“When I quit my job I went to Puerto Rico and didn’t tell them. I never went back to work – I was earning more money.
“Two years doesn’t sound like long but it is when you’re inside a cell. I stared at walls for two years. When you come out everything is different – everything is noisy and everything is fast.
“I remember waiting for someone to open the door for me in JD Sports in Merthyr because I was so used to prison officers opening doors. It didn’t function in my mind that I would have to open it.”
But life wasn’t easy when Christian was released from prison.
“Someone once called me up and described what I was wearing, saying I owed them money,” he said.
“I ended up putting around £3,000 in a Monster Munch crisp packet one night to get them away from me.”
When he left jail, Christian was able to focus on his new-found love of photography.
He taught himself everything he had to know about photography from using cameras to lighting techniques and how the flash works.
He opened two photography studios – one in Mountain Ash and the other in Ferndale – but had to close them when they became unsustainable. He decided to go freelance and specialised in weddings. He set up his own business called RGB Photography and started out by taking pictures for free just to make a name for himself.
And it wasn’t long before he met the love of his life – Yaky Di Roma – on an online photography chat forum in 2016. Christian said: “I didn’t care about anything else. I knew she was the one straight away. She had no idea I was going to propose but she knew it was coming because of how we were with each other.”
Christian has also now legally adopted Yaky’s four-year-old son Hans.
“The first time I spoke to her on the phone I told her about my past and she accepted me. She said ‘your past has made you the man you are.’” With Christian and Yaky both being photographers they eventually merged their business together to create one.
Fire and Ice – the company name was inspired by Christian’s ginger hair and Yaky’s blue hair – specialises in destination weddings.
Business for the now-married couple is thriving and they are also expecting a baby.
“We get to work together and I love it,” Christian said.
“I love that she is a photographer – this was massive for me.”
The couple have already named their unborn baby River.
“When she told me she gave me a box and there was a dummy inside.
“I am really excited about the baby – it’s a massive thing. I will never forget the moment she told me.”
The couple now have six people working for their company, which takes them around the world.
Christian is open about his past on his company’s website.
In his blog Photography Saved My Life, Christian wrote: “There are many and many people who faced adversity and serious setbacks due to stupid decisions in their lives but didn’t give up on themselves. I am just one example. I truly regret my past and I hate the person I was. Every opportunity I get to give back, I take them. The system works, you just have to work with it.”
Some examples of Christian’s work
Christian O’Reilly has become a worldwide wedding photographer after turning his life around after he spent time in prison