‘I HATED WHAT I HAD BE­COME AND THOUGHT I WOULD END UP DEAD’

HOW DRUG DEALER FOUND NEW LIFE AS A PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Cynon Valley - - FRONT PAGE - KATIE GUPWELL Re­porter katie.gupwell@waleson­line.co.uk

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

ROB BROWNE

Chris­tian O’Reilly has be­come a world­wide wed­ding pho­tog­ra­pher after turn­ing his life around after he spent time in prison

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