It was a scene which could have come straight from an episode of The Sopranos or the film Goodfellas. Less than two weeks ago on the morning of 10 February, Dublin restaurant owner Patrick Whelan was preparing to leave his home in Swords.
As he approached his beloved (and expensive) Aston Martin car, parked on his driveway, he noticed it had been attacked with an unknown substance.
"It appeared that this substance was acid and was covering the bonnet, the roof, the boot and the doors and had destroyed the paintwork," he said in an affidavit read out in the High Court last week. "My daughter's Volkswagen Golf was also damaged on the roof with this substance."
But while he may have been upset by the incident, Whelan was not totally surprised.
According to his sworn court statement, the attack on his car was simply the latest in an escalating campaign of intimidation and harassment to which he, his co-workers and, most recently, his family have been allegedly subjected in recent months.
Whelan, who owns or majority owns three well-known Dublin restaurants –Salamanca on Andrew's Street, Mexico to Rome on East Essex Street in Temple Bar, and Da Pino (which last week reopened as a second branch of Salamanca) on Parliament Street – has clearly enjoyed the trappings of success.
But since the middle of last year, Portmarnock dairy produce suppliers Jim and Colm Banks have maintained he owes them some €45,000 as a result of an outstanding debt going back over 14 years. It is a figure which Whelan strongly disputes.
Documents filed with the court state that the father and son team trade as Jim Banks and Sons Ltd of Strand Road, Portmarnock, Co Dublin. They have yet to respond to the ex parte (one side only) interim injunction which took place in the High Court last week.
At issue too is the "outsourcing" of the alleged debt by Jim and Colm Banks to a hitherto little known debt collection agency, Debt 1 Recovery and a man calling himself Frank Stacey. The company claims to be acting on behalf of the pair, but neither the Banks nor Stacey have so far turned up in court or offered their side of the story.
Meanwhile, Debt 1 Recovery does not feature in the Companies Registration Office records and does not appear to have any known business address or online presence.
If Whelan's allegations are correct, last week's High Court proceedings also provide a fascinating insight into just how far some people may be willing to go to secure the repayment of debts in recession time Ireland.
Whelan told the court that he had worked with Jim Banks since about 1995, when Banks started to supply dairy produce to what was then an "internet restaurant", Planet Web, which Whelan owned on the site of the current Mexico to Rome operation in Temple Bar.
From an early stage, he claimed, "continual problems and difficulties existed in that Jim Banks would, on an ongoing basis, present delivery dockets which did not reflect that which was actually delivered," he told the court. He acknowledged that another of his previous ventures, a Dame Street restaurant known as Tapa Mamas which closed in 2003, may have owed money to Banks.
But after Tapa Mamas ceased to trade, Jim Banks continued to supply Planet Web with foodstuffs and whereas the debt owing from Tapa Mamas "was mentioned, it was never pursued," Whelan maintained. This situation changed on 1 June last year.
Whelan said he was approached by Jim Banks' son and co-defendant, Colm, demanding €45,000 for money which he claimed was owed going back over a period of 14 years.
But while Whelan accepted that Tapa Mamas owed monies when it closed, "this was not in any conceivable way close to a sum of €45,000".
"I informed Colm Banks that if he had any dispute with any bad debts he should contact his solicitor," he said.
"He then said that if I didn't pay him this money that day he would send what he described as 'friends' to Mexico to Rome."
It did not take long for the visits to begin. According to Whelan, a man who introduced himself as Frank Stacey of Debt 1 Recovery first turned up at Mexico to Rome "in or about" July of last year, when he himself was on the premises. Stacey's associate was not introduced.
"Immediately after this introduction, Stacey began shouting and demanding €45,000, which he said was due to Jim Banks… [and] stating that I had to pay up 'or else'."
"I told them to stop shouting at me and asked them to leave the premises or I would call the gardaí. I made it perfectly clear to Stacey and his colleague that he was not welcome on the premises. They left the premises continually shouting in front of customers and still demanding this money."
The incident was followed an hour or so later by a phone call, Whelan claimed, from Colm Banks "threatening me that if I didn't pay this money he would come down to my home and burn my car out with me or any member of my family in it." He made a statement to Malahide gardaí on foot of this incident.
But this was by no means the last time he would be subjected to such intimidation, according to Whelan.
Members of staff at Mexico to Rome frequently called him to tell how Stacey and an associate had come in demanding money from staff "in a threatening and intimidating manner, including standing menacingly by the till and kitchen."
In the interests of bringing an end to the matter, Whelan said that in August of last year, he set up a meeting with Jim and Colm Banks, which was also attended by his business partner Caroline Boyle.
He met Colm Banks again in September and shook his hand, thinking that "matters were settled". The agreement appeared to have worked temporarily.
The alleged harassment resumed in December of last year. Later that month, Whelan said Stacey started to target Boyle.
In her separate affidavit, she said Stacey left her a voicemail two days before Christmas, telling her the debt was now €50,000 and that he would add €10,000 to this sum each week.
She claimed Stacey also sent her a number of intimidatory text messages in the following weeks, including one this month in which he intimated that he knew where she lived and that "we could be neighbours".
"As matters stand I am absolutely terrified. I do not want to go home for fear of anything that may happen. I find it difficult to sleep," she said. By 28 December last, a female supervisor in Salamanca was approached by Stacey and his associate who told her they would be in again to collect money from the till.
"They left shouting 'tell your boss he owes us €70,000' and 'we're not going away' making sure at all points that the customers who were in for lunch could hear them," Whelan told the court.
In many of the text messages allegedly sent to Whelan and Boyle by Stacey, he is referred to by the crude nickname "pissy".
On a number of occasions, Whelan also said he had been forced to call the gardaí to ask Stacey and his associate to leave his restaurants.
Meanwhile, a workman doing a refit on Da Pino (now a second branch of Salamanca), was told by Stacey that the place "will not be opening unless we get paid".
Then came the attack on his Aston Martin car, less than two weeks ago.
That same day, Whelan's wife, from whom he is separated, also became upset after she was contacted by a man who introduced himself as Frank Stacey. She subsequently received texts to her mobile phone.
"My wife... has now indicated to me that she and my daughter... want to move out of the family home... as they are now in fear of their lives," he said.
Meanwhile, the visits by Stacey or his associates to the restaurants continued.
On 12 February, he allegedly received a threatening text message indicating that Stacey knew where Whelan's daughter, who is studying abroad, was living.
"I was absolutely horrified and worried sick to get this text," he said.
This development appears to have been the last straw for Whelan, who said he was by now shaken "to the core " and had become "frightened and nervous at every turn".
"Each time I see a text message arriving on my phone I fear for what possible escalation may be next and I fear for my family."
It culminated in him successfully applying to the court last week for an ex parte injunction against Jim and Colm Banks and their servants and agents. Debt 1 Recovery and Frank Stacey were not named as defendants.
The order prevented them watching, besetting, harassing or intimidating Whelan, his business partner Boyle, or his businesses, or attending at their restaurant on Parliament Street.
Neither Jim or Colm Banks were available last week, despite attempts to contact their representatives. Frank Stacey also declined to discuss the case.
On Thursday, Justice Roderick Murphy agreed to a request from Whelan's counsel for the injunction to be extended until Monday when the case will appear again before the court.
Anyone can set themselves up as a debt collector in Ireland, regardless of their background or previous criminal convictions.
This is because, unlike in the UK, where prospective agents are required to go through a thorough application process before they can get a licence from the Office of Fair Trading, no such licence or authorisation is required here.
Arguably the most famous of these is convicted criminal Martin 'the Viper' Foley, who runs "Viper debt recovery and repossession services Ltd."
Last year, Greg Kavanagh, an Arklow-based building projects manager, secured a restraining order after telling the High Court he feared for his life from Foley and others who threatened him while allegedly acting as "debt recovery" agents for a Wicklow developer.
An unidentified man put a gun in his mouth in one incident, he also claimed.
Last April, Fine Gael sought to introduce a bill which would have introduced a vetting process for debt collectors.
This would have meant that people with serious criminal records or those deemed "unsavoury" would not be allowed to operate as debt collectors.
Speaking at the time, its justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan argued that people in debt to collectors like Foley and eastern European mafia were reluctant to go to the gardaí because of the criminal nature of the men threatening them.
He also called for the Financial Regulator to oversee the issuing of licences for debt collection firms.
However, the bill was voted down by the government.
Flanagan has since said that the situation with debtor intimidation has deteriorated along with the economy. Meanwhile, the Law Reform Commission also recommended the regulation of debt-collection agencies in a discussion paper on the topic released last autumn.
This is something which established debt collection agencies and the Institute of Credit Management also say they support.