An alleged drug dealer had his car stolen after it was claimed he sold fake ketamine in a McDonald's car park.

Matthew Rushton rang 999 to report that two strangers had got into his vehicle just before he was going to buy some food.

The victim said they threatened to stab him, before robbing his car, iPhone 11, Tissot watch and £25 in cash.

But in reality he had arranged to meet Lee Barnes and Owen Clark to sell them nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas.

And the pair later alleged he was a drug dealer who also sold them bogus ketamine, so they decided to take his property.

Liverpool Crown Court heard Mr Rushton rang 999 from the Albert Dock McDonalds, off Blundell Street, at 0.51am on January 16.

A generic street view of the McDonald's branch on the junction of The Strand and Blundell Street in Liverpool city centre. Image: Google Street View
The McDonald's branch on the junction of The Strand and Blundell Street in Liverpool city centre.

Frank Dillon, prosecuting, said the victim initially told police he was "just checking his emails" when the side doors of his Vauxhall Astra opened.

Mr Rushton said one male got in the front passenger seat and another in the back, who were "complete strangers to him".

Mr Dillon said: "That may or may not be true - the defendants say otherwise - but what he did not say at that stage is that his meeting with the two men was by prior arrangement, as he had agreed with them over SnapChat to supply them with nitrous oxide capsules, in return for cash.

"Eventually, in a further witness statement, he conceded that this was the case, though he claimed he was merely selling three boxes of 'left over' canisters."

Mr Rushton claimed the males threatened to stab him if he didn't hand over the items and his car keys, then forced him to get out.

However, he did not see any knife and when Barnes, 20, and Clark, 17, were arrested a short time later, no blade was recovered.

Mr Dillon said: "The prosecution do not now promote any assertion that a threat of that nature was made."

Barnes drove off and Mr Rushton ran into McDonald's, where he told staff his version of events and rang 999.

Police tracked the car by CCTV to the Campanile Hotel in Chaloner Street, where Barnes and Clark headed to a pre-booked room.

Police went there and discovered the thieves and a female called Lois Berry - who was not charged with any offence - inside.

Officers searched the room and found Mr Rushton's iPhone, with the SIM card removed, and a cardboard box taken from the car boot.

They males were arrested and at a police station Clark was found to have the Tissot and Barnes the car keys.

Clark answered "no comment" in an interview, but Barnes was "rather more talkative", denied robbery and challenged Mr Rushton's account.

Mr Dillon said: "He claimed Mr Rushton was a drug dealer and he was meeting with him to buy drugs - not just laughing gas, but also ketamine."

Barnes said he saw a broadcast message on Snapchat from @liverpoolballoondrop and messaged it to buy drugs, then arranged to meet at McDonald's.

He said he and a friend - Clark - got in the car and handed over £50 for ketamine and laughing gas.

Mr Dillon said: "He states he didn't like the look of the ketamine and tried it in the car and did not believe it was ketamine.

"He then had an argument with the driver, Mr Rushton, over the drugs. He asked Mr Rushton for his watch and his car keys.

"He says there were no threats of violence, and Mr Rushton willingly handed the items over."

Barnes didn't give an explanation for taking the iPhone or cash, but denied robbery on the basis there were no threats of violence and he didn't intend to keep the items. His account was later largely adopted by Clark in a defence statement.

Barnes and Clark were initially charged with robbery, but admitted the lesser offence of theft ahead of a trial, which was accepted by prosecutors.

Mr Dillon said: "The Crown, having considered the matter in detail, have come to the view that although undoubtedly something untoward has occurred, none of the three protagonists is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

"Particularly in the current circumstances, we do not consider that the public interest would be best served by inviting a jury to embark upon the frankly Sisyphean task of establishing what really happened."

Mr Dillon, who suggested there must have been some intimidation, said the car was valued at around £5,000 and the watch and phone at several hundred pounds.

Lee Barnes, 20, of Wadham Road, Bootle

Barnes, of Wadham Road, Bootle, has one previous conviction for conspiracy to burgle in January 2018.

He was locked up for 27 months, but released that August, and was still on licence in January this year.

Damian Nolan, defending Barnes, said he had almost served the equivalent of a 12-month sentence on remand.

He said: "He's always accepted the theft of these items but he was the one telling the truth about how these parties came to be in the car park.

"It was Mr Rushton who has had to adapt his stance in relation to that."

Mr Nolan urged the judge to impose a "time served" sentence.

Owen Clark, 18, of Drake Crescent, Fazakerley

Clark, of Drake Crescent, Fazakerley, has 11 previous convictions for 20 offences, dating back to when he was 13.

They include three burglaries, theft from a vehicle, assaulting a police officer and threatening behaviour.

In January 2019 he received a Youth Rehabilitation Order with an Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) for robbery, and another order last September for drug dealing.

Simon Driver, defending Clark, said: "He was 17 years of age at the time of the commission of the offence, albeit 18 two days later.

"This has been his first experience of custody."

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Judge Louise Brandon said the pair met Mr Rushton to buy nitrous oxide.

She said: "What happened then between the three of you, we may never really know."

The judge said she would sentence them on the basis there wasn't a knife and no threats of stabbing.

Judge Brandon said: "You acted together and each took a significant role to deprive Mr Rushton of his property.

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"While I accept there was little or no planning in this case, the two of you acted together and to do what you did would have been intimidating."

She said it was obvious Clark "learned nothing" from his ISSP, but references showed another side to Barnes.

Judge Brandon handed both men 10 months in a young offenders institution, which will likely result in their immediate release.