Irish Traveller gang convicted in €76m museum theft plot
More than a dozen members of an Irish Traveller gang have been convicted of plotting to steal rhino horns and Chinese artifacts worth almost £60m (€76m) from museums across Britain.
Dubbed the 'Dead Zoo Gang' or the 'Rathkeale Rovers', at least eight of those convicted had links to the Co Limerick town.
Four of the so-called 'generals' who helped plan raids at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham's Oriental Museum were convicted yesterday following a trial at Birmingham Crown Court.
Ten men had previously been convicted of their part in the raids, but details can only now be revealed after reporting restrictions were placed on the case by the trial judge.
Police said the stolen items may have fetched up to £57m (€73m) on the booming Chinese auction market.
The court heard how the gang targeted a string of museums which had rhino horn artefacts on display, in order to sell them to wealthy Chinese buyers, who value its supposed medicinal and healing powers.
Powdered rhino horn is thought to be the most valuable commodity on earth and can fetch as much as €64,000 per kilo in China.
Daniel 'Turkey' O'Brien (45); John 'Kerry' O'Brien (26); Michael Hegarty (43); and Richard 'Kerry' O'Brien Junior (31), all from Cambridgeshire but with links to Rathkeale, were found guilty yesterday of conspiracy to steal, following a lengthy trial at Birmingham Crown Court.
Eight other men, aged between 33 and 68, from Cambridgeshire, London, Southend-on-Sea and Wolverhampton, had been found guilty at three previous trials, all at Birmingham Crown Court.
Two others, one aged 28, from Kent, and the other, aged 46, from Belfast, pleaded guilty to the charges in March of last year and January this year.
All 14 men were charged in connection with all the incidents.
Among those convicted of conspiracy to steal was Travellers' rights campaigner Richard Sheridan and Donald Chi Chong Wong, a London-based 'fence' who made frequent trips to Hong Kong.
As a result of the raids, many museums removed rhino horns from display, but the gang simply targeted rare Oriental artefacts, such as jade ornaments and vases, instead.
There were raids at the Norwich Castle Museum, an auction house in Lewes, East Sussex and the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, as well as those in Cambridge and Durham.
One Ming Dynasty bowl that was taken from Durham University raid was estimated to be worth as much as £16m (€20m) but was later discovered dumped on waste ground.
During one bungled raid, the thieves attempted to make off with a rhino's head that was on display at Norwich Castle Museum, but were forced to dump it because it was too heavy to carry.
The court heard that the ringleaders would "hire" in criminals to carry out the raids, some of whom were aged just 15.
Detective Superintendent Adrian Green, of Durham Police, said: "If you look at the audacity of what they do and the value of the property taken, that makes them significant criminals both within the UK and potentially across the world."
Sentencing of the men will take place in April.