Revealed: How gardai found 'inside man' behind hundreds of robberies
In the first of a four-part investigation into rural crime, Paul Williams reports on how a farming insider was helping criminals to carry out raids
GardaÍ in the midlands have smashed a major rural crime ring involved in stealing farm machinery and equipment across the country.
A professional who provided services to farmers had been supplying 'insider information' to the gang, which also includes a number of rogue farmers.
The crime gang has been operating from a base in Co Laois for a number of years, gardaí believe.
They had been conducting surveillance operations on farms to identify specific items of property which were then stolen to order.
Gardaí believe that the gang was behind more than 100 burglaries since the beginning of this year.
In the past fortnight, detectives recovered stolen vehicles, trailers and other farm equipment in Co Laois as part of a series of searches involving gardaí from three divisions backed up by Regional Support units and the Air Support Unit.
It is understood that some of the property was recovered from a number of farmyards, including one owned by a man who works in the agricultural sector. His legitimate work involves visiting farms throughout the midlands.
The ongoing garda operation, under the command of Chief Superintendent John Scanlan in Portlaoise, has uncovered a complex underground network of people involved in stealing to order and selling stolen goods.
The investigation has been hailed by farmers' representatives as a major breakthrough in the investigation of rural crime. Three men have also been charged as part of the same operation.
The Irish Independent understands that a large quantity of plastic bale wrap was included in the large amount of property so far recovered. In recent months, gangs have stolen several tons of the expensive bale wrap, which is used to wrap silage and hay, from farms and co-operatives.
Sources say that the wrap was being specifically targeted by gangs, who steal to order.
Gardaí and the farmers being targeted say that unscrupulous farming contractors and fellow farmers are creating a crimewave by agreeing to buy stolen goods and machinery.
In the early hours of June 30, five farms were targeted in the Athnid area, near Thurles in Co Tipperary, where the gang stole only bale wrap and ignored other valuable equipment.
Dairy farmer Michael Hackett senior had over €2,000 worth of wrap stolen.
"They knew exactly which farms in the area were using bale wrap and it was clear that they had us under surveillance before they came," he told the Irish Independent.
"Other farms that were targeted in the past were left alone because they don't use the wraps.
"They knew exactly what they were looking for and left everything else. It was clearly being stolen to order."
The thieves had intimate knowledge of the layout of the Hackett farm and entered the property through a gateway which is unused and overgrown, situated over 50 metres from the family home.
A vehicle was then driven through an adjoining field, bringing the gang in behind the farmyard. They stole 26 boxes of the plastic wrapping, with each box weighing over 30kg.
"The gang used either a big jeep or a large van because the total weight of the boxes would be around a ton and they took around the same amount at the other four neighbouring farms," said Mr Hackett, who runs the family farm and a dairy equipment supply company along with his son, Michael Jr.
"Because the boxes are so heavy, they had to carry them individually up to 40 yards to the van or jeep and that meant there could have been three or four men involved."
The Hacketts and their neighbours have no doubts about why they were targeted.
"These things are being robbed to order because the gangs are not going around the country asking people do they want to buy bale wrap," said Michael Jr.
"That means that there are rogue farming contractors and individual farmers willing to buy stolen goods, which they are ordering.
"It is terrible to think that unscrupulous members of the farming community are betraying their fellow farmers by creating this crimewave."
The Hacketts and their neighbours in this close-knit community are no strangers to the scourge of rural crime.
Last year, theirs was one of six farms targeted in a series of robberies between June 8 and August 13.
On that occasion, the Hacketts lost over €6,000 worth of farm equipment, with similar quantities of expensive tools, diesel and equipment stolen at the other farms.
Barry O'Gorman, who lives a short distance from the Hackett farm, had welding equipment, power tools, saws and diesel worth over €1,000 taken.
The thieves returned on a second night and took a trailer, which was then used to take away a ride-on lawnmower and tools which had been stolen from John Quinn, a neighbouring farmer.
In an earlier robbery at Mr Quinn's yard, the gang stole a chain saw, strimmer, battery pack drills, hand tools, oils and lubricants worth €5,000.
After the Irish Independent began highlighting the extent of the problem, a group of farmers and local businessmen in the area organised the Save Our Local Communities campaign in a bid to highlight the scourge of rural crime and lack of garda resources.
The campaign culminated in a public meeting in Thurles, attended by an estimated 2,500 people. This forced the Government to take action to fund Operation Thor, which specifically targeted rural crime gangs.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald also introduced new legislation, tightening up on the granting of bail to repeat burglars.
However, despite the recent breakthrough, the Hacketts and their neighbours believe that the force is still under resourced and depleted in numbers.
"The guard who came to investigate the theft arrived in a 06 hatchback Fiesta, which was the only squad car available in the nearest station, Templemore. How is he expected to pursue criminal gangs in that?" asked Michael Snr.
"Our local station has to cover 1,400km with that car, so how can we blame our local gardaí when these robberies happen?
"It was recently announced that the county is to get 16 new garda recruits, while 20 gardaí are retiring and there are plans to shut the local garda station at 9pm. What chance have we got then?"
The ongoing crimewave has left farming families fearful for their safety if they disturb burglars on their property.
Michael said that he worries for his son, who lives with his young family on the farm.
"If he goes down the yard on his own, anything could happen to him. Our Alsatian dog was seriously injured by the robbers last year and is too afraid to go into the yard at night although he does bark," he said.
Michael's wife Margaret said that the robberies had destroyed her sense of security.
"The country is so unsafe now and these robberies leave you feeling pure deflated," she said.