DETECTIVES investigating the suspected theft of €9,000 within a Garda station have narrowed their focus on just a few of their own colleagues.
Just "a handful at most" would have had access to the safe which contained the cash - part of a €26,000 haul recovered from a botched shop heist, it has been established.
The money was discovered missing when John Wilson, owner of the Village Store in Lusk, north Co Dublin, asked for it back in mid-February, several weeks after his business was raided.
Senior Garda sources said the cash had been "tagged and tracked" while in the force's possession under normal protocols to protect evidence gathered from a crime scene.
Access to the safe where it was being kept would have been "very limited and very controlled" and the main line of inquiry now was that it was stolen by someone within Garda ranks.
Other possibilities that the money, kept in exhibit bags, was mislabelled or misfiled were deemed unlikely after a full search of the Garda station turned up nothing.
"The consequences of this will be fairly dramatic," warned a Garda source.
"Obviously this has done reputational damage to us and I don't think we could tolerate a member within our ranks that has stolen money."
A detective superintendent from Ballymun Garda station on the city's northside appointed to head up an internal inquiry has been handed a full investigation team while an incident room has been set up.
The Garda Ombudsman said it was not getting involved because no member of the public had made a complaint.
A number of people who would have had access to the cash have already been interviewed and detectives are confident that the case will be wrapped up relatively quickly.
"I can't emphasise the seriousness of this enough, this will have very serious consequences," said one source.
"If a member has been found to have done this, they will be charged and brought before the courts - and that will be the least of their problems."
Mr Wilson said he was shocked when he was told the cash was missing after asking investigators to hand him back the much-needed funds.
A tear had been discovered on the exhibit bag, which has been fingerprinted and forensically examined.
"It's under internal investigation by An Garda Siochana, so there's not much I can say about it," said Mr Wilson.
The shopkeeper said he could not do without the cash, which was part of his trading funds, and that the force would have to reimburse him one way or the other.
"It has to be (reimbursed)," he said.
"It has gone missing in garda custody so it has to be."
Fears have been raised that any tampering of the evidence could endanger the prosecution of the robbery suspects.
Three armed men threatened staff and customers during the hold up of the Village Store in January before attempting to flee the scene with the money.
But gardai intercepted the getaway car and pulled the suspects out of the vehicle.
In 2005, two robbers were shot dead by the Garda's Emergency Response Unit after holding up a post office at the same premises.