WHEN John Gilligan walks through the gates of Portlaoise Prison next week, he will have good reason to greet the free world with his customary smirk.
He got away with the murder of 'Sunday Independent' journalist Veronica Guerin.
The gang boss has served a 17-year prison sentence for leading one of the country's biggest drug-trafficking gangs; the same gang that carried out the cold-blooded execution of the courageous journalist on June 26, 1996.
She was shot dead in one of the most notorious murders in gangland history to protect his criminal empire and the fabulous wealth that it bestowed on him and his close associates.
In just two years, they had established one of the most efficient drug-distribution networks in Europe, making IR£25m (€32m) in profit. Gilligan once bragged that his take had been IR£15m (€19m) – most of which was never traced.
During Gilligan's trials in 2001 and 2002 on charges of arms-dealing, drug-smuggling and murder, Peter Charleton, senior counsel for the prosecution, summed up the reason for the murder.
"Gilligan had a motive for murder: the necessity of having to protect an evil empire."
However, in the end, the Special Criminal Court only convicted Gilligan of drug trafficking and he was acquitted of the gun-running and murder charges.
John Gilligan decided to get involved in the drugs trade when he was released from prison in 1992 after doing time for receiving stolen goods.
Before his last conviction, he made his mark as a professional burglar, carrying out large-scale thefts from warehouses and factories around the country - thus his underworld nickname 'Little Factory John'.
Gilligan had managed to escape several other charges after he intimidated witnesses and statements were withdrawn.
When he regained his freedom, he famously swore that he would never again go back to prison – but he had no intention of going straight.
Gilligan formed a partnership with convicted fraudster John Traynor, who had also realised that drugs were the future. His lieutenants were a group of ruthless young up-and-coming criminals called Brian Meehan, Peter Mitchell and Paul Ward.
It wasn't long before they began to display their incredible wealth with designer clothes, jewellery, fast cars and flashy apartments.
Despite being officially unemployed, Gilligan pumped millions into a huge, world-class equestrian centre near Enfield in Co Meath.
Everyone knew the source of the wealth was organised crime but there was no legal mechanism to take any action.
And that was where Veronica Guerin, a hard-nosed investigative reporter, entered the life of John Gilligan.
In September 1995, she decided to call to see him at his luxury home next to the equestrian centre. She had just one question for the drug trafficker: where did he get his money?
Gilligan's immediate reaction was to launch into what Veronica later described as a frenzied attack.
She was punched and beaten.
She later said the violent onslaught was more terrifying than when she had been shot in the leg in a gun attack at her home the previous January.
He threatened to murder her and her family. Gilligan later repeated the threats in a phone call to her.
The mother of one made a complaint to the gardai. Gilligan was charged with assault and potentially faced up to two years in prison. It would have had serious consequences for his growing drug business.
Gilligan had the contacts in Holland that the gang needed to operate. And there was the added consideration that if he was out of the picture too long the gangster might be usurped.
Now Gilligan (61) prepares to leave the cell he has called home for the past 13 years (he spent the first four in an English jail).
Senior gardai and state prosecutors have long acknowledged he would be spending longer in prison if two vital witnesses had testified in court. But Gilligan had ensured that the two people concerned, Carol Rooney and Martin Baltus, were too terrified to take the stand.
CAROL Rooney, Gilligan's teenage lover, was 19 at the time of the murder. Over a number of months, she had witnessed John Gilligan and his closest associates – John Traynor, Brian Meehan, Patrick 'Dutchie' Holland and Peter 'Fatso' Mitchell – discussing the plans for the murder of Veronica Guerin.
Martin Baltus was an Amsterdam-criminal who organised shipments of drugs and guns for Gilligan on behalf of his boss, an international drug-trafficker called Simon Rahman.
Of the two potential witnesses, Carol Rooney would have been the most important. Unlike the other so-called supergrasses – John Dunne, Russell Warren and Charlie Bowden – she was not involved in the gang's operation.
She later told detectives how Gilligan had become obsessed with the journalist after the assault, especially in the months leading up to the murder.
He had set Rooney up in a house in Leixlip, Co Kildare, which, apart from being a love nest, was also the gang's meeting place. Rooney saw hundreds of thousands of pounds being counted there.
When she asked where the money came from he replied: "Hash and guns."
She heard Gilligan discussing Veronica Guerin with his associates. In a statement to gardai, Rooney later recalled: "He told Traynor that Veronica Guerin was not going to get away with what she was trying to do and he'd have to kill her. He said: 'She'll get what she deserves if she doesn't leave my f**king family alone.'"
Crucially, Rooney was in a hotel room in Amsterdam as Dutchie Holland got off the motorbike driven by Brian Meehan and shot the journalist five times at close range.
She would later tell detectives that Gilligan paced up and down the floor, talking to the gang members immediately before and after the outrage.
Gilligan had flown to Amsterdam to meet Rooney the previous day after appearing in Kilcock District Court, where his assault case was adjourned.
That evening Gilligan told Rooney: "After tomorrow all my problems will be over." A few hours later, Rooney overhead Gilligan laughing and joking on the phone with Dutchie Holland.
"I hear you put a smile on her face," she recalled him saying, adding, "I wonder who she will be investigating now she is in heaven?'"
Rooney would tell gardai that Gilligan repeatedly threatened that he would kill her and her family if she ever spoke about the murder.
Then he "convinced" the terrified young woman to emigrate to Australia. The last person she met was Dutchie Holland, who told her: "Get yourself a new boyfriend, forget about John and forget about everything you've seen and heard and everyone will be alright."
She was arrested by detectives when she returned to see her family a year later and agreed to make a full statement to gardai. However, Gilligan's men made threats to members of the woman's family and she said that she was too scared to testify.
Meanwhile, in Holland, Martin Baltus (55) was arrested on drug-trafficking charges and agreed to testify against Gilligan for the Irish authorities. He admitted to shipping drugs and guns to Gilligan. He also admitted to handling IR£3m of the gang's drug money.
Gilligan's trial in the Special Criminal Court was adjourned for the Christmas of 2000.
Garda and Dutch police intelligence would later discover that Baltus's 23-year-old daughter had been abducted by the gang during the holiday period. She was held for a number of days, before being released with a message for her father.
He was told that if he travelled to Ireland to give evidence against Gilligan, his daughter and family would be murdered.
When the trial resumed, Martin Baltus refused to return to Ireland to give his evidence. He said he was terrified.
The trials of the various Gilligan gang members were largely dependent on the direct evidence of three supergrasses. However, the court ruled that it could not accept their uncorroborated testimony.
During Gilligan's trial, supergrass Russell Warren's evidence about phone conversations he had with the mob boss were discredited by the court.
Carol Rooney had witnessed those calls and her evidence would have provided crucial corroborative evidence. Baltus's testimony would have also supported evidence from the supergrasses, which the court had viewed with scepticism.
- Paul Williams