The enduring ties that bind John Traynor and crime boss John Gilligan
Published 02/12/2012 | 05:00
Far from being an avuncular con artist, John Traynor was in fact a major criminal, writes Willie Kealy
When Veronica Guerin was murdered, everything was frantic. All of us who worked with her were in shock. But we were also having to pull out all the stops to make sure the papers we produced in grief were up to the standard she had always set herself. And I suppose we wanted to make sure that her life and work were accorded their due, and this was not something we felt we could leave to others – for Veronica's sake, for her family's sake and for our own sake too.
As journalists from every end of the business either overpraised her, exaggerated their role in her life and work, or tried to claim she had been reckless to a fault and that we shared in that blame, it became a 24-hour operation to keep the message simple. Veronica was a great journalist, but she wasn't perfect. Nobody is. She did things that others didn't have the courage to do, but she was not foolhardy. She was simply driven not just to succeed in her profession, but to see to it that those amassing fortunes out of the misery of whole communities and who were allowed the status of 'untouchables' by the forces of the State, would feel the uncomfortable glare of publicity on them. And for that she was murdered.
For those of us in the Sunday Independent left behind, the grieving and the work kind of meshed, one informing the other, as it were. Meanwhile, a team of 60 detectives under Assistant Garda Commissioner Tony Hickey had set up an incident room in Lucan to try to catch Veronica's killers. From very early on everyone seemed to know that it would not be a long drawn-out process to establish who had been behind her murder. Rather the time would be taken up in getting the proof to satisfy a court that this shocking assassination, which so affected the nation, arose out of Veronica's investigations into the criminal drug importing and distribution gang, led by a nasty little thug called John Gilligan.
Gilligan was a career criminal who had graduated from robbery to large-scale drug importation – so large-scale that he and his crew of about half a dozen associates were making unbelievable amounts of money. Gilligan himself had bought an impressive equestrian spread called Jessbrook in Co Kildare, where his wife's efforts to blend into the horsey set were sometimes thwarted by Gilligan's habit of showing up in a turquoise tracksuit!
His right-hand man was Brian Meehan, a hardened and violent criminal who had done prison time with Gilligan and was his main enforcer. Meehan, who rode the motorcycle used in the assassination of Veronica, would eventually be convicted of her murder. He is still in prison.
Peter Mitchell was the other senior member of the gang. Mitchell was vital in the international operation that was Gilligan's drug gang. He was also the first one to flee the country as soon as the massive public reaction to Veronica's murder made it clear to every criminal in the country that Gilligan had drawn down an avalanche of retribution upon, not just himself, but the entire network of illegal drug running in this country. Such was the heat on major Irish criminals generated by Veronica's murder that many of them decided to immediately relocate to Spain or Holland and try to continue their operations from abroad.
Other members of the nucleus of the network were: Paul Ward, who was accused of disposing of the motorbike after the murder; Charlie Bowden, an ex-army man who was the gang's armourer; Russell Warren, who was the lookout outside Naas courthouse and phoned the killers to say she was on her way; and John Dunne, a truck driver involved in the physical transport of drugs. Bowden, Warren and Dunne would later give evidence against their fellow gang members for the State. Their testimony was vital, and after they had themselves served sentences for their roles in Gilligan's operation they were given new identities and placed in the witness protection programme. Patrick Holland was another useful member – or associate member – of the Gilligan gang. He was older than the others, but with a reputation for extreme violence. And that was the talent that Gilligan employed.
In the weeks after Veronica's murder I interviewed a number of criminals to try to get a handle on what had happened. Most talked bullshit, spinning yarns, trying to pretend they knew more than they did. But one swore that the person who killed Veronica was an older man from Dublin's inner city, tall and bald, who sometimes wore a wig. Starting with a disclaimer that all criminals lie and that most of what they say to journalists is self-serving, I wrote up that interview, and it was published. I had no idea who Patrick Holland was, but the description would later prove to be an extremely accurate one.
A garda stated in court that Holland was the murderer, but he was never convicted of that offence. But there is no doubt that Holland was the pillion passenger on the motorbike who fired the fatal shots into Veronica's car as she stopped at the traffic lights on the Naas Road.
The reason I did not put the description given to me and the name of Patrick Holland together was that I was not a crime reporter and I knew little of the criminal underworld, other than what I learned from the work of Veronica and her colleague Paul Williams in the Sunday World.
Some years earlier I had known Christy "Bronco" Dunne, the leader of a criminal organisation made up mainly of some of his many brothers.
Christy was an intelligent and likeable fellow and, in another life, he could have been known for something other than criminality. But in this life he was a major Dublin gangland figure.
I was familiar with his brother Larry as well – a man credited with bringing the scourge of drugs to this country, but also the man who warned prophetically, as he was put away for a lengthy jail sentence: "If you think we were bad, just wait till you see what's coming after us."
I had covered Larry's trial and I remember going for lunch on the day he was to be sentenced. As I stood on the footpath getting ready to cross the road to the Legal Eagle, a big car swept past me with a grinning Larry Dunne waving to me from the front passenger seat. It was only when I got back to court and saw the defendant was no longer present I realised that Larry had not been on his way to a last good meal, but had been driven to the airport to go on the run.
When it came time to give a statement to the gardai after Veronica's murder, I found that I had very little to tell them that I thought would be of value. I remember two senior gardai came to the Sunday Independent offices, then in Middle Abbey Street. One of them was the present Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan. He was then a detective inspector and had been one of the first gardai to come on the scene after the notorious "General," Martin Cahill, was shot. As Mr Callinan and his colleague sat down at the boardroom table in Independent House, he produced a notebook and a pencil, and started to ask me questions. I realised this could take hours. So I asked if they had secretarial support in their Lucan headquarters. He said they had. So I went and got a tape recorder, put it between us and suggested they tape my interview, get it typed up and give it to me to sign.
This freed me up to just tell them exactly what I thought and what I knew and what I thought I knew. I talked about Veronica's work and her dealings with the Sunday Independent, and as I went on I realised that very little I had to say would be of use to the investigation. But there was one thing I was determined to say on the record. I was certain that John Traynor had something to with her death.
John Traynor, who is now 64 and said to be suffering from a heart condition, was another career criminal. He was also a garda informer and a source for several journalists writing about crime, including Veronica. He was a big, slovenly, overweight man, a drinker, married with children. Like everything else he did, his touting for gardai and journalists was self-serving. He would give information about other criminals in the hope that they would be targeted by the gardai or written about in the newspapers and he would be left alone.
But his contact with journalists was not discreet. He once brought a reporter much shorter than himself to a criminal drinking den. The reporter asked where in Dublin could one acquire a sawn-off shotgun. Traynor shouted out loudly: "Does anyone know where a sawn-off journalist could get a sawn-off shotgun," to the general hilarity of his criminal associates. So when articles started to appear about Gilligan, Traynor was understandably worried that he would be blamed. He showed signs of nervousness. He tried to persuade Veronica that her accounts of Gilligan's activities were exaggerated. Then he switched to indicating that Gilligan was a dangerous man and was better left alone.
Shortly before she was murdered, Veronica was shot in the leg at her own front door. This was either an attempted assassination that failed because the gun jammed, or it was a warning. Whichever, within days Veronica was back on her feet with the help of crutches and trying to find out who had shot her or who had had her shot.
One of those she approached was John Trayor, her long-time source. Traynor told her he had heard it was the well-known city centre criminal, Gerry Hutch, who was responsible. This did not make a lot of sense to Veronica. Hutch was not a violent type. But she decided to follow it up. In typical Veronica style, this meant going to Hutch's home and asking him why he had tried to have her killed. They had a long conversation, at the end of which Veronica was convinced that Hutch knew nothing about the shooting. Traynor was wrong. Or Traynor had lied.
She began to think more seriously about Traynor and to look more closely at his activities, eventually concluding that there was something much more sinister to him than the avuncular con artist. In fact she became convinced that he was a closer friend of John Gilligan than he let on. She confronted him with her conclusions and he denied them. But she continued her investigation and eventually came to the point where she was preparing to expose Traynor as an active and major criminal. Traynor responded by seeking a High Court injunction to prevent what he believed was a story that would say he was a drug dealer. This was also the time when Veronica was engaged in the process of being a witness against John Gilligan, who had been charged with assault after giving her a severe beating when she called to his Kildare home. As all this was happening, Veronica herself had a court appearance of a different kind – she was up for speeding. On her way back from that appearance – she got off – she was assassinated.
Because of the pending assault case in which Veronica had been due to give evidence that would probably send Gilligan back to prison, the diminutive drug supplier and his gang were the obvious prime suspects for the gardai. Traynor, on the other hand, was not in the frame. It was thought the violence was too extreme for him. And he was pretty plausible at denying everything and shifting any blame that might attach to him, on to others. It was not until the criminal trials of some gang members began that real evidence was adduced about the link between Veronica's murder and Traynor. Charlie Bowden, the gang's armourer, turned State's witness and in the course of his evidence told the court that John Traynor furnished information to the gang in relation to Veronica's court appearance in Kildare.
Years later (in 2008) John Gilligan, during one of his endless court appearances to challenge his sentence or try to hold on to his ill-gotten gains, claimed that John Traynor was the man who had had Veronica killed.
The Gilligan gang was perfectly capable of murdering Veronica without any help from John Traynor. But Traynor had a complex relationship with Gilligan, as Veronica had come to realise. On the one hand he was close to him. On the other hand he was terrified of Gilligan and wanted to keep in his good books. How better then – if one accepts the evidence given by prosecution witness, Charles Bowden – to serve both ends than to pass on some useful information, while at the same time keeping himself at a safe distance from the killing.
Traynor had found out from Veronica that she was due in court for the speeding offence. He knew the time and place. Veronica was followed from that court appearance and murdered.
Traynor went to Mondello Park that day, was injured and taken to hospital. He had a perfect alibi. He left the country very soon afterwards, never to return except for a few fleeting visits later on.
But there was still one loose end that concerned him. Veronica had told him she was writing an account of his criminal undertakings. Had she written it before she died? Would it be published posthumously? As it happened, Veronica died before she could write that story, but John Traynor did not know that. So he instructed his solicitors to proceed with trying to get an injunction to prevent publication.
I was in court the day that Traynor's application was made in the wake of Veronica's murder. Traynor wasn't – he had fled the country. Instead he was represented by one of the most eminent senior counsel at the Bar, Adrian Hardiman, now a Supreme Court judge.
In the absence of Traynor, Hardiman read aloud Traynor's affidavit. The affidavit told of how Traynor had a deprived childhood and got into crime early, but had turned his life around, was now a successful businessman, and did not even know some of the people with whom, he claimed, Veronica had been threatening to say he was involved in dealing drugs. Traynor's affidavit gave the impression that Veronica had him terrified, that she was a little unhinged and was almost blackmailing him with a threat of exposure to get more information out of him.
The Sunday Independent was represented by Eoin McCullough, a very experienced junior counsel, who did a lot of legal work for the Independent group and still does today as a senior counsel. He tried to make a case against the injunction, but was stopped in his tracks by Hardiman's objections. Counsel, Hardiman pointed out, could not give evidence. As I sat with our solicitors I became very angry and frustrated. I asked to go into the witness box, but the lawyers said no. Anything I had to say about what Veronica had told me was hearsay. I didn't care at that stage. I would have been willing to just unleash an outburst against Traynor that could make me guilty of contempt of court. I wanted to say that, from my knowledge of Veronica, the portrait being painted of her by Traynor would be unrecognisable to anyone who had known her. It was no longer about the injunction, it was about Veronica's reputation. Veronica had been on her way to the offices of the Sunday Independent's solicitors to prepare a replying affidavit to Traynor's when she was murdered. The fact that Veronica had not actually written the story was apparently irrelevant. The injunction was granted.
We went back to court to try to get it lifted, but we had nothing new to offer and our application was rejected. Our team adjourned to a room in the Four Courts afterwards – our lawyers, Veronica's husband Graham Turley, and the late Aengus Fanning, then editor of the Sunday Independent. Aengus was a man who could have won medals for Ireland if anger was an Olympic sport, but he became more angry that day than ever before, or after.
His anger was justified. However unjustifiably, we felt we had let ourselves down and, more importantly, we felt we had let Veronica down. But today we know a lot more about the real John Traynor, the recidivist criminal with the sly mind who lived to play both ends against the middle, always with the single aim of enriching himself.