Tuesday 20 February 2018

Brothers' escape from jail in Venezuela baffles gardai

TALK OF TOWN: Brothers Leigh, left, and Dermot O'Neill were sentenced to 11 years in jail in Venezuela for drug smuggling
TALK OF TOWN: Brothers Leigh, left, and Dermot O'Neill were sentenced to 11 years in jail in Venezuela for drug smuggling


IT is being billed the great escape but gardai are mystified at how two Athlone men emerged from a "hell-hole" Venezuelan prison where they were serving 11 years for drug offences.

Senior garda sources said they had not heard a word from Venezuelan authorities since brothers Leigh and Dermot O'Neill escaped from the high security prison in recent weeks.

They were serving 11-year sentences for drug smuggling, caught after the Irishman they were travelling with died after swallowing a cocaine-filled condom.

In a week when Michaella McCollum Connolly and her friend, Melissa Reid, face jail in Peru for alleged drug smuggling, the O'Neills' great escape was the talk of Athlone.

Rumours swirled that the brothers had paid their way out of the notoriously over-crowded San Juan prison and took a taxi across the border to Colombia. Once out of the country, they rang an Irish priest in Caracas who used to visit them in prison to tell him they had escaped.

Despite reported sightings of the brothers out and about with their sister last week, garda sources said they had yet to see them walking around the town.

A source told the Sunday Independent: "Usually in cases like this there would be queries raised through diplomatic channels but in this case, no queries have been raised with us at all."

The O'Neills were arrested after their friend Martin Beirne's death. Beirne was sleeping in his hotel room in Caracas when he became ill.

He had swallowed a condom full of cocaine that he planned to smuggle out of the country. At the time of his death, detectives had linked him to a Sligo crime family.

Venezuelan police later detained the O'Neill brothers at the nearby Irish consulate.

They were both X-rayed for drugs. Leigh, the older brother, later passed 92 balloons filled with cocaine which had a street value of €50,000.

He pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges but his brother, Dermot, insisted he was innocent. But both received 11-year jail sentences. Their brother Daniel and their uncle Tommy later spoke out about the appalling prison conditions.

There is no extradition agreement with Venezuela and gardai will only intervene if the Venezuelan authorities submit a formal request.

Sunday Independent

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