Tuesday 24 April 2018

‘Rathkeale Rovers’ jailed for €70m plot to steal horns and artefacts

Sentenced: Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien, Michael Hegarty and Daniel ‘Turkey’ O’Brien were all sent to jail yesterday. Far left: John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Jr will be sentenced today
Sentenced: Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien, Michael Hegarty and Daniel ‘Turkey’ O’Brien were all sent to jail yesterday. Far left: John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Jr will be sentenced today
The scene of the robbery at Durham University's Oriental Museum. Durham Police/PA Wire
An 18th-century Chinese jade bowl was one of two items stolen from the robbery at Durham University’s Oriental Museum. Durham Police/PA Wire

Alexander Britton

Seven members of a notorious Irish crime gang have been jailed in Britain after plotting to steal up to €70m in rhino horn and Chinese artefacts in a series of museum raids.

The group, dubbed the ‘Rathkeale Rovers’ because of their links to the Limerick town, targeted high-value objects in a string of break-ins, including at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham’s Oriental Museum in 2012.

Judge Murray Creed heard that although the items stolen in Durham and Cambridge were valued at €20m, detectives believe that they might have fetched more than three times that figure on the booming Chinese auction market.

Members of the same gang also masterminded an offence at Gorringes Auction House in Lewes, East Sussex and organised the disposal of stolen artefacts in what the judge said was “an extremely sophisticated conspiracy”.

Sentencing seven of the 14-strong gang, the judge said the criminal enterprise “involved very high-value goods with significant harm caused to victims, both museums and members of the public, who would otherwise have viewed the material stolen”.

He added: “It was a conspiracy sophisticated, skilled and persistent that involved significant cultural loss to the UK of museum-quality artefacts and items from international collections.”

In all, 13 men are being sentenced following three trials which concluded with the gang and its associates being convicted of wide-ranging criminal conspiracy to steal, which uncovered connections to Ireland, Europe and China.

The judge began by jailing Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Jr (31), of Cambridgeshire – and also of Rathkeale – for five-and-a-half years. His uncle, John ‘Cash” O’Brien (68), of Fifth Avenue in Wolverhampton, was jailed for five years and three months.

Also in the dock was Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien (45), and Daniel Flynn (also 45), both of Orchard Drive, Smithy Fen, Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, who were jailed for six years and eight months and four years respectively.

The judge said Flynn had played “a leading role” but he reduced the man’s sentence based on “the fragility of his mental health”.

Alongside the men in the dock was 56-year-old Donald Wong, of Clapham Common South Side in Lambeth, London, who was described by the judge as “a buyer, seller and valuer”. He was jailed for five and-a-half years.

Paul Pammen (49), of Southend-on-Sea and Alan Clarke (37), of Newham, London, who was said to have headed the gang’s ‘disposal team’, were also both jailed for five and-a-half years each.

Six other men will be sentenced today.

A 14th man had already been convicted and sentenced last year for his part in the crime.

The judge said the operation to “plunder” rhino horn, carved horn and carved jade items started off “small-scale” in January 2012, but that after initial failures and botched thefts – in one case, the burglars forgot where they had hidden their haul – “planning paid off”.

“It was serious organised crime,” he added.

In their most successful theft, 18 pieces of Chinese jade were stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum and although experts provided various valuations up to almost €22m, the judge described them as “priceless”.

He added: “They were part of a national collection that was split between the museum in Cambridge and the British Museum in London.”

Afterwards, that haul was stored in a safe house, being taken by taxi to Purfleet in Essex, where the individual items  were spirited away.

The judge continued: “The conspiracy spanned England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, references were made to France – the Cherbourg visit – Hong Kong and also the United States and Germany featured in the evidence the court heard over the three trials.”

He said the gang had either stolen or tried to steal “highly prized museum-quality” items, often with historic Imperial Chinese dynastic connections, with the exception of an attempted theft on an auction house in March 2012, in which the bungling thieves took the wrong item.

On two occasions, the Oriental Museum in Durham was targeted, but also the Castle Museum in Norwich, Gorringes Auction House in Lewes East Sussex and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The men carried out reconnaissance of these and other sites, including three museums in Glasgow and another auction house in Yorkshire.

Mr Creed said there had been “no expression of regret or remorse” from the men and acknowledged that there was “no prospect of recovery”.

The remaining members of the gang, including John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Jr, will be sentenced at the city’s crown court later today.

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