Texts reveal the making of a murder conspiracy
Chilling details of a foiled contract hit were detailed at Imre Arakas's sentencing hearing, writes Maeve Sheehan
The groundwork had been done long before the one-time Estonian separatist turned gun-for-hire set foot in Ireland. The target had been located, his apartment had been cased and his movements tracked.
The man in the crosshairs was James Gately, who is an associate of the Hutch gang and lives in Belfast. CCTV evidence would later show the occupants of a blue Peugeot van placing a tracking device under his car. The van had been driven over from Birmingham and left at Dublin Airport for the job.
All Imre Arakas had to do was confront the target and pull the trigger.
Arakas is a well-known convicted criminal in his native Estonia. In his youth, he joined the Estonian Defence League, fought against Russian "oppression", and once staged a daring escape from a Russian prison. His ice-blue eyes and chiselled features were on display in photographs on his Facebook page and he granted interviews to select Estonian journalists.
When he crossed paths with the Irish underworld, he was living in a rented home on the Costa del Sol, in a state of "financial embarrassment", having run up a debt he was under pressure to pay off.
His arrest by gardai secured one of the most significant convictions in the ongoing investigations into the Kinahan/Hutch feud.
Arakas pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder at the Special Criminal Court last month. At his sentencing hearing last Friday, there was no mention of the Kinahan cartel - just his links to an organised crime gang in Ireland whose members are based in Spain and Dubai.
The detailed evidence outlined by Inspector David Gallagher, of the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, provided an extraordinary insight into a thwarted contract hit.
Arakas stepped off the flight from Alicante to Dublin on April 3, 2017. He took the Air Coach to O'Connell Street, rather than a taxi.
After that, he strolled the streets of the north city centre for several hours, taking in Abbey Street, Parnell Street and Moore Street, where he dropped into a shop to buy a wig. Later he bought a hand-held mirror from a nearby discount store. Arakas then strolled out toward Summerhill. At 8.20pm a white Mercedes van pulled up and brought him to Blakestown Cottages in west Dublin, where he lay low overnight.
He was instructed via texts to his encrypted 'Pretty Good Privacy' Blackberry phone. The chillingly detailed and matter-of-fact messages were exchanged between four numbers linked to code names and were sent from different time zones.
The first in the sequence was from 'Knife' to 'Bon New'...
"Front entrance to apartment is on 'king street' its right beside 'sean graham bookmakers' it's a glass door with 'collage court central' above it. The car exits the rear of this building which is 'collage court' from a building which opens up and down from a buzzer, there's a ball camera above the entrance.
"Champagne colour Toyota Avensius reg number 'WEZ3381'.
"His parking space is as soon as the shutter opens directly in front of you.
"There's a gym at the end of 'collage court lane' called 'hench gym'.
"He drives most days he seems to go to Newry and back."
And Bon New to Knife: "Ok king street is Belfast main street is that correct? And where can we see photos of him?"
Knife replied: "Yes king street there is a europcar directly across from his app block that's the front entrance For the picture go into goggle (sic) write 'James Gately Dublin criminal' go into images - the eight line of pictures it's the second picture in, he has a black suit on and when he clicks on picture it has 'james gately' wrote under picture it's a clear picture of him."
The next text was sent from Arakas's Blackberry device:
"Well I go to internet soon and have a look. My plan was actually to go there tomorrow and for a day or two see the situation in real. Then perhaps I get a better plan. So far, in case I'm totally alone it seems its possible to take him down when he comes out of car. Its based on google maps pictures. Then there was an open car park behind the house bot [sic] if they closed it the situation is another. If not at the car then on his way to the front door. There were huge advertisements on the way and looks like its possible to hide behind. The whole problem there is that there is nowhere to hide. Especially you wait for the moment he comes out of the door. Also silencer would be good. But especially it is good if the dog [slang for gun] is really accurate because if the picture in google is the same that in real life it could be one shot to the head from the distance and that's it. Also there is a trick that won't allow him to close the front door behind him and I could follow him to the corridor. But it only works when the door frame is metallic but by the picture it looks plastic but I see there what I can do."
He politely signed off: "Best regards".
The last text was from another code name, 'Bon 4': "We have a tracker on his car so my idea is when he goes out in car we know he is coming back we tracks him live when he is heading back to his apt when he is 10 mins away he get in position and he parks in the same space always so then you have him."
Imre Arakas did not get the chance to fulfil his mission.
He had been under surveillance even before he left Spain and Irish detectives picked up his trail at Dublin Airport, tracked him on his walkabout in Dublin city and on to Blakestown Cottages.
At 11.25am the following day, armed gardai burst into the house through the back door. Arakas was standing beside the single bed, his encrypted Blackberry mobile phone was on a couch beside the bed.
Garda Sean O'Neill picked up the Blackberry and began scrolling through the text messages, taking photographs of the screen as he went, suspecting what would happen. Within minutes, the messages were deleted remotely by the anonymous administrator of the service.
Arakas was a striking figure in the Special Criminal Court last Friday morning, tall, lean, with long white hair to his shoulders and dressed in a light blue top.
He sat impassively as Insp Gallagher told the three judges how he was satisfied Arakas was to be paid a "five-figure sum" for his work. His defence counsel, Michael Bowman, said his client had experienced some "financial embarrassment"; "there was a considerable debt and this sum was to be set against that", he said.
The court heard that Arakas, a former wrestler, was a professional diver by profession. He was "scarred" from his time in Russian prisons. He had been involved in the separatist movement against the former Soviet Union and had four convictions for a range of offences that included causing grievous bodily harm, escaping from prison, theft, hooliganism and unlawful handling of firearms.
Although he owned a property in Tallinn, Estonia, he had been living in rented accommodation in Spain. He is married and the father of two children, but his wife suffers from poor health.
Mr Bowman asked the court to consider mitigating factors, including how Arakas had acknowledged his role during Garda interviews and had pleaded guilty.
The operation that his client was involved in was clearly run by "third parties", he said. Mr Justice Tony Hunt intervened to say it is "not going to happen unless someone is prepared to pull the trigger".
Arakas turned 60 yesterday on a segregated wing at Portlaoise Prison where he is held with six other prisoners. The court was told that he finds prison difficult. He is serving his prison term in a foreign language. He had a stroke last month and is on medication.
Arakas, who will be sentenced on December 12, also faces serious charges in Lithuania once his prison term is completed in Ireland. The High Court endorsed a European arrest warrant for him when he was in custody here in February.