How Godfather of gangland lost biggest gamble
Eamon Kelly, who mentored some of organised crime's deadliest figures, was once an unsuspecting player in a US drugs operation against cocaine king Pablo Escobar.
Growing up in north inner Dublin's deprived Summerhill area, the young Eamon Kelly was attracted to the junior wing of the 'Official' IRA. He was inspired, according to gardai, by the then charismatic socialist republican figure, Seamus Costello, who split from the Official IRA and set up the left-wing terror group, the Irish National Liberation Army, in the mid-Seventies.
Before that split, Kelly was part of a coterie of young – in garda language – "subversives" who were under regular surveillance and suspected of carrying out robberies on behalf of the Official IRA. The group included a young radical who has since gone on to become prominent in Irish politics, having eschewed the violence propagated by Seamus Costello and others who left the 'Official' movement.
In his youth, Kelly was a minor but, say gardai, nasty criminal. He was arrested several times and by the end of his teens had four convictions for house and shop breaking and for violent affray.
He did, however, marry young – and go on to raise a family of nine children. He moved into business and with his brother, Matt, set up one of Dublin's first big carpet warehouse outlets, Kelly's Carpetdrome and an associated company, Monck Properties, in north Dublin. The venture, however, landed him and Matt in the High Court for nine days over the then very substantial sum of £1.8m in unpaid debt and taxes. During the hearing, a former company accountant gave evidence that Eamon Kelly had pushed the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth and made him say an act of contrition before threatening to blow his head off. Both Eamon and Matt were held personally liable for the £1.8m. The Kellys' other brother, Des, had no links to the business or the fraudulent dealings. Des Kelly, an evangelical Christian, continues to trade successfully in Dublin.
After his bankruptcy, Kelly moved back into crime. Before this, he had been expelled from the Official republican movement and bore apparently intense animosity to his former colleagues. This resulted in an incident outside the Workers' Party drinking club, Club Ui Chadhain, in Gardiner Place, Dublin, on November 18, 1984, when he stabbed and almost killed a prominent member of the political party, Patrick Quearney.
At his subsequent trial, Judge Gerard Buchanan said the evidence before the court "revealed a story of intimidation and fear that made unpleasant hearing, and was quite abhorrent to the ordinary citizens of Dublin". He sentenced Kelly to 10 years in prison for the causing grievous bodily harm to Quearney, who later became general secretary of the Workers' party.
In evidence, Det Garda Michael Diggin told the court that he had known Kelly for seven years and during that time he had been associating with hardened and dangerous criminals. Kelly had four previous convictions, including burglary of a shop and houses and breach of the peace.
Patrick Quearney told the court there had been a scuffle outside the club and Kelly had pulled a knife on him. A doctor gave evidence that Quearney had been in grave danger of death through loss of blood from stab wounds to his heart and chest.
The case received considerable attention over Kelly's claims in court that he had been set up by the Workers' Party leadership, naming then party leader Cathal Goulding as part of what he described as a conspiracy against him. The claims were rejected by the jury though, at a retrial, Kelly's counsel managed to have the conviction for grievous bodily harm set aside, leaving Kelly with a three-year sentence for wounding with intent.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Kelly and others spotted the growing market for cocaine, then the drug of choice of rock stars and rich young people. Florida was the centre of the trade in cocaine, with its population of Cuban immigrants with links back to organised crime in the cocaine-producing countries in Central America. Kelly and two associates, ostensibly car-racing enthusiasts, travelled to Florida to attend Nascar racing events, but primarily to establish links to the cocaine trade and a secure supply route.
In Florida, Kelly and his associates came into contact with an Irish man, John Francis Conlon, then living in a mansion on Miami Beach who appeared to have the right contacts with which to supply Irish criminals with cocaine.
At a subsequent trial in Dublin, the court heard Kelly and his associates were able to buy high-purity cocaine at around US$20,000 per kilo and sell it on at enormous profit in Dublin – evidence was given that the street value was probably around £500,000.
Conlon travelled to Dublin in the company of a 40-year-old Cuban woman who was living in Miami. Elisabeth Yamanoha was overweight and had the kilo of pure cocaine taped to her skin under folds of stomach flesh – the removal of the cocaine was a painful business, gardai recall, with lumps of her skin coming off with the sticky tape.
Kelly and Yamanoha were remanded in custody without bail. Conlon, who was arrested along with them, tried to get bail but was refused.
He succeeded on a second attempt after a bond of £140,000 was paid. On his release from the Bridewell garda station and even though his passport had been taken from him by gardai,
Conlon was able to fly out of Dublin to Heathrow Airport. Within a further 24 hours, he was apparently issued with a British passport and flew on to Miami. Gardai involved in the case recall that a week later he rang a senior detective in Dublin and apologised for having absconded.
What gardai had not released when they arrested Conlon along with Kelly and the Cuban drugs mule was that Conlon was one of the United States' Drug Enforcement Agency's top undercover operatives, a man who had managed to gain the confidence of the then major Colombian cartel boss, Pablo Escobar. Conlon had been encouraged to travel to Colombia to establish links with the apparent intention of opening up the European market for Escobar's drugs.
The trip to Dublin was, it seems, part of the ostensible establishment of this network and, all the while, Conlon was keeping the DEA and British police informed of his activities.
There was alarm in DEA headquarters when its key agent was arrested in Dublin by gardai on what, to them, was a minor matter, though it was the biggest seizure of cocaine ever carried out by gardai. Conlon's handler in London was a senior officer in the City of London police who is believed to have arranged his quick transit through London back to Miami and his beachfront mansion. Conlon came from a respectable family background and little has been heard of him since. He is thought to have returned to Ireland for a family funeral some years ago and a warrant for his arrest in this State is still extant though his extradition from the US has never been sought.
Gardai had arrested Kelly, Conlon and Yamanoha after the handover of the drugs in the car park of Jury's Hotel in Ballsbridge. Kelly received a 14-year sentence, serving it fully despite three separate appeals. Yamanoha was given an eight-year sentence but this was later quashed and she was freed after a search warrant was found to be "invalid".
The case was hailed as a landmark one for the gardai, though details of Conlon's connections with the DEA were kept from the press. The detective in charge of the surveillance and arrest operation, Sergeant Martin Callinan, has since become commissioner.
As well as his early convictions for burglary and breach of the peace, Kelly came to the attention of gardai regularly for other crimes including forgery, hijacking and shooting and wounding a man in Crumlin in the Eighties.
Kelly knew almost everyone in organised crime in Dublin and after serving his sentence on the cocaine charge, he reinvented himself as the go-to man for advice on setting up criminal ventures from armed robbery to large-scale drugs importation. The list of the young criminals whom he mentored is a who's-who of modern Irish crime. He helped the vicious young Finglas thug, Marlo Hyland, rise to prominence in the drugs trade, making the necessary introductions to the Irish wholesale drug suppliers in Spain and Holland. Hyland, however, became a liability when his name became plastered over newspapers over his murderous campaign to establish a drugs hegemony in north Dublin. Gardai suspect Kelly gave the go-ahead for Hyland's murder in December 2006.
The hired assassin also shot dead innocent young plumber Anthony Campbell, who happened to be in Hyland's house at the time fixing a radiator.
The man chosen by Kelly to succeed Hyland was the equally brutal Eamon 'The Don' Dunne, considered a more dependable and professional replacement. Under Kelly's tutelage, Dunne rose to become the most successful Dublin-based drugs gang leader in recent times. His rise to power, however, was also the bloodiest episode in the history of organised crime in Ireland. Gardai estimated that professional assassins hired by Dunne killed more than 20 men whom he suspected of being rivals, potential rivals or garda informants.
In the end, Dunne, too, became a liability. Although the reasons remain somewhat unclear, it seems that Kelly eventually gave the go-ahead to other members of Dunne's gang who were becoming increasingly worried about Dunne's growing paranoia, as he suspected even those closest to him in his rise to power of being enemies. Dunne was shot dead at a family gathering in the Fassaugh House pub in Cabra in April 2010. The previous year had been the bloodiest in the history of organised crime in Ireland with Dunne probably responsible for more than half of the 31 murders that year.
According to gardai, Kelly was disdainful of the rising new element in Dublin's criminal scene, the 'Real' IRA figure, Alan Ryan who was running a burgeoning campaign of extorting money from the city's minor drug gangs. Ryan's influence was being felt across the city but Kelly and his associates met Ryan's extortion demands with blunt refusals and counter-threats. It came as a major surprise to Kelly and the rest of Dublin's ageing criminal fraternity when Alan Ryan turned up at Kelly's family home in Furry Park in Killester on a Saturday morning in September 2010, pointed a handgun at his chest and tried to murder him. The gun jammed and after a brief struggle during which Kelly tried to grab the gun, Ryan broke free and ran off.
With Eamon Dunne dead, his gang splintered and with the professional assassins they had hired then in prison on other offences, the way was left open for Ryan's continued rise. At least three former Dunne/Kelly associates were killed by Ryan's faction until, in September this year, Ryan was himself shot dead near his home in Clongriffin in north Dublin.
Ryan's associates vowed revenge but the man believed to have ordered Ryan's murder is not thought to be in any way associated with Eamon Kelly. This man is an established drug-trafficker with an independent supply network not associated with Kelly or his long-established contacts.
Despite his lifelong crime links and his association with the biggest drugs and crime businesses in the State, Eamon Kelly continued a low-key lifestyle. In recent years, his wife, Ann, died and a son who had developed a heroin addiction died from a drugs overdose. A daughter died in 2001. Kelly remained in Killester and kept a routine of visiting a local pub and bookie's. Walking back to his house at around 4pm on Tuesday, he was gunned down by a 'Real' IRA gunman who got out of a car driven by an associate and fired four shots into his chest.
Kelly knew his life was under threat. It was said locally that Kelly had been joking that there would be an attempt on his life and was even taking bets in a local pub that there would be a "hit" on him before Christmas from Ryan's associates. He was apparently gambling on yet another escape.