Killing sparked by battle for share of shrinking trade
The murder of a Lithuanian gangster highlights how criminals are vying for control of the second-hand market while charities suffer
The economic boom brought tens of thousands of hard-working honest migrants to Ireland – as well as criminals like Gintaras Zelvys. In the era of ostentatious consumption, Irish women and men were buying – and dumping – fashion at unprecedented rates.
The boom in the fashion trade was followed by a boom in the charity retail trade and charity shops began to appear along the country's "secondary" retail streets – the off-the-main-street retail areas where rents allowed for the more modest turnovers of smaller shop owners.
It was common to find fashion items, for which people had paid hundreds of euro, turning up in a charity shop only months later, on sale for a fiver or tenner. The shops became a major source of income for Irish charities.
The trade also attracted gangs from eastern Europe who saw an open, unregulated area of the economy from which to make small fortunes.
Operating beneath the Garda's radar, the gangs flourished in the days of the Celtic Tiger. The fact that violent criminal gangs were cashing in on Ireland's second-hand clothing trade did not come to serious attention until a few years ago.
In October 2010, gardai in Cork said they feared "a bloodbath" following a series of tit-for-tat firebomb attacks between gangs vying for control of the €1m-a-week trade in the south of the country.
One of the Cork groups, known as the Godfather Gang, had up to 30 vans and trucks roaming the country collecting bags of clothing left out by people duped by bogus charity leaflets the gang had posted into people's letter boxes, and stealing from reputable clothing banks.
There were several clashes between gang members armed with baseball bats and hurleys and what gardai described as a pitched battle on Cork's South Ring Road. Three vans were burned and a number of houses and industrial units petrol bombed.
Gardai in Cork issued a warning to people to stop putting out bags of clothing for collection, even though the bags might be marked for reputable charities as these bags were being stolen by the gangs before the genuine charity could collect the donations. People were asked to take their clothing directly to the charity shops.
Gintaras Zelvys had just returned to Ireland a month before he was murdered. He had been deported after completing a seven-year sentence for demanding money with menaces from innocent Lithuanian workers in the Border area. He slipped back into the country on fake papers. Gardai believe he had apparently expected to use his reputation for violence and association with organised criminals in Lithuania to allow him to muscle in on the trade.
However, his timing was all wrong. When Zelvys went to prison, the clothing gangs had been raking in large amounts of money as the children of the Celtic Tiger had been dumping their fashion items with abandon. But as with the collapse of the high street retail fashion business, so too had the second-hand business taken a dive. Zelvys was trying to muscle in on a trade that had constricted to the point where there was no room left for new operators.
Gardai believe Zelvys's associates figured there was no room for him and shot him because he was intent on his old ways. This would have brought Garda attention to their trade, especially after the Prime Time expose. Zelvys was shot when he arrived at the Greenogue industrial estate in west Dublin on Wednesday morning.
Despite having a criminal record in Lithuania, where he escaped from prison, Zelvys was entitled to come here under EU law which holds that a prison sentence is not sufficient grounds to deny an EU citizen entry to another EU country.
The Irish charities hope that the murder and the expose on Prime Time will make people aware of the illicit trade but hope it will not stop them donating. They welcome Justice Minister Alan Shatter's response to Prime Time and the murder. The minister has asked for a report from Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan on the trade.
Paul Hughes, spokesperson for the Irish Charity Shops Association (ICSA), said: "The public need to know that when they donate clothes, it is the charity that benefits most and not some commercial operator. Five of our members operate clothes banks; Enable Ireland, Oxfam, St Vincent de Paul, NCBI and Liberties Recycling. All of the profits that these registered charities generate go to support the most marginalised people in society.
"Bogus collectors are a menace. Whether they drop bogus leaflets looking for donations, steal donations intended for legitimate charities or steal from clothes recycling banks, they are cleaning up at the expense of charities that are already struggling to generate the income needed to provide support for those who need it most," Paul Hughes said.
"Apart from clothes recycling banks, the ICSA's 25 member charities operate over 320 charity shops across the country, all of whom will be delighted to receive donations of clothes and household items directly from the public. Look for the coat-hanger logo."
Trevor Anderson, Oxfam Ireland's director of trading, welcomed the minister's request for a report on the activities of the gangs.
He said: "We identified the risk to our donation banks from criminal activity some years ago and invested in extremely secure clothing and book banks which are rigorously and regularly tested. For example, the chutes cannot be opened by a car jack [a common approach used by criminals], many have electronic rather than physical or external locks, all have internal rather than external hinges and all of the doors are reinforced and don't bend under pressure.
"Donation banks are a crucial source of stock for Oxfam and provide a convenient place for members of the public to give the items they no longer need. People deserve peace of mind about the security of the banks.
"We own, service and maintain our own donation banks. Our teams of uniformed drivers and branded vehicles collect the items from our banks and bring them directly to our shops where they are sold to raise vital funds for our work with people affected by poverty and injustice around the world. Our network of 243 textile and book donation banks across the island is a crucial source of funding for emergency response work such as the Syria crisis.
"Donations to Oxfam shops are at a critically low level, having fallen by as much as 50 per cent in some stores. The Make Space for Oxfam campaign is appealing to the public to donate the items they no longer need to Oxfam's donation banks or to its 51 shops around the country."
He also called for the Government to implement the provisions in the Charity Act to create a register of legitimate charities and for penalties for people using bogus charities to collect clothing and raise money. This would follow the example set in the UK where bogus charities are prosecuted. Police in Britain have also clamped down on the eastern European gangs, making hundreds of arrests and driving most of the gangs out of business there.
Trevor Anderson said: "With charities trying to respond to unprecedented levels of need, regulation is more important than ever.
"We want to see the establishment of a new charities register, so people have easy access to information about registered charities' governance, purpose, programmes and finances. Then they can make informed decisions about which charity they choose to support. Transparency and accountability are key to ensuring a strong charity sector. With difficult economic circumstances at home, people are making sacrifices in order to continue supporting charities. They need to know that the organisations they're supporting are delivering value for money."
The ICSA advised that to find a legitimate charity shop or clothes recycling bank near you, go to www.icsa.ie/shops for a map of shops nationwide. There you can choose the charity you want to support, safe in the knowledge that it is a registered charity that is operated in a responsible and transparent manner.