Monday 23 September 2019

Botched kidnap of dentist put an end to high-profile ransom attempts

The violent capture of John O'Grady in 1987 was doomed from the start with psychopathic O'Hare on board, writes Jim Cusack

Gardai at Carnlough Road, Cabra, after John O’Grady was found
Gardai at Carnlough Road, Cabra, after John O’Grady was found

Jim Cusack

The gang that kidnapped dentist John O'Grady, who died last week, was as stupid as it was vicious. Two nights before the kidnapping in 1987, one of them stabbed a man to death during a drunken fight in Dundalk and was already being sought by gardai.

The knifeman, Feargal Toal, fellow South Armagh man Dessie O'Hare, Eddie Hogan from Cork, and Tony McNeill from Belfast, were the core of the gang. McNeill recruited the fifth member, Dublin barber Gerry Wright, apparently on the promise that if he helped in the kidnap he would be remunerated and the gang would also murder the man he believed responsible for killing his brother. Another member was Martin Bryan, who was to be shot dead in the final act of the horrible drama surrounding Dr O'Grady's ordeal.

Dessie O'Hare was a notorious psychopath, too crazy even for the Provisional IRA in South Armagh, who had disavowed him after a series of run-ins with other members and hare-brained antics that led to the deaths of two other IRA men.

Gardai and the RUC linked O'Hare to 26 IRA murders in Armagh, including that of a young Protestant woman, Margaret Ann Hearst, who he shot dead in front of her infant child and also fired shots in the cot narrowly missing her daughter.

Eight months before the kidnapping, O'Hare and associates kidnapped and tortured a Co Monaghan man, Tony McCluskey, who they suspected of siding with another republican faction against them. O'Hare used bolt cutters to slice off parts of McCluskey's anatomy before finally shooting him to death. He said he wanted to give McCluskey "a hard death".

The gang's planning was wrong from the start. Their intended target was Dr Austin Darragh, whose firm which tested pharmaceuticals was reputed to have made him one of the richest men in Ireland. The gang had his old address. They were not aware he had passed on his former home in Brennanstown Road, Foxrock, Co Dublin to his daughter Marise, her husband John O'Grady, and their three children, when he moved to another house in Ballsbridge.

Dessie O'Hare
Dessie O'Hare

The gang forced their way into the house, sledgehammering down the front door at around 9.30pm on Tuesday October 13, 1987. Dr and Mrs O'Grady were in bed watching TV. Their youngest daughter, aged six, was asleep and their two boys, aged 13 and 12, were also getting ready for bed.

The gang, all initially wearing masks, held the family at gunpoint overnight and repeatedly beat and threatened the couple and their children. Dr O'Grady was made to walk barefoot over broken glass in the hall and was bleeding from his feet. Marise was beaten and kicked. They also ransacked the house and stole anything of value.

At around 9.30am the next day they bundled Dr O'Grady into the boot of a car and drove him to Wright's barber shop in Parkgate Street and held him blindfolded and bound hand and foot in a dank basement. He was held there for four days and then transported to a farm at Ballymacsliney outside Midleton, Co Cork, where he would be held until October 26.

He was held in a container and subjected to a bad beating by O'Hare for no reason.

John O'Grady
John O'Grady

By the time he was in Cork, the news blackout on the kidnapping had been lifted and the country was on high alert. Local people noticed unusual movements of men around the farm and gardai moved in and surrounded the area, just hours after O'Hare had again decided to move his prisoner.

Dr O'Grady had been bound and gagged and taken away in the boot of a car by the time gardai, backed by soldiers, stormed the farm. Two members of the gang were still able to shoot their way out, hijack cars and make their way to Dublin following O'Hare and Dr O'Grady - this time to Gerry Wright's house at 260 Carnlough Road, Cabra, in north Dublin.

Back in Dublin, the gang had made contact with a lawyer who was a friend and a patient of Dr O'Grady's with details of how to collect a ransom note under one of the stations of the cross at St John's Cathedral in Limerick. The note was in the wrong place, and was missed. The family was unaware that an initial ransom demand of IR£300,000, given to Mrs O'Grady before the gang took her husband, had been raised to IR£1.5m.

Not aware their secondary demand had been missed due to their own negligence, the gang decided to up the ante by sending two of the dentist's fingers with their next demand. He was taken into an upstairs bedroom in the Cabra house, bound hand and foot, and O'Hare chopped off both of his little fingers using a hammer and chisel. The severed stumps were placed in an envelope along with the demand and left in Carlow Cathedral where they were found, this time by gardai, on November 3.

The Garda search operation was already causing concern following the shoot-out and escape in Cork. The family began preparing the ransom.

O'Hare's name and details of his associates were in the public domain at this stage and O'Hare even rang the Sunday Tribune newspaper on Saturday, October 31, to emphasise his demands and further threaten the life of his prisoner.

Dr O'Grady was held in the cupboard under the stairs for most of the time in the Cabra house and allowed to wash only once. The wounds to his fingers had been crudely cauterised with a hot knife, but he noticed a clot forming in one finger and asked that it be treated. He had to perform the incision on the clot and re-cauterise the wound himself, despite the terrible pain he was suffering and on top of the stress from the repeated threats to kill him.

Routine detective work led to the final freeing of Dr O'Grady. Sergeant Henry Spring and Detective Garda Martin O'Connor were allocated the job of following up on the discovery of a numbered identity card for the Guinness recreation centre. The card had been found among documents and other material during searches of premises known to have been used by the gang in the past. Gardai traced it to a man who had a business in Parkgate Street who remembered giving the card to the barber next door, Gerry Wright.

Wright was not a suspected terrorist though gardai had been familiar with his brother Billy, who was shot dead by the official IRA in October, 1975. The two gardai called to Gerry Wright's shop and he accepted that he had received the Guinness sports club pass. They asked to search his home in Carlough Road and he agreed, as the gang had been making preparations to move for some days and he believed they were no longer there. He was wrong.

O'Hare had gone, but Hogan, Toal and McNeill were still there, with Dr O'Grady still held in the cramped space under the stairs.

When the two gardai arrived Wright let them in, deliberately rattling the key in the lock to alert anyone who might still be in the house. He concocted a story for the two gardai that he had been renting the house to a group of young men on a local employment scheme. The two gardai were suspicious. Sgt Spring was unarmed. Det Garda O'Connor had his standard issue revolver. He had not drawn it when Sgt Spring entered the house while he remained outside in the car.

At first Wright and the others tried to pass themselves off as innocent parties. They then drew guns, attacked the sergeant and began moving outside. Two of them began struggling with Det Garda O'Connor who was still in the car and had drawn his gun. With a pistol pointed at his head he was forced out of the car, stood against a wall and shot in the abdomen by Hogan from a distance of only a few feet. Det Garda O'Connor was still holding his gun and managed to fire off one shot as the gang fled before falling to the ground with blood pumping from the massive wound. Emergency surgery saved his life, but his injuries were so great that he took early retirement and set up a business with his wife in Co Westmeath. Like Dr O'Grady, he never spoke publicly about the events.

O'Connor had also managed to call back-up and gardai began pouring into the area. A running gun battle ensued during which Dr O'Grady, who had managed to free himself and run from the house, was almost shot. He was taken to Blackrock Clinic.

McNeill, Hogan and Toal escaped from the city, hijacking cars across the country until they were rounded up in Munster in the following days.

O'Hare stayed on the run for another three weeks despite a nationwide manhunt. He had linked up with another former associate, Martin Bryan, in Tipperary. Bryan was an unwilling accomplice and managed to get a tip-off to gardai about the green BMW car O'Hare was travelling in. Bryan had been able to communicate to gardai that O'Hare would be in the passenger seat and he would be driving. O'Hare had begun to suspect Bryan and forced him to switch places just before they came into a checkpoint outside Urlingford, Co Kilkenny on the afternoon of November 27. Bryan was shot more than a dozen times and died. O'Hare, although also hit repeatedly by an Army Ranger Wing sniper, survived.

The capture of O'Hare and his gang was the last time that a republican terror group made an attempt to kidnap and ransom a high-profile wealthy individual (see panel).

In the Special Criminal Court in April 1988, O'Hare and Hogan were both sentenced to serve a minimum of 40 years in jail before being eligible for parole. McNeill was sentenced to 15 years and Toal to 20 years. Wright was given a seven-year sentence.

Dr O'Grady was permanently scarred, physically and mentally, by his experience but recovered enough to go back to work in December 1987. He never spoke publicly about his ordeal. He agreed to speak to a conference on stress in 2000 but by then O'Hare and Hogan had mounted legal challenges for their release under the amnesty for republican prisoners under the North's peace process. Dr O'Grady was advised not to speak and pulled out of the conference.

The thought of O'Hare and Hogan's early release weighed heavily on him, friends said.

O'Hare was released in 2006 and immediately began consorting with members of the Dublin criminal underworld he had met in Portlaoise Prison. One of his prison pals was John Gilligan. O'Hare still lives in Dublin. Hogan returned to Cork and Toal reconnected with his old associates in the INLA and was arrested and served four further years in jail for cocaine trafficking. NcNeill's whereabouts are unknown.

The deployment of the Army Ranger Wing at the Urlingford checkpoint was a turning point in the State's war against these terror groups. O'Hare survived only because he had switched places with Bryan.

It was a sharp lesson, enough to put off other putative kidnappers.

Sunday Independent

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