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Gilligan seen as father of modern organised crime

John Gilligan introduced the terrorist "cell" system and Irish crime became "organised" for the first time, gardai have revealed 15 years after his gang murdered Veronica Guerin.

Looking back on the events surrounding the murder of the Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, gardai say they now regard Gilligan as the founder of modern organised crime in Ireland.

He emerged from Portlaoise Prison in 1993 with ideas picked up from other prisoners who were members of the Irish National Liberation Army.

Like the IRA, the INLA, was supposedly split into cells: "active service" units, that carried out the killing or robbing; "logistic" units, that stored guns and explosives; "foreign" units, that bought weapons abroad; and "finance" and safe houses. All were supposed to be discreet units unknown to each other.

The system was copied by the republicans from left-wing Seventies terror groups like Baader-Meinhof in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy.

Before he was sent to prison, Gilligan had met a drug contact in Amsterdam. He kept this man a secret from his associates. On his release, he travelled to Amsterdam to renew the association and begin forming his organisation. He had his core distribution and muscle group headed by Brian Meehan, who oversaw the distribution of drugs and collection of money. Meehan was also the head of his "muscle" side, carrying out gun attacks when deemed necessary. But Meehan was poor at this, so former US Marine and experienced assassin Eugene Holland was brought on board.

They were unaware of the "logistics" man, another ex-soldier, Charlie Bowden, who stored and looked after guns. Bowden had been an armourer for a while in the Irish Army.

Russell Warren was the "finance" man who handled the cash.

Gilligan's contact in Cork Harbour collected the drugs and drove them to the car park of a hotel in west Dublin. He simply left the van in the car park and walked away. It was then collected by Gilligan's people, who never met this man or knew who he was. They later took the empty van back to the same spot.

No one but Gilligan knew the man's identity until gardai arrested him.

Likewise, none of Gilligan's organisation ever knew the identity of his Lebanese supplier in Amsterdam.

It was the most efficient and richest criminal organisation in the history of the State. By 1995 -- within only two years of leaving prison -- Gilligan was buying his equestrian spread, Jessbrook in Co Meath, and taking his central coterie of gang members on holidays to St Lucia and the Alps.

Before this, Irish crime was based on the old robber gang system -- basically grown-up street gangs. Gang members had generally known each other since childhood. So it was fairly easy, once the gardai had "turned" one, to find out what all the other gang members had been doing.

Gilligan's operation went into full flow in 1994, and it was at least another year before word of it began to reach gardai. A preliminary investigation in 1995 failed, however, to breach or make full sense of Gilligan's operation. Nothing like it had been encountered in "ordinary" crime before.

By the late summer of 1995, Veronica Guerin had found out about Gilligan. Her investigations led her to Jessbrook, and on September 13, 1995, she called to Jessbrook to quiz Gilligan, who assaulted her. He was arrested and charged with assault, and was due before Kilcock District Court at the end of June 1996. But on June 26, she was murdered.

Gilligan used his cell system to full effect in the murder, aware that the sky was likely to fall on him after killing such a high-profile journalist.

Russell Warren gave evidence in court that he was employed to observe Veronica as she appeared before Naas District Court on a speeding charge. He was to call a mobile number when she left. Paul Ward and his brother, Shay, were to prepare and supply a motorcycle, but were not told what it was to be used for. Charlie Bowden was told to fetch a handgun, but, again, not what it was to be used for.

According to Warren's evidence, aside from Gilligan -- who was in the Netherlands -- only Meehan, who would drive the motorbike, and Holland who would use the gun, knew what was to take place. When Russell Warren, returning to Dublin along the same route, saw Veronica's car stopped at the traffic lights at Newlands Cross and realised what had happened, he had to pull over as he became physically sick.

The State had the apparatus to take on and destroy a criminal organisation like Gilligan's. But it hadn't done so because he kept -- just -- under the radar. Veronica's journalism and her murder changed that. Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne ordered then Chief Superintendent Tony Hickey to assemble a team, solve the murder and bring down Gilligan's operation.

Hickey had at hand remarkable resources. A system of murder and serious crime investigation had been created by superb leaders like superintendents Dan Murphy and John Courtney in the Seventies. A central Murder Squad was located at Garda headquarters, and at its core were some 40 detectives who had been chosen and highly trained. This squad had a nationwide network of detectives and uniformed gardai known to have ability and a natural flair for detective work. They, too, received additional training.

Under Dan Murphy and John Courtney there had been an almost 100 per cent clear- up rate of murders in Ireland.

The Murder Squad, officially part of the Technical Bureau, was despised by criminals of the day and became known in sections of the media as the 'Heavy Gang'. It was disbanded and dispersed in the late Eighties as a result of controversies surrounding a number of cases. However, in 1996 many of its best former members and detectives who had worked with it were still available for work, and Tony Hickey called them in.

He assembled them in the spacious and quiet Lucan Garda Station. Within hours of the murder -- the beginning of the critical 24-hour post-crime period -- skilled detectives were working on critical lines of inquiry. By mid-evening on that day, while the rest of the country was reeling in shock at the murder of the journalist and young mother, Hickey's people were already in the midst of dividing up and tracking down evidence.

At the core of this system is the "book" and the "book man" -- basically an office manager, and ideally an experienced detective, who does the unglamorous administrative work of entering "jobs" in A4 ledgers and ensuring they are completed.

At the outset, a key element is reaching as many people -- potentially important witnesses -- as possible who were at or around the murder scene. Detectives are detailed to ask people what they saw. This can be critical information at the point where suspects are questioned. The team can put people or cars in places that can contradict suspects' versions of events and undermine alibis.

Mobile phone traffic was then analysed. Russell Warren was identified as being at the scene. He was corrupt, but not a murderer or even a serious criminal. He would eventually be "turned" as a State witness and brought into witness protection.

Charlie Bowden, who supplied the guns, was identified and he, too, turned. Together with the evidence of the mobile phone traffic on the day, a case was put together that destroyed Gilligan and his gang. The finest defence barristers in the country could not undo the case brought by Hickey's team. Where a murder charge was lost, there were supplemental charges of significant magnitude to ensure lengthy sentences.

Major gains were achieved against organised crime in the aftermath of Veronica's murder. The Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) became a paradigm for police forces around the world.

However, Gilligan's example showed the way for the next generation of Irish drug traffickers. His operational example was studied and considered in our universities of crime -- the prisons. Some of Gilligan's contemporaries decamped to Holland, Belgium and Spain, Europe's wholesale drug centres, to avoid the CAB, and went on to even higher levels.

The Celtic Tiger arrived, and Ireland's recreational drug users were rapacious customers for cocaine brought in by gangs like Gilligan's, and who learned from his mistake of taking on the State -- albeit in the form of a young woman journalist. They kill only their own or people of no import in the media. When Veronica was murdered a gangland killing was national news for days. In 2009 there were nearly 30 gangland murders -- the highest annual figure in the history of the State -- yet none was considered newsworthy for that long.

Most of the detectives who worked on Veronica's murder have since retired, and with them has gone a vast wealth of experience and expertise. These detectives are scathing about the current state of murder investigation, with a prosecution rate of under 10 per cent. When they joined the guards in the early Seventies they were educated only to Leaving Cert level and spent just six months in Templemore, but were able to build major cases which overwhelmed brilliant defence lawyers.

The new generation of gardai spend two years on largely academic study in Templemore but, as one still-serving detective said, many barely know how to take a statement or give one in court, not through want of willingness, but because they have simply not been taught.

There are few remaining experienced and talented detectives capable of putting a "book" together. In most instances, they say, only lip service is paid to gangland murder investigation.

The bulking up of the force's numbers to 14,000 -- regarded by these detectives as a Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrat political stunt -- has had no impact on reducing serious crime or the ingress of drugs and guns into the country. In fact, the opposite has happened.

Senior and retired detectives who spoke recently to the Sunday Independent expressed the view that, despite the blow struck to Gilligan and his gang, the business of crime has turned into an industry.

Sunday Independent