Friday 22 November 2019

Jim Cusack: Old pals' sinister underworld web captured on tape

The association between 'fixer' John Traynor and gang boss John Gilligan was close and fraught, says Jim Cusack

John Traynor hoped to be one of those criminals who were smarter than the system, smarter, in fact, than both the criminal justice system – the garda and the courts – and the criminals – the professional murderers, robbers and drug dealers.

He had a well-known distaste for prison. In his early life he had been a petty criminal. His first recorded conviction was in 1961 at the age of 13 when he was given the Probation Act for burglary. He joined the merchant navy as a seaman at the age of 15 to avoid prison after a series of convictions for minor offences. He returned to life on shore in the early Seventies and despite marrying and starting a family, resumed his life of crime.

That resulted in his conviction in December 1977 for possession of a revolver and threatening a garda, for which he received a five-year prison sentence. On his release he switched from the type of crime that inevitably involved prison time to fraud and deception for which prison was a rather more distant possibility. He was part of the Dublin criminal/republican tradition of chancers and layabouts who used the cover of the 'Struggle' to carry out robberies and extortion, ostensibly to raise funds for the IRA or other splinter groups, but mainly for self-enrichment.

Traynor was a 'fixer' who set up robberies but never actually took part in the dangerous end of the operations himself and who then helped launder the money or goods. He earned a commission for the first part, then a further percentage of the laundered assets if the robbery succeeded. He was the brains behind one of the biggest heists in the history on the State – the robbery of O'Connor's jewellers in 1983 which yielded the late Martin 'The General' Cahill's gang £2m. A number of other gangs, including the IRA, had looked at this job, but Traynor was the one who got details of the security system and came up with a foolproof plan. Everyone in the gang, including Martin Cahill, took part in the robbery – with the exception of Traynor, who kept his physical distance.

In another scam, he orchestrated the passing of State cheques which were stolen by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in the early Eighties. Garda efforts to nab him for this embarrassing stunt – many of the cheques were salary cheques for gardai – failed. The scam reputedly netted Traynor and his associates almost £3m, making it one of the most successful criminal enterprises in Ireland at the time.

Another of Traynor's "coups" was a convoluted plan to launder £28m in bearer bonds, also known familiarly today as promissory notes, stolen from a courier in the City of London in 1990. He was caught and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in England in 1992. He absconded from Highpoint open prison in November 1992 three weeks after sentence. (Subsequently he would be re-captured and sent back to finish this sentence before being released just weeks ago.)

His main criminal associates were the men he knew before or met in Mountjoy prison during his sentence for possession of the gun. Martin Cahill and John Gilligan were both in prison at the same time.

Traynor left Ireland two weeks after the murder of Veronica Guerin and has returned only rarely and surreptitiously since. He travelled to Portugal, possibly via France, and on July 12, 1996, rang the then Sunday World journalist Paul Williams offering to meet him in Portugal to put his case of innocence in relation to the murder. Mr Williams met Traynor in the coastal resort of Costa da Caparica in the Setubal area in the southwest of the country.

This was only 10 days after Judge Henry Barron, sitting in the High Court in Dublin, had granted Traynor the interlocutory injunction restraining Independent Newspapers Plc, Veronica Guerin and Aengus Fanning from publishing or communicating in any way that John Traynor was involved in the "sale or supply of illegal drugs".

At that time, John Gilligan was probably the richest criminal in the country. Gilligan's money men could barely cope. A weekly stipend to one of Gilligan's close associates was £10,000 in cash paid each Friday. Gilligan's bag man, Russell Warren, was under so much pressure that one Friday he delivered £12,000 by mistake. The recipient pulled him up sharply and threateningly. He did not want to be seen to fall into a trap or take more than his agreed fee. He did not want Gilligan to have any excuse to turn against him. Gilligan's gang killed people they had reason or even no reason to suspect as enemies.

One of those who became a target of the Gilligan gang was another criminal, Martin 'The Viper' Foley. In his recently published book, The Viper: The life and crimes of Martin Foley, Sunday World crime writer Mick McCafferty tells how Brian Meehan was called to a meeting with the IRA to answer an accusation that Gilligan had moved from selling hash to selling heroin. Traynor told Gilligan that it was Foley who had been spreading that rumour. Meehan went to meet the IRA and succeeded in convincing them that it was not true. Before he left, the IRA told him their information had come from Foley. This was February 1996 and, in what would turn out to be a remarkably similar operation to the one that engineered Veronica's death, Charlie Bowden was told to supply the weapons, Paul Ward was to be the driver and Brian Meehan the assassin in a hit on Foley. Luckily for Foley, though he was shot twice, he survived.

In this kind of atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia, Traynor had every reason to be extra careful in his dealings with John Gilligan and to fear the little man with the big temper. He made sure he did nothing to draw attention to Gilligan's operation, pretending to all outside the immediate circle that he hardly knew the man. But the reality, we now know, was quite different.

A video filmed in Gilligan's prized Jessbrook equitation centre and bungalow at Mucklon in Co Kildare demonstrates clearly the closeness between John Traynor and John Gilligan, which Traynor had so often sought to deny. This video was shot by one of Gilligan's underlings on the occasion of a birthday party for Gilligan's wife, Geraldine. It occurred a full year before Veronica was murdered. The day started with races on ponies for children and progressed into a booze-up in a marquee set up at the back of the bungalow. Caterers had been brought in to run the barbecue. A disco was laid on. Absent for almost all the first two-thirds of the video is John Gilligan. Of the four occasions when he appears on the video, on three of them he is with John Traynor.

Traynor appears four times on the two-hour long tape. At 47 minutes into the tape, the cameraman captures images of Traynor in a double-breasted blazer talking to John Gilligan at the entrance to the marquee. It is a businesslike exchange. Traynor stuffs some food into his mouth, looks at his watch and then disappears from view with Gilligan. An hour and 40 minutes into the tape, there is Traynor again, this time having joined the celebrants as Ger Gilligan and family are presented with a cake and the DJ plays Congratulations by Cliff Richard. Traynor is sitting at one of the tables and beside him is John Gilligan eating cake. Traynor is not eating or drinking. Most around them are already showing signs of being drunk.

At an hour and 55 minutes into the tape the party has spilled over into the bungalow, and the camera follows tipsy teenagers into the house where Traynor is seated at the dining room table with, for the third time, John Gilligan beside him. Gilligan is downing a can of beer. Traynor is not drinking or eating. Five minutes later, after further scenes of drunken revelry outside, Gilligan and Traynor are again captured on video at the dining table. Traynor grimaces rather than smiles at the camera, showing a missing tooth. He has a mug of tea while Gilligan still has a can of lager in front of him.

It is the only known tape of the two together and was among a collection of VHS tapes which gardai removed from Jessbrook during the investigation into the murder of Veronica. Other tapes include a holiday in the Caribbean island of St Lucia for a wedding; a skiing trip; and another shot inside Portlaoise Prison, of a soccer match and a get-together of inmates afterwards attended by the kidnapper and republican terrorist Dessie O'Hare and with Gilligan the centre of attention, the 'Mr Big' among his prison friends.

Gilligan saw Traynor as someone who was more sophisticated than himself and more adept at dealing with people whom he would regard as higher up the social register.

Undoubtedly Traynor had a little more polish than the little thug, but that is not saying a lot. He did know his way around Europe, however, and he seemed to have some organisational skills. Gilligan was able to learn some of the basics of business from him and then apply it to crime. But it was a less than perfect friendship – certainly Traynor believed he had more brains than Gilligan.

Initially he also had more contacts. At one stage when Gilligan needed a lot of money fast, it was Traynor who made the introductions which led to his old pal Cahill lending Gilligan a large amount of cash, said to be between £600,000 and a million. Cahill had the money from his industrious armed robbery career and from the fencing of some of the masterpieces stolen from the Beit art collection in Russborough House in 1986.

However, Traynor's relationship with Cahill was also a fraught one. He fled Ireland in March 1987 after Cahill apparently accused him of stealing money from a joint venture. In the normal course

of events this should have been a minor affair but Cahill had a reputation for almost mindless violence where he perceived any kind of slight. The two later made up, but there was no doubt Traynor was nervous of his continued relations with Cahill. Nevertheless he was able to grease the wheels with Cahill for Gilligan, and the deal between the two major criminals was concluded around the same time that the birthday video was shot.

The money for the 100 acres of land at Mucklon to build the bungalow and Ireland's then biggest equitation centre came from the importation by John Gilligan of around 20,000kg of cannabis resin through Cork Port, yielding a profit of somewhere in the region of £14m. Gilligan had bought a racehorse, Rifiwan, which won at Naas and Punchestown races. The laundering of the profits was taking up almost more time than the actual drug smuggling. Money was going back and forth in suitcases to Amsterdam, to casinos and dozens of bureau de change. It was hidden in piles under beds and in laundry baskets. But at that time there was no Criminal Assets Bureau – that would only come about as a result of Veronica's murder.

By the time of Geraldine Gilligan's birthday party in Jessbrook, the gardai were already closely examining Gilligan's activities. Operation Pineapple was set up in 1995, and information from garda sources about the emergence of Gilligan as Ireland's top gangster had reached Veronica.

Veronica wrote to Gilligan asking him to explain his lifestyle. She made a statement to gardai about how, when she followed up this letter with a visit to Jessbrook, to try to interview Gilligan, he had viciously assaulted her, a charge which was struck out after her murder. Veronica was getting close to uncovering the racket run by Gilligan. She had discovered how the beginnings of the massive drug operation came about from a meeting between Gilligan and others in late 1994 with a Surinamese trafficker who was based in Amsterdam. He could supply good quality hash in bulk at £1,000 a kilo which Gilligan's gang could sell wholesale at prices of between £10,000 and £20,000.

In Portlaoise prison, Gilligan had become close to INLA elements and particularly to Dessie O'Hare and his side-kick Fergal Toal, who were serving the 40-year term imposed for the kidnapping of dentist John O'Grady in 1987. From the INLA, Gilligan picked up ideas for introducing a "cell system" to his criminal enterprise where elements were split up into semi-autonomous operations over which he had command and knowledge but which did not know details of each other's activities.

Gilligan would also have learned that there was a simmering feud between Martin Cahill and the Dublin INLA. To outsiders, the dispute was difficult to understand, but at its core was an issue between one of Cahill's gang and the incestuous abuse of a young girl. Although the row had not reached murderous levels, it was intense and neither side was backing down.

The INLA had it in for Cahill. Gilligan too would have been pleased to see an end of him. It would mean he would be rid of a major creditor.

On August 18, 1994, Cahill was shot dead near his home in Ranelagh in south Dublin. Two days later a statement was issued by the Provisional IRA in Dublin claiming responsibility and saying that Cahill was executed because he was fraternising with Ulster loyalists (three former Ulster Volunteer Force men had been arrested in Turkey trying to sell three of the Beit paintings). This was a ruse. Cahill had never met or dealt with the UVF. The paintings had been passed to a Drogheda-based criminal fence, who had links with all sorts of people including the former loyalists who had become heavily involved in "ordinary" crime.

It is not known who organised the assassination of Martin Cahill, but the IRA in Dublin claimed it. In fact, it is more likely that the INLA with the Provisionals in Dublin – by then little more than a criminal organisation – was paid to take the blame (or accept the credit, as they would have seen it). That certainly fitted the picture of the IRA squaring away old differences just before calling their first ceasefire that year. And there was little sympathy for the death of a man who had become Ireland's number one gangster.

After Martin Cahill's death, John Gilligan thought he had it all. He was running a thriving drug business which was bringing in unbelievable amounts of money. The Garda Siochana appeared to have little prospect of bringing him to book, and neither did any other arm of the State.

There was just one problem – a tenacious and inquisitive journalist. Traynor thought he had taken Veronica for a ride, feeding her stories aimed at damaging competitors in the Dublin underworld. But she had learned of Gilligan and then of Gilligan's relationship with her underworld source.

On the morning of Veronica's murder, John Traynor was on the race track at Mondello. His car overturned and he was brought to hospital by ambulance.

After his public protests of innocence of any involvement in Veronica's murder during his interview with Paul Williams in Portugal in July 1996, Traynor remained an exile. He moved to Amsterdam, eventually settling in a house at Amstelveen because of its proximity to Schipol international airport to facilitate his regular trips to Spain.

His first encounter with police after Veronica's murder was in October 1997 when gardai followed a young Dublin woman whom they knew was on her way to meet Brian Meehan in Holland. Meehan was by then a strong suspect in Veronica's murder. What they didn't know was that Meehan was staying with Traynor, and when the woman met Meehan in Dam Square on October 8, he was accompanied by Traynor.

Gardai had provided their Dutch counterparts with a warrant for Meehan's arrest but none for Traynor whom they were not expecting to encounter, and so he was released. Traynor continued to live between Amsterdam and Puerto Banus in Spain where Peter Mitchell, the other member of the Gilligan gang, also lived.

Traynor's last arrest was in August 2010, again by Dutch police, this time on foot of a warrant from British police to serve the remainder of the seven-year sentence imposed in 1992 for the City of London bearer bond job. His solicitor read out a brief statement in court from Traynor saying: "I did not return to jail after home leave, I have lived 14 years in the Netherlands, I was never registered here. I am not in good physical condition, I have heart problems." Friday last was Traynor's official release date, but he was let out several weeks early.

He could, theoretically, return here now that he has finished his sentence at the open prison in Suffolk. His wife and grown up children still live here. But prior to his release, he applied to the British Parole Board to provide him with a new identity. He claimed his life was in danger, but it more likely he wished to escape the unwelcome attention of the media and the gardai on his release. His application was denied.

And gangland Dublin is a new and more dangerous world. It seems more likely Traynor will see out his days in Spain where the last of his old criminal associates who are not in jail still pass their time.

Those who served time in prison arising from the investigation of the murder of Veronica Guerin are:

John Gilligan, aged 60 is due for release in August next year having been in prison since October 1996. He was acquitted of murder but sentenced to 28 years for possession and importation of drugs but this was later reduced on appeal to 20 years. He would have been free by now had he not received further consecutive sentences for various breaches of rules in prison.

Brian Meehan, 47, remains the only person serving life imprisonment for the murder of Veronica Guerin. He was sentenced to life along with concurrent terms of up to 20 years' imprisonment for drugs and firearms offences. He lost his final appeal against sentence in 2006 and has no release date from jail.

Paul Ward, 48, was convicted of murdering Veronica Guerin but was acquitted on appeal in 2002 when the Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that evidence against him by witness Charlie Bowden was not corroborated and was tainted. Ward was sentenced to 12 years for his part in a siege in Mountjoy Prison in 1997 and was released in 2005.

Eugene Holland, the man who shot dead Veronica Guerin, was never convicted of murder. He received a 20-year sentence for possession of drugs but this was later reduced to 12 years. He was released from prison in 2006 and a year later was arrested by police in England investigating a plot to kidnap a millionaire businessman. He was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment in 2007 and died in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight in June 2009 aged 70.

The State witnesses:

The "bagman", Russell Warren, now 49, was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in November 1997 for laundering £2.7m of the estimated £16.8m drug money made by the Gilligan gang between 1994 and September 1997. He was released in 2001 after having testified in court against the others.

John Dunne, now 55, who worked for the gang assisting the shipping of the drugs consignment through Cork port, received a three-year sentence in January 1999 for possession of drugs. He also testified and was released in 2001.

Charlie Bowden, now 49, received a six-year sentence for possession of firearms and drugs. He was granted immunity from a charge of murder and became the first person to be placed on the State's witness protection scheme when he was also released from jail in 2001.

Bowden, Dunne and Warren were all given new identities and protection in foreign jurisdictions. Only a handful of senior gardai and Justice officials know their whereabouts.

Sunday Independent

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