The tragic day a young Garda died
Jimmy Guerin recounts the events surrounding the shooting of young Garda Sergeant John Eiffe in Abbeyleix last year
ALMOST a year ago to the day, Inspector John Gantley, head of the elite Emergency Response Unit (ERU) based at Harcourt Street, told his men at their 7am briefing he had received confidential information that a number of armed men were expected to travel to the Midlands that day to commit a serious crime.
Their job was to intercept and arrest the gang. Not only would this gang be armed, but they would be travelling in three high-powered vehicles. The intended target of the crime was not known, so two teams from the ERU were dispatched, one to Carlow and one to Abbeyleix, Co Laois.
The attempted robbery would take place later that day at the AIB bank in Abbeyleix. In the process, a young young detective, Sergeant John Eiffe, was shot dead.
Last week three of those involved Kevin Lynch, Glenshane Crescent, Tallaght; Ian Quinn, St Aongus Road, Tallaght; and John Bishop, St Ronan's Drive, Clondalkin, were sentenced to 10 years in jail after being found guilty of conspiracy to rob the bank. They were found not guilty of possessing firearms. A fourth man absconded.
In preparation the gang had stolen three high-powered cars: a BMW belonging to a businessman; a silver Mercedes owned by a Senior Counsel; and a black Porsche hijacked from an architect in Stillorgan.
The cars were fitted with false number-plates and stored in Dublin Airport until December 7, when they moved towards the robbery destination. But by then members of the Garda National Surveillance Unit (NSU) were already in position. They were posted at the Airport and the ALSAA centre.
At 12.55pm Garda Michael Lee observed three men Ian Quinn, John Bishop, and another man get off the shuttle bus at the long term car park in the airport. John Bishop and this man went to the Porsche. Ian Quinn headed to the silver Mercedes. As the cars headed for the exit, Garda Lee radioed his colleagues and the operation began.
MEANWHILE, another member of the NSU observed another man, Kevin Lynch, who was known to Garda Loughney, head for the stolen BMW which was in the short-term car park. The BMW left the car park and he followed.
There was another Garda car, occupied by Sergeant John Eiffe and Inspector Liam King, waiting in the Esso garage in Rathcoole. They had been informed by their colleagues that the gang were heading towards them. They spotted the silver Mercedes driving by, and then the black Porsche entered the forecourt beside them. When they left the garage they noticed that the silver Mercedes had pulled in and parked at the car park at Chaser's Restaurant and was facing out towards the dual carriageway. Sergeant Eiffe and Inspector King headed on to Abbeyleix.
At this time the BMW was being followed by an unmarked garda car, a grey Mondeo, being driven by Garda Thomas Loughney. Sergeant William Johnson, who was also in the car, saw the BMW enter Chaser's and noticed the other two cars there also. They pulled in further up the road, and as Sgt Johnson walked back to try and observe what was happening the three cars left the car park and headed south. They followed the cars.
When they reached Portlaoise, two of the cars headed out on the Abbeyleix Road. The BMW headed off in a different direction. The time was now 2 o'clock, and Detective Inspector Gantley, who was in charge of the ERU for this operation, was advised of developments. He instructed some of his members to move from Abbeyleix to Carlow town.
The various Garda cars which had been involved in the observation of the suspects arrived in Abbeyleix and took up their positions. around By 3.30pm it had become clear that the target was in fact the AIB bank in Abbeyleix. Inspector Gantley redirected his men. Those members of the ERU who were present in Abbeyleix were ordered to put on their body armour and also their Garda identification caps.
At 3.35pm the gang started to arrive. Sergeant Eiffe and Inspector King had positioned themselves in the Abbey Gate Bar in the main street. They each sat at a table at the stage area and observed the main road and the bank. The BMW drove past the bar and slowed down as it passed the bank. It was being driven by Kevin Lynch. Then the Mercedes arrived and Ian Quinn drove past the bank, turned left and drove slowly along the side of the bank before parking in the church car park. Then the Porsche arrived and followed suit.
Inspector King watched as Ian Quinn emerged from the side road on foot, walking to the front window and staring into the bank. He returned to the others in the car park.
At 3.45pm Inspector King saw the BMW travelling north along Main Street. This time Ian Quinn and Lynch were in the car. It drove very slowly along the side of the AIB and turned left into the church car park. Five minutes later it left the car park and turned back on to Main Street. Then, the black Porsche drove into the Main Street. John Bishop was alone in this car. Both cars left the Main Street and returned to the car park. There were two people in the Porsche as it turned into the car park.
King was convinced that the AIB bank in Abbeyleix was about to be robbed. He immediately advised Inspector Gantley of the ERU and at the same time ensured that the personnel he was responsible for were aware of their duties. On receiving King's communication, Gantley immediately ordered two units of the ERU to enter the car park and intercept the three cars. He advised the ERU members that he believed armed men were in the vehicles.
When Inspector King and Sgt Eiffe observed the ERU jeeps entering the church car park, they left the Abbey Gate Bar, ran across Main Street and, whilst drawing their firearms, proceeded cautiously along the wall towards the entrance to the church car park. Sgt Eiffe was immediately in front of Inspector King and he stepped forward as a car drove at high speed towards the car park exit.
King heard a shot as the Porsche drove out of the car park on to Church Avenue. He noticed Sgt Eiffe falling and then he felt a burning pain at the top of his right leg. He realised he'd been shot and believed he had been fired on from inside the Porsche as it left the car park.
The high-powered Porsche was now facing directly towards him. Bishop was driving and another man was in the passenger seat. Fearing for his life, King fired two shots at the car. The driver momentarily lost control and the car crashed into the wall a short distance in front of King.
John Bishop put the car in reverse and crashed into a garda car being driven by Det Garda Sean Collum. The Porsche again headed for King, and he fired another shot at the car as he backpedalled towards the entry of the car park in an effort to get to safety. Garda Sean Collum ran after the Porsche, and as he was running he heard shots. He saw John Bishop and another man get out of the Porsche and run down the steps at Chapel Lane. Collum shouted at the two of them, "Armed gardai, stop immediately!" and then Bishop turned towards Collum, pointing his right hand directly at him.
Collum saw a small black object in his hand which he believed to be a gun. Fearing for his life, he fired at Bishop. Bishop and the other man continued with their efforts to escape. Collum pursued. They both turned to face him and Bishop again raised his right hand. Collum again believing Bishop to be holding a gun, shouted the warning and fired another shot at Bishop and the other man. As they went down Chapel Lane and crossed the Carlow Road, two men were out walking. Collum told them to "get down".
As Bishop and the other man turned into another street, the other man turned back towards Collum with his right hand raised. He, too, had a dark object in his hand. Collum believed he was about to be shot and again took an aimed shot at him. Assistance arrived and Bishop and the other man gave themselves up.
When the other man dropped the dark object from his hand, it was only then that Collum discovered it was a mobile phone. Bishop received a bullet wound while being pursued by the guards.
Kevin Lynch and Ian Quinn never made it from the cars. They were confronted by armed ERU officers and handcuffed as they sat in the cars, totally shocked by what was happening around them.
Soon officers realised that their colleague John Eiffe had received a serious gunshot wound. Detective Garda Eugene Lynch, who assisted in handcuffing Bishop, heard a call over his radio for a medic. He ran back to the car park and found John Eiffe had been badly injured. He removed his bullet-proof vest and attempted to treat his colleague. He rang Portlaoise hospital to inform them of the situation, and with the assistance of his colleagues put John Eiffe into an official car and left the scene. About a mile outside Abbeyleix they transferred an unconscious John Eiffe to an ambulance. Garda Lynch travelled with him in the ambulance and was present when his colleague was pronounced dead.
It later emerged that Det. Sgt. John Eiffe had been accidentally shot by a bullet from a colleague. A huge Garda investigation began and it very soon materialised that no arms were found in any of the vehicles in Abbeyleix that day. Many shots were fired as innocent people ran for cover in Abbeyleix and, for some reason, the gardai involved believed that shots being fired by a member of the force were in fact being fired by the occupants of the cars.