Sunday, 18 March 2001

John Gilligan, the little man with the big jail term

Sunday Tribune
(1 of 2)
John Gilligan started his working life at the age of 14 as a merchant seaman; just a year later, he began his criminal career, which was to prove far more durable and lucrative, and made him believe that he was invincible. Indeed, several criminals who had worked for and with Gilligan have been murdered. But what did for him in the end was the same as what motivated him at the beginning: greed

ON A Sunday morning in November 1993, the country woke to find that Veronica Guerin had become a household name.

Guerin had just written one of the stories of the decade.

She had tracked down disgraced bishop Eamonn Casey and he had agreed to talk about his affair with Annie Murphy.

The first in her series of interviews was splashed on the front of The Sunday Tribune.

The country was gripped.

Three days after the Casey interview appeared, and while it was still the talk of the pubs, a small man, just the wrong side of 40 and with greying hair, left Portlaoise prison to start his new career. John Gilligan walked out through the prison gates with two things on his mind: an ambitious business plan that would see him become the country's biggest drug trafficker in less than a year and a steely determination never to return to prison.

Within weeks of her Casey scoop, Guerin had also started a new career as crime correspondent of the Sunday Independent. The move would set her on a path that eventually led to John Gilligan's door. In the two years that followed, she would become the country's best-known female journalist and he would become one of the country's most feared criminals.

The Seaman's Son

THE son of a merchant seaman from Ballyfermot in west Dublin, John Gilligan was born in March 1952 and had five sisters and three brothers.

His parents had 11 children, but only nine survived.

Gilligan followed his father's trade, joining the merchant shipping lines at the age of 14 in 1966, travelling mostly between Ireland and Britain.

The following year he got his first conviction for larceny at Rathfarnham District Court.

He was proud of his seafaring record, he told journalists in July 1996, when he denied that he had ordered the Guerin murder. In a bizarre attempt to back up his claims that he was an ordinary working man, Gilligan had taken his seaman's record book to Amsterdam with him the day before the murder.

He showed it to at least one reporter in those days after Guerin's murder, as evidence that he knew what an honest day's work was. He drew their attention to the record number E 10214 to back up the authenticity of the document. He pointed out that the book detailed his conduct as being "very good" during the 36 merchant sailing trips listed there between 1966 and 1980.

But while his seaman's record said one thing, his sea journeys were interrupted with regular trips to prison. By 1978, he had five convictions ? for larceny, receiving stolen goods, stealing, attempted robbery and assault ? and had been sentenced to prison terms totalling three years.

By the 1980s, he was part of a gang of criminals who specialised in raiding warehouses in Dublin suburbs. In January 1986, the gang stole a van belonging to Initial Services, an office sanitation firm that serviced many of the companies. Using the van, the gang gained access to the Nilfisk vacuum cleaner factory in the Cookstown Industrial Estate around closing time. Staff in the factory were tied up and a lorry-load of vacuum cleaners was stolen.

Gilligan was later arrested in a warehouse rented by the gang in the Weatherwell industrial estate along with Finglas man David Weafer. The stolen Nilfisks were also in the warehouse. Weafer pleaded guilty to a charge in relation to the find and was sentenced to two years. Towards the end of his sentence in Mountjoy, he was injured in a stabbing incident.

Gilligan had pleaded not guilty to the Nilfisk job and went before a jury. He was acquitted.

In June 1995, Weafer was shot dead on his doorstep. His murder remains unsolved.

Gilligan was now the centre of attention for gardaí investigating serious crimes. The Central Detective Unit set up a surveillance operation around the Ballymount Road where they believed Gilligan's gang was storing stolen property in a container truck.

In the winter of 1988, while Gilligan was on bail waiting for the Nilfisk trial, gardaí began investigating the theft of £15,000 worth of tools and hardware from Bolger's Hardware, a store in the Co Wexford town of Enniscorthy.

A surveillance operation was set up and Gilligan was arrested in a van on the Ballymount Road in Dublin with three other men. The operation was run by a detective sergeant in CDU Felix McKenna, who is now the chief superintendent in charge of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

In November 1990, Gilligan was brought before the Special Criminal Court and charged with receiving stolen goods (from Bolger's) to the value of £3,062. He was acquitted on the burglary charge, convicted on the receiving charge, and sentenced to four years in prison.

His conviction was the 15th on his record, on a long list including burglary, road traffic offences, larceny and malicious damage.

One of the three other men prosecuted as a result of the operation, Finglas man Christy Delaney, was shot dead in a gangland killing in November 1995. His murder also remains unsolved.

While in Portlaoise, Gilligan injured a senior prison officer and was given a six-month sentence for assault. He was transferred to Cork prison after the assault but returned to Portlaoise to serve out the end of his sentence.

Big John and the Little Man

GILLIGAN had ambitions to become an untouchable. As he celebrated his 40th birthday in Portlaoise, warehouse robberies were becoming less attractive. The spoils of the robberies had to be shared among the gang members. As the criminals faced into their early middle-age they needed to find a more sedentary and reliable livelihood. Like most of his peers who graduated from robberies to drugs, Gilligan had plans to move into the role of an international drugs businessman.

The long hours of his sentence were spent constructively, planning a new venture with his fellow inmates including Paul Ward, Brian Meehan and a senior INLA figure.

While Gilligan gathered his gang around him, another criminal associate, John Traynor, was on the outside making contacts that would prove crucial to their success.

Traynor was, in one sense, a man before his time. He was one of the first Irish criminals to make Amsterdam his own, meeting contacts in the growing drugs trade who could source vast quantities of cannabis for shipping to the Irish market.

Traynor would also become Veronica Guerin's main criminal contact, meeting her and giving her information. In an affidavit prepared for an injunction against the Sunday Independent, which was aired in court after her death, Traynor claimed that he had never willingly given her information. But gardaí believe Traynor enjoyed having contact with a famous journalist.

Back in 1993, Traynor was known as Big John by his Amsterdam friends. When the John (Gilligan) who was known by his associates as 'the little man' arrived on the scene, the network was ready for streamlining into an efficient multinational business.

Gilligan developed Traynor's contacts, who included Moroccan, Dutch, British and Belgian criminals.

One of his contacts was Martin Balthus, a former antiques dealer who was making a good living from white-collar fraud.

Balthus, who is in his 50s, was an important front man for the transfer of Irish currency to Holland in order to pay for the shipments of cannabis. His urbane manner opened doors with financial institutions in Amsterdam and he was soon laundering hundreds of thousands of pounds through Dutch guilder accounts.

In March 1995, Balthus had been sucked irrevocably into the Gilligan gang. One of the associates prevailed on him to do something more than just carry money and he was given a machine gun to transport to a safe house. Unfortunately for Balthus, he was arrested with the weapon, convicted and served a short prison sentence.

Balthus also shipped cannabis for the gang to southern Holland, where the haulage company chosen by Gilligan as the shipping route was based.

He would arrange for the drugs to be packaged in wooden crates and later in cardboard boxes, forwarding invoices and paperwork that made it appear that the crates and boxes contained machine parts.

Balthus gave a statement to the Gilligan investigation. He had been due to appear in court to give evidence about his involvement with the gang. He never appeared in the Special Criminal Court and gardaí have said that he was "persuaded" through threats not to travel to Dublin.

Thomas Ghorst, a Liverpool man in his 50s, was also involved in the continental arm of Gilligan's operation. Ghorst had been living in Belgium since the 1960s, and was based in Antwerp where he lived with his Belgian wife. Under orders from the gang, Ghorst would take money and convert it into whatever currency the drug suppliers needed. But he did not prove to be the most loyal gang member.

Gardaí believe the Liverpudlian may have stung Gilligan for £800,000 and left Belgium shortly after the money disappeared. He is now thought to be living somewhere in Mexico. A third man, a Belgian national who was involved with the gang, has disappeared.

His former associates and the Dutch police believe he is dead.

Gilligan was not a sophisticated money-launderer. Much of his profits were put through bookies' shops, on short-odds bets where Gilligan would collect a 'clean' payout for tens of thousands of pounds. Gardaí analysed his betting fortunes over the two years and found that he was losing an average of 12 per cent of his profits in the sure bets that went wrong.

He also played the casinos in Holland. Gardaí know that one of these casinos was in the holiday resort of Scheveningen, outside the Hague. The resort became notorious last year as the location of the savage murders of three young Irish men.

Gilligan had once tried to buy a huge amount of chips in the casino across the road from the apartment bock where the bodies of the men were found. The casino cashier turned him away, much to Gilligan's disgust.

Setting up The Firm

GILLIGAN and his colleagues referred to the drugs operation as The Firm, gardaí involved in the investigation said. And as businesses went, it had become remarkably successful extremely quickly. By April 1994, just four months after he had been released from prison, Gilligan had started shipping dozens of kilos of cannabis from Holland.

His prison friendships with Ward and Meehan had established them as highly trusted members. And they became two of his five lieutenants.

Ward's brother Shay was also taken onto the payroll as one of the five cannabis wholesalers.

Another Dublin criminal, Peter Mitchell, was the fourth, and he introduced the former soldier, marksman and weapons expert Charlie Bowden to the gang as the fifth member.

Bowden had been working as a bouncer at a Dublin club when Mitchell started to use him as an ecstasy dealer.

Mitchell was his ticket into the Gilligan gang, and he joined the inner circle. His weapons experience and physical bulk were both attractive attributes for the gang.

Paul Ward was the man who co-ordinated the murder of Veronica Guerin from his home in Walkinstown and disposed of the murder weapon and the motorbike. He has always denied this but during his murder trial in 1998, Ward admitted openly that his activities between 1994 and 1996 involved selling tobacco and cannabis for Gilligan's gang.

Ward's job was to meet the customers, usually in the carpark of a pub near his house in Walkinstown, where the customer would hand him a plastic supermarket bag stuffed with cash, sometimes up to £20,000, in exchange for cannabis. The gang charged £2,150 a kilo for the cannabis, a mark-up of almost 100% from the £1,200 Gilligan paid for it in Holland.

Ward would walk through the pub, out the other side, and then home to his house. He could make more than one such collection during the day.

Ward's trial was told that £2,000 of the selling price would be sent to Gilligan. The remaining £150 would be divided equally between his five lieutenants.

Such was the scale of the operation that Ward's £30 profit per kilo had become a total of £300,000 over the two years of the operation. A heroin addict, Ward had spent some of the money on a detox clinic in London for himself and his niece.

He had bought the house in Walkinstown, and spent around £100 a day on his heroin habit. There was little left of his earnings.

At least once a week the cash that Ward collected from customers would be picked up by a courier for delivery to Gilligan.

As the plastic bags of money began stacking up in bewildering amounts, the gang got too busy to count the takings. Russell Warren, a businessman with accounting experience running a failing industrial cleaning firm in west Dublin, was introduced to the gang by a bookmaker who was a neighbour of Warren's parents on Heatherview Drive in Tallaght.

In a move viewed by the courts as despicable, Warren recruited his elderly parents, his sister and her husband into counting the used fivers that Ward had collected from their list of regular customers. The family was paid small amounts, between £50 and £25 per consignment that they counted. Warren told them the money came from smuggled tobacco.

Warren became the gang's bagman. It was his job to deliver the money to Gilligan, often flying to London and Amsterdam to drop off the cash for his boss. By Christmas 1995, he was making regular trips to Europe to deliver money, a job for which he received around £1,000 per trip.

Warren was taken onto the witness protection programme along with Charlie Bowden.

His elderly parents were each given 18-month prison sentences and were kept together during the day in an empty house in the newly built women's prison in Mountjoy.

Warren's father said that he was disgusted by his son's involvement and he and his wife had never spent a night of their 49-year marriage apart.

Warren's evidence was pulled apart by Gilligan's defence team, which pointed out that Warren had admitted perjuring himself in a criminal trial in the 1980s, slept with his friend's wife, and sent his younger sister to deliver money to a criminal associate while he was having the affair. In May 1996, he stole a motorbike from a house in Dun Laoghaire. That bike was later identified as the bike taken in parts from the Liffey following Guerin's murder.

The final white-collar member of the gang was John Dunne, the operations manager of a Cork-based shipping company, Seabridge Ltd. The company was described as a reputable shipping company, used by Gilligan to import drugs under the cover of an innocuous spare-parts trade.

They were taken on a route from the southern Dutch town of Hogerheide by freight company Teca Shipping Services, which had depots in Cork and Holland.

Spare parts from Holland

GARDAÍ believe that Gilligan had initially tried a shipping route through Dublin, and had shipped at least one consignment on the route. But he was more convinced that the Cork route was safer. Documentation showed that goods which had been labelled 'spare parts' from Holland had been shipped in bulk from Holland between April 1994 and October 1996.

The total weight of the shipments, including packaging and anything other than the drugs, was over 20 tonnes.

Dunne would drive the drugs to the Ambassador Hotel in Naas, a handy drop-off point close to the main road. There he would hand over the consignment to various people including Brian Meehan, whom he knew as Joe, and Charles Bowden, who would drive the drugs back to Dublin in a blue Opel Kadett van.

Business did not stop when Dunne was on holidays. When he was away, he used a Cork courier, Dermot Cambridge, to deliver the boxes and collect his money, which he said consisted of an envelope of money, usually £1,000 per job.

Bowden's job also involved finding storage depots for the gang's cannabis from which it could be distributed to customers. In October 1994, he approached the owner of a lock-up garage on Emmet Road in Inchicore, Dublin. Calling himself Andrew Bowden, he paid a £40 deposit for the lockup. The caretaker of the lockup saw wooden crates stacked up to the ceiling.

In December 1994, Bowden rented a second lock-up unit at the Kylemore Industrial Estate using the name Paul Conroy.

After Bowden left with no warning, the owner broke into the lock-up and found empty boxes and styrofoam packaging. In November 1995, 'Paul Conroy' rented a third lock-up at Unit 1B at the Greenmount industrial estate. Bowden paid the £500 month's rent and a month's deposit upfront in cash.

On a Sunday in October 1996, gardaí raided the Greenmount lock-up and found 26 cardboard boxes capable of holding almost a tonne of cannabis resin. One of the boxes contained several nine-ounce bars of cannabis resin. Traces of resin were found in the others.

Employees of the Cork shipping companies identified the boxes as the type that were being shipped from the Dutch freight company.

Squire Gilligan

A MODEST terraced house in Corduff Avenue in Blanchardstown was Gilligan's home when he left Portlaoise prison.

But the criminal had bigger plans for his new lifestyle. He had met and married Geraldine Dunne, the daughter of another Ballyfermot family, in 1974. The couple had two children, Darren and Tracey.

In 1994, Gilligan began buying land from farmers around Enfield in Co Meath, just 30 miles from Dublin city centre.

Throughout that year, Gilligan amassed some 77 acres of land, which, at that stage, cost him under £200,000.

Work started on building a seven-bedroom bungalow and a 3,200-square-metre equestrian centre with stables, outhouses and an apartment for stable workers. The sign on the wall proclaimed Jessbrook Equestrian Centre as "more than a riding school".

Always a keen horseracing man, Gilligan bought a racehorse, Rifawan, which was registered in the name of Cash, a Naas family who were friendly with the Gilligans. The horse went to the stables of Arthur Moore for training and looked like a promising bet.

In 1996, Moore discovered the horse's real owner and returned it and Rifawan was sent to a British trainer. In January 1997, the horse broke its leg during the Burns Cottage novice chase in Ayr in Scotland.

The Jessbrook estate, or the Taj Mahal as some investigating gardaí call it, was an impressive monument to the profits of a cannabis importer.

Its wrought-iron electronic gates are controlled by a closedcircuit television link to the family bungalow. Inside, the house was furnished with heavy Dutch furniture.

Despite his growing wealth, Gilligan did not stray far from his criminal roots, even during the construction of his comfortable county home. Gardaí believe that the windows used in the house were stolen, along with some of the wiring equipment put in place to service the numerous kitchen and laundry appliances. Geraldine's ponies grazed in the fields around the house and an impressive indoor arena with seating for hundreds of horse enthusiasts was taking shape in a field across from the bungalow.

In the meantime, Gilligan had met a 19-year-old woman from Palmerstown at a bookmakers where she worked. The 'little man' would come to her window with bets, often of thousands of pounds, and he began asking her to go out with him. Carol Rooney declined his invitations at first, and then began seeing him.

Gilligan rented a flat in Leixlip for his new girlfriend.

Back home in Jessbrook, family pictures hung on the kitchen wall. Gilligan, his hair still black, stood beside Tracey and a smiling priest on her confirmation day. Beside it hung a mirror inscribed with the names John and Ger. Gilligan ended his marriage to Geraldine in July 1995, putting Jessbrook in her name.

In 1997, the High Court ruled that Geraldine could not be held liable for her husband's £1.6m tax bill, which had been served on him by the Criminal Assets Bureau.

By the end of 1995, with his new girlfriend and a seat in the country, the jigsaw pieces of Gilligan's millionaire lifestyle had fallen into place. The boy who had stood in Rathfarnham district court at the age of 15 on a petty criminal charge had made it to the big time.

Suspicious minds

IN MAY 1995, a piece of legislation which might have seemed like a minor financial regulation for the banking world clicked into place. Under the law financial institutions, banks and building societies, were obliged to report anything they considered to be suspicious activity in a bank account to gardaí.

The bank officials did not have to inform the customer that they had reported the activity to gardaí. They were, however, legally obliged to make a suspicious transaction report if anything unusual was happening to an account.

And there, blinking on a computer screen in the back room of a west Dublin bank, was the tip of one of the country's largest criminal empires.

A bank official noticed that the Lucan bank account of one Geraldine Gilligan had had an enormous amount of money put through it.

The anonymous bank official was puzzled by the level of activity in the accounts of the then 39-year-old Dublin woman. Her only source of income had been disability benefit arising out of an insurance claim following an accident. And yet up to £1 million in cash lodgements had moved through the account over the previous year. Less than four months after it became the law that the gardaí be notified, a suspicious transaction report on Geraldine Gilligan's bank account was forwarded to the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation.

Gardaí ascertained that Geraldine was married to John Gilligan. There could be few sources for such a large amount of cash other than the drugs trade, so by September 1995 gardaí in the fraud squad had held a meeting with the Garda National Drugs Unit.

"Who the fuck is this John Gilligan?" one senior officer was heard to remark as he read the intelligence report from his colleagues in the fraud squad.

For the first time since customs officers and the gardaí had drawn up plans to co-operate on drug interdiction, customs officers were called in to the initial case conference.

Operation Pineapple, as it was called, began with a trawl through John and Geraldine Gilligan's finances. It was a slow process. Less than a year later, that initial groundwork would be taken over by the team investigating Veronica Guerin's murder. The Pineapple file was sent to Lucan Garda station, the investigation headquarters, and the whole country, at that stage, knew that John Gilligan was the main suspect for Guerin's murder.

Veronica Guerin had driven to Jessbrook on 14 September 1995, taking the route out of the city as far as Enfield and turning down the four miles of narrow country roads leading to the Gilligan estate.

Since her Casey interview, she had developed a reputation of approaching and interviewing reluctant subjects, many of them criminals. She was determined that September day to ask John Gilligan where the money to support his lifestyle had come from.

Gilligan has claimed that Guerin did not come through his CCTV-controlled front gate and instead arrived at his back door. He has said that he told her angrily to leave his house and she did. He has denied that he hit her repeatedly, and tore her shirt and jacket in an attempt to see whether she was wearing a recording device.

Gardaí believe that Geraldine and Tracey Gilligan were in the house when Guerin arrived. The reporter told gardaí that Gilligan had assaulted her. A Sunday Independent photographer took a photograph of her bruised face. Friends and family said her encounter with Gilligan had traumatised her more than the gun attack she had suffered on the doorstep of her north Dublin home in January of that year.

She began legal proceedings against Gilligan. Her first step was a visit to senior counsel Felix McEnroy in his office the following day. One of her two mobile phones rang while she was in the barrister's office, McEnroy told the court. Gardaí believe that the voice she heard first was that of John Traynor, warning her not to take any action against Gilligan for the alleged assault.

Gardaí believe that Traynor was with Gilligan when he made the call to the reporter.

Gilligan took the phone from his associate and started speaking furiously to Guerin. McEnroy, who had once represented Gilligan and said his was a voice not easily forgotten, overheard the call.

"I will kidnap your fucking son and ride him, " Gilligan hissed down the phone. "I will fucking shoot you. I will fucking kill you." Last week, the Special Criminal Court accepted that Gilligan had issued those threats. He had admitted so in a Sunday Tribune interview with former crime journalist Liz Allen.

He said he had been angry and when he made the threats he did not mean them.

When gardaí searched the houses of suspects after the murder they found a ticket receipt from Peat's, the video and electronics store. One of the gang members had dropped in a holiday video to get it copied, and the video was left forgotten. When gardaí in Lucan picked it up from Peat's they watched an extraordinary scene.

John and Geraldine Gilligan had travelled to the wedding of Meehan's sister Lesley at the exclusive Sandals couples-only resort on St Lucia in March 1996. The Meehan parents, Kevin and Frances, were there, as were their sons Brian and Bradford, and Peter Mitchell.

Three Dublin sisters were there as the companions of the Meehan brothers and Mitchell.

The gang was sitting around the pool drinking when Brian Meehan raised a glass to the camera and proposed a toast to Veronica. They started laughing at Gilligan, joking "crime doesn't pay".

Leaving for Amsterdam

THE day before Guerin's murder, John Gilligan met two gardaí outside Kilcock District Court, where the assault proceedings were due to start.

They gave evidence that Gilligan made a disparaging remark about Guerin and her case against him.

Afterwards, Gilligan's solicitor drove him to Jessbrook, where Gilligan said he wanted to show him the scene of the alleged assault, and then on to the airport. Gilligan was catching a flight to Amsterdam.

He had bought his £506.94 first-class ticket at the Aer Lingus desk on 13 June, 12 days before he left the country. Gardaí believe he may have checked in on that ticket on the day, going to the Aer Lingus business class lounge and then returning through the check-in desk, saying that he had changed his mind and would not be flying. It was a device he used frequently on his Gold Circle tickets. If he checked in and was issued with a boarding pass, it would appear to anyone asking questions that he had actually travelled on that date.

If he was under surveillance he could point to computer evidence from the airline that he had checked in for a flight on a previous date. Because his ticket was the flexible businessclass fare he could leave the departure lounge and check in again on a future date without losing the price of his fare.

His then girlfriend, Carol Rooney, was also on the flight to Amsterdam that day. Gilligan had rented a house in Belgium and travelled there from Amsterdam airport.
2001-03-18 12:00:00John Gilligan, the little man with the big jail term (2 of 2)
Gardaí believe Gilligan only returned to Ireland once after he left on 25 June 1996, when he attended his wife's 40th birthday at the Spa Hotel in Lucan at the end of September. Gardaí believe a row developed between Geraldine and John and that Gilligan gave her a beating at the end of the night.

By October 1996, Russell Warren had been arrested and Gilligan's money supply was threatened. An associate flew to London to meet Gilligan and give him a silver suitcase packed with sterling and Irish currency to the value of £330,000. As Gilligan went to board a flight to Amsterdam at Heathrow airport he was arrested by British customs officers and charged with drug trafficking. Gilligan's legal team argued that the charges were designed to keep Gilligan in custody in Belmarsh high security prison until he could be extradited to face charges in Ireland.

His cell in Belmarsh was a long way from the life he had planned for himself. "He planned to come back and be lord of the manor, running Jessbrook, " a senior Garda source said last week. "He was making some inroads with the horsey set but he'd be getting himself accepted and then he'd lapse into character. He had started bullying his neighbours and the county council, using the same fear tactics he used in his criminal life." The official Bord Fáilte sign for Jessbrook is still on a roadsign pole near the equestrian centre. But the expensive automatic gates are covered in green mildewy moss and the paddocks have been let go to scrub land.

"If he'd walked away from the drugs empire, he could be sunning himself on some beach now, " a Garda source said last week. "But because he couldn't go without the money, he got caught."
2001-03-18 12:00:00

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