Gangster: The inside story on John Gilligan
John Gilligan was never one to mince his words. When I met him many years ago, he couldn’t help but brag about how much money he had amassed from drug dealing, hijackings and contraband smuggling. He was organised crime personified.
“I have just moved IR£15m (€19m) out of the country where the gardai will never get their hands on it,” Gilligan told me in an interview in London.
It was August 1996, barely six weeks after Veronica Guerin, a 37-year-old crime reporter with the Sunday Independent, was shot dead in her car while stopped at a traffic junction on the Naas Road, near Clondalkin, at lunchtime on June 26.
Her murder had shocked the world.
Even by the vicious Dublin gangland standards of the mid-1990s, Guerin’s murder was cold-blooded. Her killers had discreetly followed the young mother from Naas district court in Co Kildare, where she had appeared on a speeding charge.
When Guerin stopped at the intersection, a powerful motorcycle with two men pulled up. The pillion passenger dismounted, strode towards her car, and fired shots at point-blank range with a Magnum revolver, killing the journalist instantly as she left a message on a friend’s phone. It was a brutal killing.
Gilligan was the prime suspect for ordering a murder which convulsed Ireland and the world. Yet he seemed more concerned about his appearance as pictures of him began to appear in newspapers. Power and wealth seemed to have gone to his head. The five-foot-nothing criminal was almost enjoying the attention.
“Do you think I looked good?” Gilligan asked me in a strong Dublin accent, as he ate his fast food. “Everyone said I looked cool. Some of the fellas from home even rang. They thought I looked cool. Like a guy from the Mafia — a real gangster.”
During that conversation, Gilligan freely admitted to being ruthless, including attacking Guerin when she confronted him outside his home the previous September.
He also admitted to calling her mobile phone and issuing threats to kidnap and rape her six-year-old son, Cathal, in order to deter her inquiries into the source of his wealth.
“I knew she didn’t fear for herself. It was only a tactic I used to try to frighten her off,” he remarked of the threat to Cathal.
While Gilligan denied ordering the journalist’s murder, he made no secret of his wealth, his position in the underworld or his knowledge of organised crime.
“Let me tell you this: anyone can get anyone killed if they have the money,” he said. “You don’t have to be a criminal. I could have ordered Veronica Guerin’s death, but I didn’t. I had no hand, act or part in it. That’s the truth.”
Those words would prove to be his last as a free man. In October 1996, he was arrested by the British police at Heathrow Airport in London as he tried to board a flight to Amsterdam with IR£330,000 in cash, stuffed in a suitcase.
Gilligan fought his extradition to Ireland from Britain but lost and eventually stood trial in Dublin in 2001. He was eventually acquitted of Guerin’s murder but found guilty of drug trafficking.
He was released from custody after serving 17 years in jail in October 2013.
So who was John Gilligan. He was born on March 29, 1952. The eldest of nine children, he left school at 14 and got a job as a cabin boy on Irish Ferries. The gangster had his first brush with the law when he was charged with larceny at the age of 15.
He grew up on Lough Conn Road in Ballyfermot, a working-class suburb in west Dublin. He married Geraldine Matilda Dunne, a childhood friend, when he was 20. Their first child, Tracy, was born six months later.
Martin Donnellan, a retired assistant garda commissioner, remembers him as a common thief.
“I was stationed as a young garda in Ballyfermot in the 1970s. Gilligan was just another local hood. I never considered him to be anything extraordinary,” he said.
“Many of his contemporaries left crime behind when they settled down and married. You could say children and married life took the wind out of their sails, but Gilliganstuck with crime. He got involved in hijacking trucks and started to develop a reputation.”
Gilligan made the transition from petty thief to organised crime figure initially through involvement in hijackings and warehouse robberies. In the 1980s, his gang specialised in breaking into warehouses and stealing freight containers which were intended to bring goods to supermarkets and factories. His outfit became known as the Factory Gang.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, he wasn’t any worse than the others,” Donnellan said. “He actually got away with a lot of his crimes because the criminal justice system was different back then. There was no use of DNA. If he were starting off now, he wouldn’t last long.”
Gilligan’s career as a robber was brought to an end in 1987 when he was caught stealing from the Rose Confectionery premises on the outskirts of Dublin. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing sweets. In 1990 he was again convicted of robbery, andthis time sentenced to four years. He was released in 1993, having served three, andpromptly moved into the burgeoning drugs trade.
Within six months of his release from Portlaoise prison, Gilligan’s first shipment of drugs arrived. It was 75kg of cannabis resin, packed by a Dutch criminal into two wooden boxes. In the following two years, Gilligan imported 21,000kg of cannabis resin using a freight company in Cork.
The cannabis was sold to Brian Meehan, a Dublin criminal later convicted for Guerin’s murder, for €2,530 a kilo, netting Gilligan a gross profit of about €20m. More income was earned via the sale of contraband cigarettes, fraud and arms smuggling — possibly as much as €30m, say gardai.
During this period, Gilligan posed as a respectable businessman and professional gambler.
He dressed in suits and sports jackets, and bought so many first-class flights to Amsterdam he was given a gold card by Are Lingus, the Irish airline. His family wanted for nothing. He bought four-wheel-drives, Jessbrook equestrian centre, houses and cars for his children.
Austin McNally, a retired detective chief superintendent who led Operation Pineapple, a garda offensive against Gilligan which commenced in early 1996 before Guerin was murdered, remembers being astonished by the sheer volume of money that Gilligan’s gang was generating.
“It was mind-blowing — that’s the only way of describing it. Gilligan and his men literally had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it. They couldn’t spend it fast enough,” he recalled.
“They were smuggling cannabis into the state by the container load. It was a cash-rich business with good profits.”
Gilligan amassed so much money that at one point he was forced to employ people to count it. Sums of up to IR£100,000 were tallied each week by a family from south Dublin. Despite all his wealth, a tax slip sent at the end of 1994 asking Gilligan to predict his earnings for the year was sent back with a note scrawled in red crayon: “I’m just out of prison, I have no f****** money for you, leave me alone.”
McNally said the scale of Gilligan’s operation first began to emerge in March 1996, when Dutch police alerted Interpol to attempts by Irish nationals to launder money. Investigations revealed Gilligan and his associates had laundered millions through bureaux de change in Amsterdam.
The British authorities seized tens of thousands in cash from an associate of Gilligan’s, prompting an inquiry as to its origins. In Ireland, the banks filed confidential reports which revealed that hundreds of thousands were passing through accounts controlled by Gilligan.
Pat Byrne, the former garda commissioner, said gardai had never encountered anything like this before.
“One can understand how it happened,” he said. “[Gilligan] had been involved in criminality for some time, and emerged from prison when there was a huge demand for drugs. He cornered the market and generated huge profits.
“At the time there was a huge problem in terms of proving where finance came from. The argument made before the advent of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) was that someone could be found with a large amount of cash but, unless one could prove it came from nefarious purposes, it had to be handed back.
“The investigation into Veronica’s killing, what had occurred, changed all that. It lead to the legislation to seize such assets.
“Looking back on it, I just think Gilligan and the gang lost the run of themselves andthought they could do anything. When you think of it, what a stupid thing to do. Did they not imagine what the consequences would be?”
Like others, Byrne described Guerin’s murder as a seismic event in modern Irish life.
“It wasn’t just politicians and the policing world — the public couldn’t believe this had happened,” he recalled.
“Not just that Veronica was a journalist; she was a woman and a mother. People asked how we had come to this situation. How had this happened and what is going to be done?”
But Gilligan’s ill-gotten gains have never been found. He spent €1.94m on the Jessbrook complex, which has since been seized by CAB and sold. It had been developed from a derelict house on five acres in Co Kildare to a world-class equestrian centre.
Some money was spent buying adjoining land. In August 1994, Gilligan bought 30 acres for €63,000, then another 15 acres for €35,000, and another eight acres for €20,000. In all, he spent €214,000 on extra land on which to graze horses.
He laundered some money by gambling, including backing every horse in a particular race. The winnings would be paid by cheque, which could then be deposited in a bank. Between 1994 and October 1996, he placed bets totalling €6.7m and won back €6.09m — effectively laundering the cash at a cost of about €610,000.
The gardai believe funds were smuggled to Amsterdam, where at least €3.42m was changed into Dutch guilders at a bureau de change before being lodged in offshore accounts. It vanished without trace.
A garda investigation into his finances also found other cash amounts being converted into various currencies and deposited in bank accounts in Spain, Tunisia, Greece, Belgium, Austria, Morocco and Switzerland. It has never been located.
Gilligan is also said to have buried money and guns in a bunker on his Kildare estate. He allegedly told his gang that he created a bunker when the Jessbrook equestrian centre was being built. If so, it has never been found.
After Guerin was murdered, bank accounts controlled by Gilligan were emptied, but some of this money was intercepted and seized. Intelligence gathered by the team which investigated Guerin’s murder, and later by CAB, concluded that Gilligan had smuggled large amounts of cash to Spain using Liam Judge, a criminal from Kildare who has since died.
Judge, who acted as a garda informant, invested some money on Gilligan’s behalf in holiday apartments, properties and a bar, but also lined his own pockets.
Many believe part of the missing fortune was laundered by Terry Wingrove, a British associate of Gilligan’s who deposited millions in Hanover Bank Ltd, an offshore depositary registered in Antigua but operated from Dublin.
It was run by Anthony Fitzpatrick, a former Irish government press secretary, who ran it singlehandedly from his south Dublin home. A US Senate report into Hanover in 2001 implicated it in money laundering after part of $100m (€74m) stolen from the Casio electronics company in Japan was deposited in Fitzpatrick’s offshore bank. Fitzpatrick believed Wingrove to be a wealthy art dealer.
Michael Finnegan, a retired chief superintendent who had responsibility for the Louth/Meath division, believes only a small amount of Gilligan’s fortune has been found.
“It’s fair to assume millions were never accounted for. I always believed it was lodged offshore,” he said.
“I’ve no doubt he still has access to it. None of the major money was seized. That money is salted away somewhere. Maybe some of it will be dug up in Jessbrook when it’s sold, but I would have my doubts. I just couldn’t see Gilligan burying it. Maybe some day it will be found.”
When Gilligan was released in October 2013, both Byrne and Finnegan guessed that he would probably emigrate soon after.
“His name wouldn’t mean a lot to many of the young criminals who have taken over since he was sent to prison,” said Finnegan.
“Ireland is a different country now,” said Byrne. “I think Gilligan will find it a changed place. He’s no longer riding the crest of a wave in terms of criminality.”
The retired police officers were correct., Gilligan did flee after two attempts on his life. He is now living in Birmingham in Britain. The whereabouts of the missing millions is still a mystery.
John Mooney is one of Ireland’s leading journalists and an expert on crime and terrorism. He currently reports on crime for the Sunday Times and regularly contributes to BBC, RTE, CBS and Channel 4 news programmes.
His is the author of several books including Black Operations: The Secret War Against the Real IRA (2003), Rough Justice (2004) and The Torso in the Canal (2007). Gangster, his critically acclaimed biography of John Gilligan, the biggest drugs trafficker to emerge from the Irish underworld, was published in 2001.