Inside the Ballsy Irish Traveller Gang That Stole Millions of Pounds Worth of Rhino Horn

A detailed look at the crimes of the Rathkeale Rovers, the gang that was sentenced today for stealing £57 million worth of rhino horns and Chinese artefacts.

|
Apr 6 2016, 12:00am

(Illustration by Julia Scheele)

Detective Superintendent Adrian Green remembers the day he got the call. It was Friday the 6th of April, 2012 – his birthday, and also his first introduction to the Rathkeale Rovers.

At around 8.30AM, Green was called by colleagues investigating a break-in. As a senior investigating officer, he was more used to dealing with murders and kidnappings than burglaries, but once the seriousness of the crime became clear he made his way to the major incident room.

At around 10.40PM the night before, thieves had broken into Durham University Oriental Museum. Using hammers and chisels, they took around 40 minutes to create a two-foot by three-foot hole in an outside wall, before crawling into the museum's Malcolm MacDonald Gallery. In less than 60 seconds, the thieves smashed two glass cabinets and escaped with two Qing Dynasty artefacts. The items were valued at £2 million.

Green didn't know it then, but his investigation would spiral into a four-year international operation targeting an organised crime gang with links around the world.

§


In the first six months of 2011, the Metropolitan Police recorded a crime wave. At least 20 rhino horn thefts had been reported at museums, auction houses and private homes around Europe. In 2012, the thieves expanded their efforts to include Chinese artefacts like the items stolen in Durham. By 2013, Europol put the number of rhino horn thefts at more than 80.

As the police investigation gathered pace, it became clear the raids were largely the work of one gang. Originating from a small town in rural Ireland, the Rathkeale Rovers were now operating across the globe. In just a couple of years, the gang made tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of pounds from stolen rhino horns, as museums struggled to adapt to this unexpected threat.

The gang's luck would not last. This week, 13 members of the Rathkeale Rovers have been jailed for a total of more than 71 years. Another gang member was sentenced last year. Their convictions relate to crimes involving stolen items worth up to £57 million, but this represents just a fraction of the gang's likely activity: the sentences relate to six incidents in the UK – the police believe they were responsible for many, many more.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: The Rhino Horn Crisis and the Darknet

Guy Schooling was at home with his wife and father on Monday the 21st of February, 2011, when he received an urgent phone call at around 10PM. It was a colleague at Sworders, the auctioneers where Schooling is managing director. An alarm had been sounded at the firm's Stansted sales room; Schooling listened as his colleague described how burglars had smashed through the front doors.

As he made the drive from his home to the sales room, Schooling considered the possible motives. Two weeks before, there had been another break-in, when thieves escaped with an antique vase. Schooling now wondered if this was a precursor to a more serious raid. Arriving at the sales room, his suspicions were confirmed. Stepping over broken glass and twisted metal, he observed a gap on the wall where a rhino head had been mounted just hours before.

§

Rhino horn is comprised largely of keratin, a substance scientists describe as a "fibrous structural protein". In layman's terms, that's the same material found in fingernails. It has no proven health benefits. Despite this, it's long been an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, used to treat everything from fevers to gout. This demand for rhino horn has contributed to a trend which has seen rhino populations plummet from half a million to fewer than 30,000 in less than a century.

International trade in rhino horn was banned in 1977 and demand for the substance seemed to be steadily declining. However, in around 2009, a rumour began circulating of an unnamed "Vietnamese official" who had ingested rhino horn and been cured of liver cancer. Demand spiked and the poaching industry went into overdrive. Statistics published by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs show that, in 2007, just 13 rhinos were killed by poachers. In 2015, the figure was 1,175.

Today, demand for rhino horn is as strong as ever. Wealthy consumers across Vietnam, China and Taiwan buy it for medicinal purposes, as a hangover cure and even for use recreationally. According to a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Federation, by 2012 the black market price of rhino horn had risen to as much as £40,000 per kilogram – more than gold, platinum, diamonds or cocaine.

§

It didn't take long for criminals to realise that poaching was not the only source of rhino horn. Shortly after the burglary at Sworders, two horns were stolen from the University of Coimbra in Portugal. An alert went out to museums across Europe.

At the time, Paolo Viscardi was natural history curator at London's Horniman Museum and a committee member at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA). Viscardi had seen the rising price of black market rhino horns and had already warned his employers about the risk of theft. Nevertheless, the targeting of museums was cause for concern. "Physical assaults were taking place, and the last thing you want is people injured," he says. "Mainly, there was an overarching sense of tension."

It soon became clear that this was more than a series of isolated incidents. In July of 2011, Europol announced it believed the people involved were also involved in drugs trafficking, organised robbery, distribution of counterfeit products, tarmac fraud and money laundering. "The theft of rhino horn shows how organised criminals are always on the lookout for new and creative crime opportunities," it said. "Significant players within this area of crime have been identified as an Irish and ethnically-Irish organised criminal group."

The same month, the Metropolitan Police issued its own statement, urging museums to remove rhino horns from display. Not everyone heeded the warning.

At 12.28AM on Thursday the 28th of July, 2011, an alarm sounded at Ipswich Museum when a fire escape was forced open. Police arrived just five minutes after the alarm call, but the thieves were nowhere to be seen. A search of the premises quickly revealed a victim: Rosie, an Indian rhinoceros who has lived at the museum since 1907. Museum staff were horrified to discover her horn was gone. "It was immediately obvious that was the only thing that was targeted," says Jayne Austin, development manager at the Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service. "It wasn't just a random break-in."

Rosie the rhino at Ipswich Museum, before her horn was stolen

The break-ins were not always successful. As museums took precautions, on several occasions thieves conducted raids only to escape with replicas. In most cases, the Rovers themselves kept a safe distance from the crime scenes and recruited street criminals to carry out the crimes. The tactic reduced their risks, but it also yielded unpredictable results.

Shortly before 1PM on the 20th of February, 2012, a dark-coloured hatchback crossed the bridge that spans the moat around Norwich Castle. Parking in a disabled bay, the driver remained in the car while four men got out and made their way to the entrance of the museum, inside Norfolk's medieval fort. The group arrived at the reception desk, where two of the men paid for entry, while their companions snuck inside with a large group of visitors.

Entering the museum's main hall, the group ignored invitations to visit the castle's art galleries or historic keep, instead bearing right and entering the natural history section. Inside, a group of museum staff were giving a tour to some visiting zoologists from Cambridge. The men lingered around the exhibits, waiting until the group had moved on. Once alone, they made their way to one of the deep mahogany cabinets that lined the room and prised open the glass door.

The 19th century black rhinoceros head at the base of the cabinet had been part of the museum's collection since 1896. The head had been stuffed with clay many years ago, and the men knew it would be heavy and cumbersome to carry. They tried unsuccessfully to wrench the horn free, but were hampered by nails which had been put in place more than 100 years before. Switching tactics, they bent down and lifted the entire head from the cabinet.

Emerging into the museum's main hall, one of the robbers screamed at a group of visitors to "get out of the fucking way". Sitting in the museum cafe, the group of museum staff and visiting zoologists heard the commotion. Abandoning their tea, they ran into the main hall where they found the robbers, burdened by the weight and bulk of the rhino head, as they awkwardly made their way to the exit.

Staff and visitors looked on aghast as the gang struggled. Seizing this opportunity, one of the zoologists and a member of the public stepped in to obstruct the gang, allowing a museum curator to sweep their legs from under them. As the rhino head tumbled from their grasp, another member of staff pulled it to safety. Cutting their losses, the gang ran from the building and jumped into the waiting car, before driving away empty-handed.

"Norfolk was a bit of a balls-up," says Detective Superintendent Green. Luckily for him and other investigators, it was far from the gang's only mistake.

A crime scene photo of the hole made in the wall at the Durham University Oriental Museum

It was two days after the Durham break-in, and Lee Wildman was getting worried. Having made a successful getaway from the Oriental Museum, he and Adrian Stanton – two professional burglars from Birmingham – had stopped to stash their stolen artefacts on waste ground on the outskirts of Durham. Hiding the goods for collection at a later date seemed like a reasonable precaution, but the pair hadn't anticipated this unforeseen complication: Wildman was back at the stash site, and he couldn't find the Chinese antiques.

Reluctantly, Wildman made a series of calls to his superiors and gave them the bad news. If these were difficult conversations, his day was about to get a lot worse. Shortly after starting his drive back to Birmingham, Green's colleagues at Durham Constabulary rammed his car off the road. Wildman was placed under arrest. Eight days later, a police search of the waste ground would recover the stolen items under some discarded hedge trimmings. In February of 2013, Stanton and Wildman would be jailed for a respective eight and nine years for the burglary.

The series of calls that took place that day gave Green the break he needed. "We refer to that as 'panic day'," he says. "We started to appreciate there was probably a team above those burglars that was probably pulling the strings."

Starting with a mobile phone recovered from Wildman's car, it would take Green and his team a year to build a picture of the network behind the raids. The first major breakthrough came two weeks after the break-in, when Green's team traced one of the calls to a small town in south west Ireland.

For most of the year, Rathkeale is a quiet town. It's a 22-mile drive from Limerick, the closest city. On the high street, you'll find a convenience store, a bookmakers and a smattering of pubs, but the outskirts of the town give some clues to the changes that have taken place here in recent years. Mock-Georgian houses feature large paved driveways, to accommodate the caravans parked outside. The 2011 census estimated that 40 percent of the population is from the Travelling community. Some now put that figure closer to 80 percent.

With most of the town's residents out on the road, the streets are often empty. However, once a year, Rathkeale bursts into life. In December, the population swells to nearly three times its usual size as Travellers return home to celebrate Christmas and the wedding season. An episode of Channel 4's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding from 2012 captured the spectacle, showing top-of-the-range Porsches, Mercedes and Range Rovers lining the streets and brides getting married in dresses adorned with 20,000 crystals.

The source of this wealth is the subject of much speculation. Many Rathkeale Travellers run law-abiding businesses specialising in home repairs, vehicle sales or market trading. But one group of loosely-affiliated Traveller families has gained particular notoriety for the scope of their illegal schemes and voracious appetite for doing business. Over the years, they've come to be known as the Rathkeale Rovers.

In his 2013 book, Gypsy Empire, Sunday World crime journalist Eamon Dillon describes the Rathkeale Travellers as "willing to do business on any continent, moving quickly from one deal to the next, following the trail of euros, dollars or pounds sterling". In the last few years, members of the Rovers have been found attempting to pull the tarmacking scam on nuns in Italy, smuggling tobacco through Belgium and selling dodgy generators in Australia.

In January of 2010, customs officials discovered eight horns in the luggage of two passengers arriving on a flight from Portugal. Two Rathkeale brothers, Michael and Jeremiah O'Brien, were later fined €500 each for illegally importing the horns.

It seemed the Rovers had discovered a new source of income.

"What this particular group did was really quite brilliant," says Dr Donna Yates, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and an expert in the trafficking of antiquities. Museums aren't particularly hard to steal from, she says, but the goods are hard to sell: most art is immediately recognisable and easy to track, while other exhibits tend not to be particularly valuable. Except for rhino horn. "They have a clear market, it's out of the country and there's no tracking of it," says Yates.

The Rovers were among the first to realise the opportunity presented by European museums at a time when the black market for rhino horn was booming. The vulnerability of museums, combined with spiralling prices for rhino horn, made stealing the items low-risk and high-reward. And when horns were taken off display and replaced with replicas, the gang just changed tactics and moved on to stealing Chinese artefacts. As Yates says: "Incidentally, these are the same pieces that also appeal to those people buying rhino horn."

(Illustration by Julia Scheele)

Just before 7.30PM on Friday the 13th of April, 2012, a week after the raid in Durham, three men and a 16-year-old boy arrived at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. CCTV footage from the night captured the men pulling up hoods and adjusting clothing as they made their way through the car park. The museum's Far East gallery is located at the back of the building on the ground floor, with a window in an external wall. Using a disc cutter, the men made a hole in a metal roller blind, revealing the window behind. Smashing the glass created a hole just large enough for a person to squeeze through into the gallery.

Just a few feet to the left of the window was a tall glass-fronted cabinet, its shelves stacked with Chinese jade artefacts worth millions of pounds. The thieves cleared the bottom of the cabinet, removing a total of 18 items. Estimates put the value at up to £18 million. Among the stolen objects were eight artefacts from the Qing Dynasty. They bore striking similarities to the items recovered after the raid in Durham.

As officers in Durham and Cambridge discovered more similarities between the raids, a meeting was called to discuss the situation. In June of 2012, officers from several forces joined colleagues from the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Crime Agency at the Home Office. "All the forces were picking up the people who had done the burglaries, but no one was taking on the people who were commissioning them," says Green. "At that meeting, we said we were going to do something about it."

Green was chosen to lead a joint investigation: Operation Griffin.

Over the following months, Green and his team gradually put together a picture of the gang. A review of similar crimes found more than 30 break-ins at museums and auction houses which had targeted rhino horn or Chinese artefacts. It was then that the harder task of linking individuals to the crimes began.

Much of the work was painstaking, involving analysis of phone records to place gang members in certain places at certain times. The Rovers would "drop" phones frequently, changing numbers to cover their tracks. Occasionally, however, they would slip up. A doctor's appointment would be booked on a dirty phone, providing a crucial lead. "Every telephone that we cracked was a breakthrough," says Green. By the end of the summer of 2013, he had the evidence he needed to bring the gang in.

On Tuesday the 10th of September, 2013, Green arrived at the national command centre at 4AM. His alarm had gone off at around 3AM, but it hadn't really been necessary. It had been a tense few days leading up until this point, and Green had managed only a few hours' fitful sleep. In around 90 minutes, Green would give the order for doors to be broken down at 40 addresses in four different countries. Months of work had been building up to this date, and Green wanted to make sure it went smoothly.

The last few days had been spent liaising with 26 different police forces and colleagues at the Serious Organised Crime Agency to ensure the raids took place simultaneously, while maintaining the utmost secrecy around the operation. The investigation had been hard enough – the last thing he wanted was to blow his cover and to spend an extra few months tracking down the gang as its members scattered.

At 5.30AM, Green gave the order to move in. As battering rams broke down doors and suspects were led away in handcuffs, Green listened carefully as reports of the raids came in. Seven arrests in London, five men and two women. Four men taken into custody at the Smithy Fen Traveller site in Cambridge. Two more at Cray's Hill in Essex, plus arrests in Sussex, Walsall and Nottingham. Three more in Northern Ireland.

Green went down his list of suspects, ticking off the names. By the time dawn had broken, 19 arrests had been made. "It went like clockwork," he says.

From left to right: Michael Hegarty, Richard "Kerry" O'Brien Junior and Daniel "Turkey" O'Brien

Twenty-eight individuals were arrested as a result of Operation Griffin; half of them were brought to trial. Among those convicted are Michael Hegarty and Richard "Kerry" O'Brien Junior, who in 2010 were both jailed in the US for attempting to buy rhino horn. Another, Daniel "Turkey" O'Brien, has served time for stealing a rhino horn from an antiques dealer in 2011.

Handing down the sentences yesterday, judge Murray Creed said the gang's activities represented "serious organised crime" and "involved very high value goods with significant harm caused to victims – both museums and members of the public who would otherwise have viewed the material stolen".

The Rovers' convictions may offer some relief to the institutions they targeted. But chief constable Mick Creedon, who helped lead the investigation with Green, knows there are others who got away. "I think it struck a blow, but we know the network is a large network and it won't stop them," he says. "Putting it bluntly, it's low risk."

§

It is now four years since the break-in at Durham's Oriental Museum. A lot has changed since then. Museums are no longer naive to the threats posed to their collections, more aware of the risks created by unscrupulous buyers and the gangs who seek to supply them. In 2013, a rhino horn DNA database was set up in an attempt to deter thieves. Since the gang was arrested, there has been a significant slowdown in the number of offences. Still, the threat hangs in the air.

"What's really important for museums is that what we show is genuine," says Jayne Austin, at the Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. Museum curators put much stall in authenticity and take great pleasure in sharing the treasures in their care with the public. "No museum wants to have to put replicas out instead of the real thing," she says.

At Ipswich Museum, Rosie the rhino still stands in the museum's natural history gallery. In most respects, she looks the same today as she has done for the last 100 years, except for one significant detail: a sign informs visitors that her horn is made of glass fibre, a replacement fitted after the original was stolen. It serves as a warning to potential thieves, but also as a reminder of an innocence that has been lost.

@mark_wilding

More on VICE:

Crimes Across the UK: Exploring Why Burglary Is So Common in Leeds

How Burglars Hack Architecture to Commit Crimes and Take Advantage of Cities

Everything You Need to Know About Guns and Gangs in the UK

More VICE
Vice Channels