Two men charged over seizure of €33m worth of crystal meth in Cork last week

Nathan McDonnell (43) and James Leen (41) remanded in custody to appear via video-link on February 28th in Tralee

Two men have appeared before a special sitting of Tralee District Court charged with what the court heard was the largest seizure of methylamphetamine ever detected in the State, with a value of €32.8 million.

Both men were remanded in custody by Judge David Waters.

The men appeared separately. Large crowds surrounded the court on Ashe Street, chasing Garda vans into the back of the courthouse as they arrived. Shouting could be heard in the body of the court.

Nathan McDonnell (43) of Ballyroe, Tralee, is charged that between October 27th, 2023, and February 12th, 2024, at Ballyseedy Garden Centre, Tralee, Co Kerry, he had in his possession methylamphetamine, with a market value of €13,000 or more, for sale or supply in contravention of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and contrary to section 15a of the Misuse of Drugs Acts.


Det Sgt Thomas Griffin of Listowel Garda station gave evidence of arrest, charge and caution at Castleisland Garda station on Friday.

Mr McDonnell replied: “not guilty”.

James Leen (41) of Pilgrim Hill, Kilmorna, Listowel, Co Kerry is charged with the same offence.

He is further charged that on October 16th, 2023, at Cork Port, Ringaskiddy, Co Cork he did import methylamphetamine with a value of €13,000 or more contrary to section 15 (b) of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Sgt David Howard gave evidence of arrest, charge and caution earlier on Friday.

Mr Leen made no reply to each charge.

Both are due to appear via video-link on February 28th in Tralee District Court.

At a special sitting of Tralee District Court dealing with bail on Friday, Sgt Thomas Griffin, opposing bail for Mr McDonnell, said gardaí were objecting under section 2 of the Bail Act and The O’Callaghan Rules.

Outlining the evidence, he said that on the evening of February 15th, arising from information gathered by the Kerry Divisional Drugs Unit, a container was examined by Customs Officers at Cork Port Ringaskiddy Co Cork. The container was purported to contain an electromagnetic metal separator machine for export to Australia. Upon being examined, a sophisticated concealment was found within containing approximately 543kg of methamphetamine, the sergeant said.

The next morning gardaí carried out search operations at various locations throughout counties Cork and Kerry. Nathan McDonnell was arrested at Ballyseedy Garden Centre and subsequently detained for seven days.

Further serious charges may be sought from the DPP in relation to this incident, he also said, and an application for an appropriate venue may be sought.

The sergeant also referred to strength of forensics, and CCTV of excellent quality to do with loading the machine into a container for transport to the port of Cork on February 12th.

Messages on his mobile phone showed that he obtained an innocent party’s details in Australia to receive the shipment and that he offered to pay €5,000 for these details.

Gardaí had also identified emails relating to the importation, delivery and forward shipping of the machine.

Nathan McDonnell had admitted to gardaí that he was storing the machine at Ballyseedy Garda Centre and was to be paid €150,000 for his part in the operation.

Mr McDonnell had significant means which would allow him to flee the jurisdiction, Sgt Griffin said.

Before his arrest on February 16th he was the director of 11 companies with a turnover of between €4.5 million and €5 million.

“He has informed Gardaí that he has relinquished control of these companies and they are being liquidated and this reduces his ties to this jurisdiction,” the garda told the court.

The organised crime group responsible were highly proficient, sophisticated, organised and resourced, he also said.

The machine intercepted was purpose-built for the concealment and the manner of packaging made it almost impossible to detect.

Under cross-examination by Padraig O’Connell, solicitor, said his client had no previous convictions and was a family man with a young family whose permanent residence was Tralee.

“Ballyseedy is not his business but a company business,” Mr O’Connell put it to Sgt Griffin.

The garda said Nathan McDonnell was “a 99 per cent shareholder” and he was chief executive of the business.

Mr O’Connell also put it to the garda that his client had made “absolutely no admission”.

He admitted the machine was stored in his yard, the garda replied.

“The machine isn’t the drug,” Mr O’Connell said.

There was a question about the legality of the machine, the garda said.

However his client was not in court for any machine, but for a single Section 15 charge, the solicitor said.

“He steadfastly denies any knowledge of storage of drugs in this machine,” Mr O’Connell said.

Judge David Waters said he had direct evidence Mr McDonnell was relinquishing his business ties and he was to be paid €150,000.

He refused bail, referring to the high value of the seizure and that he was a man of considerable means.

Gardaí also objected to bail in the case of James Leen, the second accused man.

Sgt Davide Howard said the drugs had travelled from Mexico in October 2023.

James Leen had been arrested at Arabella Ballymacelligott, Tralee. He was “highly involved in upper tiers of transnational drug trafficking” Sgt Howard said, with extensive mobile phone and CCTV evidence.

He was also a serious flight risk.

In 2023 alone he had travelled to countries including the UK, Dubai, Romania, China, Brazil, Colombia, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy.

He had made numerous regular visits to countries some of which had no extradition agreements with this country.

He was more than capable of fleeing the jurisdiction.

Pat Mann solicitor put it to Sgt Howard that gardaí had his client’s passport.

Mr Mann also said his client had “made no comment at any stage” over the seven days of his detention.

“My client denies absolutely and totally he is involved in any of these matters alleged,” Mr Mann said.

Judge Waters refused bail referring to the seriousness of the charge and the possible sentence on conviction.

The court heard that if convicted both men were facing possible life in prison.

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