When Clifton Collins pulled his Lexus 4x4 into a forest road near Sally Gap in the early hours one Tuesday morning, three years ago, his world was about to collapse.
For nearly 12 years he had lived a secret life; growing cannabis at rented houses in counties Galway, Meath and Longford before harvesting his crops and selling his illicit merchandise to drug dealers in his native Crumlin in south Dublin.
He had also accrued a fortune in bitcoin; buying up the cryptocurrency with the proceeds of his drug sales and then watching his personal wealth explode as the value of bitcoin soared.
Gardaí in a marked car on a routine patrol on Military Road near Sally Gap spotted Collins’s Lexus and went to investigate its presence in the middle of nowhere at 2.30am. His vehicle was searched and cannabis herb valued at €2,000 was found.
Collins, then aged 46, was arrested and taken into custody at Wicklow Garda station. Detectives got to work immediately, securing a search warrant within hours for the property Collins was living at in Farnaught, Cornamona, Co Galway, and commencing the search at first light.
They discovered the house had been converted by Collins into a sophisticated cannabis grow house. More than 500 plants with a combined value of €400,000 were discovered.
A pellet gun and a stun gun, which he kept for his own protection, were also found. Gardaí believe he had been growing cannabis for almost 12 years. He had used three properties – including the rented house in Co Galway, another in Kells, Co Meath, and a third in Drumlish, Co Longford – to grow crops in the period from late 2005 to early 2017. He had access to all three houses for a number of years during that period.
Collins would harvest and vacuum pack the crop and then travel up and down to Dublin to sell the drugs to people he refused to name in Garda interviews. He also soaked the least valuable parts of cannabis plants in isopropyl in a process that produces cannabis oil.
When he was arrested he was growing a crop of cannabis every 16 weeks in Galway, from which he would yield about 4kg of cannabis herb which he then sold for about €28,000.
After he was arrested, and jailed for five years, it emerged he had amassed a bitcoin fortune.
Collins – who spent most of his adult life unemployed before working as a security guard and beekeeper – bought most of the currency he held in late 2011 and early 2012 when each bitcoin was worth only a fraction of the €8,900 each is valued at today. He was so nervous about having all his bitcoin in one account that, four years ago, he created 12 new accounts and distributed 6,000 bitcoin, worth €53.6 million, equally across them.
Twelve accounts meant a series of 12 access codes and Collins decided to write them on a piece of paper which he hid inside a fishing rod case at his home in Co Galway. The fishing rod case later went missing after his house was broken into and was also cleared of his belongings after his arrest in 2017, he claimed.
His 12 bitcoin virtual wallets, containing 6,000 bitcoin, have been seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau. However, the accounts – and their €53.6 million monetary value – cannot be unlocked despite being seized by Cab.
Garda officers hope that in time advances in technology will enable the accounts to be accessed so the bitcoin can be sold and the value of it converted to cash and realised by the State as the proceeds of crime.