Imre Arakas, the 60-year-old Estonian jailed yesterday for planning an assassination on behalf of the Kinahan crime gang, has had many titles over the years
He has been an actor, a freedom fighter and a wrestler – but in his native country he is mainly known as “the butcher”; a ruthless criminal at the centre of Estonia’s bloody, post-Soviet gang wars.
That's not to say he's universally reviled. Depending on who you talk to in Estonia, he's either a folk hero or a murderous gangster, or a little of both.
Arakas's presence in Ireland came about after the Kinahans decided to start employing professional killers in their war against the Hutch family.
In targeting their latest victim, James Gately, the gang was eager to avoid a repeat of the murder of Martin Doyle, an innocent father of three who was shot dead by a drug-addicted amateur gunman in a case of mistaken identity in 2016.
Arakas was well known in other European countries and came highly recommended. He was also highly motivated – he owed a huge amount of money and the €100,000 he would receive for the Gately job would go a long way towards paying this off.
But that fame also made him an easy target for gardaí who had been advised by international colleagues that Arakas was on the way. Officers quickly recognised him when he landed in Ireland and put in place a surveillance operation which would prevent the Gately hit and eventually see his would-be assassin jailed for six years.
Tarmo Vahter, a journalist with the Estonia newspaper Eesti Ekspress, has been covering Arakas for years.
Asked about Arakas’s reputation in his home country, Vahter points to an advertisement campaign his newspaper ran last year featuring Arakas’s image accompanied by the text: “You are afraid to speak with some people. We will do it for you.”
“He is an unusual celebrity,” Vahter says.
The reporter has kept in touch with Arakas since he fled Estonia. Earlier this year he interviewed him through an intermediary as the hitman sat in Mountjoy Prison.
In the rambling interview, Arakas denied he planned to kill Gately, mocked the Garda investigation and praised his prison conditions
“TVs, radios, music centres, PlayStations, DVD players, computers are allowed. Only there is no wifi.”
Arakas first came to public attention in the 1980s when he and a friend broke into a shooting club in Tallinn and made off with 13 handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The robbery made huge news in Estonia and was seen by many as an act of rebellion against the communist regime.
Arakas was quickly arrested. His status as a cult hero was cemented when he escaped from the courthouse by jumping from a balcony. He later was rearrested after 87 days on the run and sentenced to 15 years in prison, most of it spent in a high-security facility in Russia.
He emerged from prison in the early 1990s and got involved in a brutal war between the ethnic Estonian mafia and their Russia counterparts. He quickly became a senior figure on the Estonian side.
More than 100 people died in the feud and Arakas came close to joining the list of fatalities on more than one occasion.
In 1998 he fled for Spain. His enemies tracked him down in Marbella where he was shot several times in a failed assassination attempt. Two Estonians were later jailed for the shooting.
From then Arakas operated as a sort of jet-setting freelance criminal. He is suspected of involvement in a series of killings across the continent, including the murder of a man who had an affair with a famous pop star in Lithuania.