An Irish man has been sentenced to 18 months in prison in the United States by a federal court in Miami for smuggling a "libation cup" carved from a rhino horn from the US to London.
Michael Hegarty is regarded as a high level member of the "Rathkeale Rovers", a criminal organisation with links to the Co Limerick town.
The group, which has links to Ireland, London, and China, has been involved in previous high profile burglaries and the illegal trading and smuggling of rhinoceros horns.
Hegarty was charged in May 2014 alongside Richard Sheridan, another associate of the gang, and a Florida resident with conspiracy to traffick the libation cup - an ornate drinking vessel traditionally carved from rhino horn in China.
The charges also included the obstruction of justice by attempting to influence a witness.
The men purchased the item in a North Carolina auction house and the criminal organisation falsified documents to transport it from the US to the UK.
Hegarty was arrested on January 19th last in Belgium, where he had been attempting to evade prosecution in the US.
There had been an Interpol “red notice” for his arrest issued by the US. In July, Hegarty was extradited from Belgium to the US to face sentencing for the smuggling offences.
The criminal organisation was targeted by US authorities as part of “Operation Crash” a coordinated operation led by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service that targets the criminal trafficking of rhinoceros horns.
‘Illicit wildlife trade’
Speaking after the verdict in Miami, Ed Grace, acting chief of law enforcement for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said “today’s sentencing sends a message to those who profit from the slaughter and illicit trade of wildlife, you will be caught and prosecuted no matter where you hide.”
"I commend our special agents who connected this defendant to the Rathkeale Rovers, a transnational organised crime syndicate responsible for trafficking endangered rhinoceros products worldwide. Thank you to our international counterparts and to the US Department of Justice for arresting, extraditing, and prosecuting this individual," he said.
Hegarty’s sentence included three years of “supervised release” following his prison sentence.
The sentence was handed down by US District Court Judge Donald M Middlebrooks in a federal courthouse in Miami, the Southern District of Florida on Tuesday.
Commenting on the sentence, acting assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the US Department of Justice Jeffrey H Wood said: “There is a frequent connection between wildlife smuggling and organised criminal activity. We remain committed to combating this illegality.”