Rathkeale Rovers’ gang jailed over rhino horn plot

Gang eyed rhino horn and Chinese artefacts worth up to £57m in plan to rob museums

Paul Pammen, Donald Chi Chong Wong, Richard Sheridan, Robert Gilbert-Smith, Ashley Dad, John “Kerry” O’Brien Junior and Terence McNamara; (bottom row, left to right) Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, Patrick Clarke, Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, Danny Flynn, John “Cash” O’Brien, Michael Hegarty and Alan Clarke. Photograph: Durham Police/PA Wire

Paul Pammen, Donald Chi Chong Wong, Richard Sheridan, Robert Gilbert-Smith, Ashley Dad, John “Kerry” O’Brien Junior and Terence McNamara; (bottom row, left to right) Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, Patrick Clarke, Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, Danny Flynn, John “Cash” O’Brien, Michael Hegarty and Alan Clarke. Photograph: Durham Police/PA Wire

 

The leaders of an Irish gang have been jailed in the UK for their role in what a judge described as a “sophisticated” conspiracy to steal millions of pounds worth of rhino horn and Chinese artefacts from auction houses and museums.

Seven of the 14 members of the gang – dubbed the “Rathkeale Rovers” – were linked to one family’s home in the Co Limerick town, Birmingham Crown Court heard.

Senior gang members operated in the background and employed local criminals to carry out a series of raids to secure the rhino horn and Chinese antiquities in 2012, the court heard. The goods were later smuggled to Asia.

The break-ins included two within eight days at two English museums, which police estimate were worth between £18 million and £57 million (€22.5 million and €71 million) to the gang, only a third of which has been recovered.

They targeted Chinese jade bowls and figurines and rhino horn, which can bring in vast sums in Asia because of its supposed medicinal qualities when ground into a powder.

O’Brien family

Jailing seven members of the team for terms of four to almost seven years, Judge Murray Creed said the O’Brien family home in Rathkeale was at the heart of the conspiracy.

“It was the family home for some of the conspirators . . . There were phone calls throughout the conspiracy to Rathkeale, either to business numbers or home numbers,” said the judge. “It is a conspiracy both sophisticated, skilled and persistent, involved significant cultural loss to the UK of museum-quality artefacts and items from international collections.”

Three members of the O’Brien family were jailed on Monday for their role in the crimes, believed to be part of a pan-European enterprise targeting rhino horn.

The town has had reported links to raids in at least 16 countries.

John “Cash” O’Brien (69), of Wolverhampton, was jailed for five years and three months for helping to organise a team of burglars to target the Durham Oriental Museum in March 2012. The gang escaped with a multimillion-pound haul of jade and hid it on wasteground for collection later.

However, when other members of the gang went to collect the haul and failed to find it, O’Brien was linked to the burglary by phone records when he was included in an increasingly frantic round of calls between members of the gang. The items were discovered by police a week later.

More lucrative raid

The failure of that raid led to a more lucrative one on the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, where 18 items, worth up to £15 million, were stolen eight days later, the court heard.

Police said the booming market in China meant the haul could be worth double that. None of the items has ever been found and they are believed to have been shipped to China.

A second member of the family, Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, received the longest sentence, of six years eight months, for his part in the raids. A third member, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien jnr – who had previously been jailed in 2011 for his role in a rhino horn smuggling operation in the United States – was jailed for 5½ years.

A Hong Kong middle man, Donald Wong, who is believed to have handled orders for the gang from Asian buyers, was also jailed for 5½ years. Three other members of the gang were also jailed, with six more due to be sentenced today.

An auction house on England’s south coast and another museum in Norwich were also targeted in failed raids for rhino horn. The gang carried out reconnaissance of sites in Glasgow and Yorkshire.