Thomas Kavanagh jailed for 21 years for smuggling drugs into UK

Kinahan cartel imported drugs inside machinery, then exported machines full of cash

A man described as being “at the head of” the Kinahan cartel and responsible for smuggling cocaine and cannabis into the UK hidden inside items of machinery has been jailed for 21 years.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that the cartel imported drugs with a street value of more than £30 million (€36 million) into the UK.

Judge Martyn Levett, sentencing at Ipswich Crown Court on Monday, said the operation was of a “commercial scale” and he had “no doubt the importations would have continued” were it not for the authorities intercepting a shipment at Dover in 2017.

Thomas Kavanagh (54) of Tamworth, Staffordshire, Gary Vickery (39) of Solihull, and 43-year-old Daniel Canning, who also has an address in Solihull, all admitted at an earlier hearing to conspiring to import class A and B drugs, and money laundering.

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Kavanagh, who prosecutors described as “at the head of the organisation”, was jailed for 21 years.

He blew a kiss from the secure dock to family members sat in the public gallery before he was led to the cells.

Vickery, who was “immediately beneath” Kavanagh, was jailed for 20 years.

Canning, who was “subordinate to Vickery”, and also admitted possessing a firearm and ammunition, was jailed for 19 years and six months.

He looked at the ceiling as his sentence was read out.

‘A carousel’

Judge Mr Levett said a “business was being used as a cover for the importations and premises were leased I suspect for that very purpose”.

Drugs would come into the UK hidden inside machinery, which would exit the country filled with cash, in what the judge described as a “carousel of drugs in and cash out”.

Gardaí seized documents identifying a UK-based freight transport company in January 2017, while making a number of arrests in Dublin in which they seized “a significant quantity of firearms and class A drugs”, prosecutor Riel Karmy-Jones had told the court.

The NCA began an investigation and in October 2017 customs officials at Dover seized a consignment of 15kg of cocaine and 200kg of cannabis hidden inside two large Tarmac removal machines, the barrister said.

The judge said “very significant efforts were taken to avoid detection”, noting that a gun was recovered from a lead-lined compartment inside a transformer at an industrial unit.

The judge said the trio of defendants had “conspired together” with a fourth man, Martin Byrne, who died before the case reached court.

Kate Anderson, deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor of the CPS International Justice and Organised Crime Division, said: “This organised crime group imported millions of pounds worth of dangerous drugs into the country, concealing them in machinery in a bid to evade detection.

Speaking after the sentencing, NCA deputy director of investigations Matt Horne said: “Kavanagh was a high ranking member of the Kinahan cartel, an organised crime group synonymous with acts of violence. He was their main man in the UK.”

“Through their criminal connections overseas, his organisation was able to organise, import and distribute drugs worth many millions of pounds.

Mr Horne said the investigation required considerable co-operation between the NCA and gardaí “to target criminal networks impacting communities on both sides of the Irish Sea.”

“Our financial investigation into Kavanagh and his associates is ongoing, with a view to stripping them of any assets they have acquired through their criminality. This is not the end of our activity targeting this group.”

Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, who heads Organised and Serious Crime within An Garda Síochána, said the prosecution was a “very positive development in efforts being made by law enforcement authorities, at an international level, to tackle criminality engaged in by organised crime groups and networks that have an international dimension”.

Key member

Kavanagh has been a key member of the Kinahan cartel for almost 20 years and ran the group’s UK operation.

He was jailed in September, 2019, in the UK for possession of a 10,000 volt stun gun at his Birmingham home in January of that year.

Kavanagh was arrested at Birmingham airport when he returned home from a family holiday in Mexico. The more serious drugs case against him was already well advanced at that stage and that investigation continued while he was in prison serving the sentence related to the stun gun.

Like Kinahan cartel founder, Christy Kinahan, Kavanagh has straddled several different eras of Irish organised crime.

He was one of the first targets of the Criminal Assets Bureau when it was established in the 1990s. He remained active in the decades since then, with his wealth and influence growing since that period when the demand for drugs in Ireland grew exponentially for the first time in the Celtic Tiger years.

Kavanagh’s brother-in-law is Crumlin man Liam Byrne, who was head of the ‘Byrne crime group’, which effectively ran the Kinahan cartel’s Irish operation.

However, in the Garda crack-down against the Irish part of the cartel after the Kinahan-Hutch feud erupted, Byrne’s home was seized and his car dealership was shut down and he fled to the UK. - Additional reporting PA

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times