Gardaí cast net wide to bring down plan 'straddling three continents'

 

Investigating officers liaised with law enforcement agencies across 16 jurisdictions, writes Barry Roche

IT WAS a truly international drugs smuggling operation, Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin remarked. He said it "straddled three continents" and that the investigation reflected that, with gardaí liaising with law enforcement agencies in 16 jurisdictions.

A flavour of the international nature of the investigation into the €440 million drugs seizure can be gleaned from the fact that gardaí travelled to the UK, South Africa and the US, while witnesses attended from South Africa, Spain, Barbados and the UK.

Gardaí believe that the 1.5 tonne consignment of cocaine originated in the Medellin region of Colombia and was shipped along an established drugs route through Venezuela to the Caribbean island of Margarita.

Meanwhile, the gang purchased a catamaran, the Lucky Day, in Florida for $110,000 on March 7th, 2007, and it was sailed by two Lithuanians to Margarita, arriving there about March 16th-17th, 2007.

Gardaí are unsure whether the drugs were transferred to the Lucky Day off Margarita or later, when the catamaran visited Trinidad and Tobago, before heading to the eastern Caribbean and Barbados in May.

What they are certain about is that the catamaran was fully loaded with the drugs when it left Barbados on May 25th, 2007, crewed by the two Lithuanians, who had been joined by Gerard Hagan (24) from Liverpool.

The State called evidence from Thomas Lopez, an expert with Iridium Satellite Phones. He was able to provide a print-out of calls made from a satellite phone recovered in the waterproof Pele box from the drug gang's Rib washed up in Dunlough Bay.

Mr Lopez was able to show calls in May and June from that satellite phone to another satellite phone that gardaí believe was on board the Lucky Day. He was able to provide co-ordinates for that second satellite phone.

Commander Eugene Ryan of the Naval Service examined the satellite phone records and, tracking the latitudinal and longitudinal references, was able to plot the route that the Lucky Day took when crossing the Atlantic.

He calculated that the Lucky Day would have taken 26 days to travel the 3,300 miles from Barbados to the west Cork coast at a speed of 5.1 knots. It passed close to the M3 weather buoy some 30 miles southwest of Mizen Head at about midnight on July 1st.

Meanwhile, the gang, who had hired houses on Sheep's Head from April 2007 in preparation for the arrival of the drugs, had been plotting their rendezvous point. Gardaí found strong evidence pointing to the M3 weather buoy as the pick-up point; its co-ordinates were found in a hand-held GPS device recovered from the sunken Rib. Gardaí also found a map at one of the rented houses with a line drawn out from shore to the weather buoy.

Gardaí believe the Rib, crewed by Wanden and another man, Steven Brown, left Glengarriff at 9pm on July 1st and rendezvoused with the Lucky Day near the M3 weather buoy at midnight. Here, the drugs were transferred and Hagan came aboard the Rib.

Gardaí believe the gang intended to return to Dunmanus Bay and bring the drugs ashore at a quiet cove there, but one of the gang put diesel in the petrol engines of the Rib, causing it to cut out and drift in Dunlough Bay. The combination of three-metre swells, the heavy load of 1.5 tonnes and a backwash from the cliffs caused the Rib to capsize.

The Lucky Day continued on to Spain where police, alerted by gardaí, detained the vessel at La Coruna. The two Lithuanians were arrested and held for over 40 days while the boat was forensically examined. However, gardaí believe the vessel was washed down with petrol to remove any traces of cocaine or any fibre or DNA evidence that would link it to the gang in west Cork and the Lithuanians were eventually released without charge.