Key role miscast in near-perfect crime

 

It was past 1 a.m. when the Laceys arrived at the outskirts of Dublin. They were looking forward to getting home after a tiring 100mile trip from Clonmel.

Jim Lacey, the high-profile head of National Irish Bank, and his wife Joan had been at the opening of a new branch in the Co Tipperary town. His success with the expanding bank meant many evenings were given over to functions such as this, but now, as their Mercedes rolled up to their Blackrock home at almost 1.30 a.m. on a cold night in November 1993, they could finally look forward to sleep.

As they turned into the gate of their corner house at Grove Avenue, everything looked normal. They could not guess that several pairs of eyes were watching from inside the grounds. Only when Jim Lacey opened the front door and went into the hall did the gang pounce.

Behind him he heard his wife scream "Jim!", and when he turned around he saw a hooded man had grabbed her and that three or four others were approaching. He tried to help her, but was struck on the head and knocked to the ground. A gang member pointed a gun at his head. Soon Joan was sitting at his feet, another gun pointed at her head.

The gang brought them into the living room, and brought in the baby-sitter, Tanya Waters. They also gathered their four children, Louise (10), Sarah Jane (6), Suzanne (14) and Robert (12).

In the house now there were up to seven men, dressed in boilersuits and balaclavas. The gang leader had the children brought upstairs, where they were told to dress in warm clothes. Then they and their mother and the baby-sitter were brought into the dining room, where their hands were tied and they were made to stand behind a chair and close their eyes. The gang leader took a Polaroid picture of each.

The Laceys were not to know it then, but the most notorious criminal in the State had invaded their world. The gang leader was Martin Cahill, known as "The General", who would be shot dead in Ranelagh the following year.

With him were two men who would later become notorious in their own right, as members of the largest drug-running gang in the State. But to the Laceys they were nameless and faceless. The gang members were careful to keep their balaclavas on, and address each other by numbers one to seven, not by name. Cahill told Joan Lacey her son Robert would be shot. When she became hysterical, he told her he would only be shot in the hand. Her job would be to tell her husband that Robert had been shot.

Then they were put in a van and driven away.

Meanwhile, Jim Lacey was handcuffed in the other room when another man arrived. The arrival of Joseph or "Joe Joe" Kavanagh was the key part of Cahill's plan. It was, one garda would comment later, "a brilliant plan. Almost the perfect crime."

Cahill had realised that someone would be needed to go to the bank with Lacey and collect the ransom money. Whoever went could not walk in wearing a mask, or the bank's security systems would kick into action right away, alerting the gardai and sealing the vaults.

Kavanagh arrived at the house unmasked, shuffling and dirty. He went upstairs and came back down wearing one of the banker's suits.

He showed Jim Lacey the Polaroid pictures, and said if he wanted to see his children again he had better co-operate. He also told him Robert had been shot in the hand. Then Kavanagh told Lacey he'd been kidnapped himself, and similarly had been shown pictures of his own relatives. He was acting under duress, he said. At 10 a.m. Jim Lacey was driven down to Merrion Church, where he and Kavanagh transferred to a van and drove into the National Irish bank building at Andrews Street, near College Green. Kavanagh brought Lacey into the bank, where they found Eugene Keenan, the branch manager. Lacey explained to Keenan who this stranger with him was, and that his wife and children had been taken away at gunpoint. In the vaults there was between £7 million and £8 million in cash. If Kavanagh asked to go down there and saw it, he could fill his van and commit the biggest robbery in the history of the State.

But Kavanagh had no wish to go into the vaults. He feared being trapped, and he knew time was not on his side. There was a chance the rest of the gang might have been discovered transporting Lacey's family, and that the Garda was already alerted. So Kavanagh was satisfied when Keenan produced £243,000. It looked like a lot of cash. Kavanagh happily took it, loaded it into the Hiace van and drove off.

Bank officials alerted the gardai at 1 p.m. The force set up checkpoints across the city and launched a search for the missing family. Meanwhile Lacey's wife, Joan, their children and Ms Waters, the baby-sitter, had been driven to Blackhorse Avenue, near the Phoenix Park. They were brought to stables and taken upstairs, where they were tied and gagged. As they lay on the floor, they could hear the gang members near them monitoring Garda radio broadcasts through the night. There was no exceptional radio traffic - the news had not yet broken.

During the morning the gang members at the stables disappeared, not bothering to untie their captives. A local resident heard their shouts and freed them, then drove them to the Garda's Dublin headquarters at Harcourt Square.

Kavanagh now embarked on what, for him, would be the trickiest part of the operation. He walked into a Garda station to tell his tale. The gardai sent for Felix McKenna, the detective inspector leading the investigation. McKenna listened as Kavanagh explained his role in the kidnapping, under the supposed duress of having been kidnapped himself.

Gardai mused later that if someone other than Kavanagh had handled this part of the plan, he might have got away with it. But Kavanagh had a record of armed robbery. Also, his so-called abduction two weeks earlier had never been reported to the force. And most importantly, one officer remembered, "his approach was all wrong when he came into the station. He brought his solicitor with him. He gave us this story, and just kept repeating it over and over like a broken record. It was too practised.

"If he sat there for a couple of hours and just let us talk to him about his story, then he might have convinced us. But he wouldn't even let us ask him questions."

More than 100 detectives were on the case, and over the following days they arrested 30 people, including most members of the gang. But nobody talked. The only one exposed was Kavanagh, and as detectives made further checks on his background, the chances of his version of events being believed were fast disappearing.

The money taken was never seen again.

Kavanagh later said he followed a motorcyclist from the bank to Maxwell Road in Rathmines, where they pulled into a laneway. The motorcyclist checked the cash, he said, before telling Kavanagh to go.

Kavanagh was left alone as gardai continued their investigation. Three months later, in January 1994, he was shot in the leg. He said this was the gang punishing him for not keeping to instructions, and denied that the shooting was a "set-up".

Because the kidnap gang had got away with the ransom, there were fears i and politicians that the Lacey affair would lead to of a spate of similar kidnappings. But the crime world was changing. Most of the gang members found a new leader - an armed robber who was just starting to import large amounts of drugs into the State. They discovered what he had already learned: drugs meant more money, for less work and less risk.

"It was a horrific experience for all of us," Jim Lacey said when reunited with his family. "You can try to think of these things in advance or try to be prepared for things or whatever, but no matter what you would have thought of, or what preparation you would have done, or what you would have dreamt of, nothing would remotely resemble what we went through."

Mr Jim Lacey: "a horrific experience"