January 24, 2009

Grime, ink

I'm wet, miserable and under pressure. The ditch water laps over the top of my shoes and seeps into my socks. The vomit coloured mud attacks the hem of my suit trousers. The ice cold wind seeks out even the slightest bit of exposed flesh. Fuck.
But at least I'm not alone. There are three snappers and a cameraman with me. We're all in the shit together.
And shit there was. Along with a used nappy, empty beer cans, only God knows what household waste - even a Christmas tree that looks as if someone tried to bury it at sea. Behind me to my right, is a burned out motorcycle. To its right, about 100 feet away up a slight rise, lie the remains of a torched car. "Jesus Christ. Is it just me or this place a fucking hole?" one of the photographers asks as he tries to keep himself warm and dry - and get a decent shot at the same time. For anyone who thinks crime reporting is glamorous, this photograph should set them straight pretty quickly...

(© The Irish Daily Star)

It was taken by my colleague Jean Curran last Tuesday morning near the scene of the gun homicide of Stephen O'Halloran in Tallaght late the previous night. He was sitting with two friends in his 97D Renault Megane, parked outside his mother's house on Kilmartin Drive.
It was just before midnight when they came for him. Two men walked up to the car, pulled out a Glock each, and started firing.
O'Halloran was hit several times - the fatal one going in through the neck and ricocheting around his chest. The two young men with him were both hit, but they survived. It barely made the headlines for a day: fewer than 24 hours later another criminal, Graham McNally, was shot six times in the face and dumped on the Ashbourne Road. He was mentioned, without being named, in my previous blog last week: he's a sidekick of The Gangster. He was with him when other criminals tried to kill them. He survived that, but a week later was killed.
We got to Tallaght at around 10am, 10 hours after O'Halloran was shot. The Garda cordon around the murder scene was already well established. White and blue tape, pushed to the limit by the wind, still did its job and stopped us getting anywhere near the spot where the shooting happened. The best shot we could get was on the opposite side of the green. But it was about 300 yards away, and even then we didn't have a straight line of vision: the shooting happened at the end of the cul de sac. We could see nothing. Zilch. Diddly squat.
But there's always a plan B. And that's where the photographers come in.
Snappers really do get the short end of the stick. We indolent hacks can stand around, talk crap to each other, try to speak to a few neighbours, then wander back to our cars and turn the heat on to thaw out. But they can't leave the scene. They are the first media to arrive and the last to leave - long after we've got our angle and disappeared. They have to stay to get the State Pathologist going in and the body coming out.
If the shit really hits the fan, we can subtly put our notebooks in our pockets, pretend not to be there and melt into the background. But with a 300mm lens stuck on the end of his camera, there is nowhere for a picture artist to hide. Not that they would. I'm constantly amazed by their resolve, even in the most dangerous situations. Nothing matters but that which they see in the viewfinder of their camera. The poor fuckers don't even get bylines.
But they are, in essence, shit magnets.
Wherever they go, trouble is usually waiting. Outraged family members, angry friends, weirdo busybodies. They all see a snapper about the place and lose the head. And many of these punters seem to have strange sexual habits as well, judging by the number of times I've seen someone tell a photographer that he would really like to stick that camera up his arse. Whatever turns you on, I suppose.
I'm constantly amazed by the number of reporters who leave their snapper colleagues to their own devices. There are countless stories of reporters simply abandoning their photographer colleagues, friends even, when trouble erupts. I try to stick with the snapper as much as possible. When they're in trouble they need somebody with them, even if it's only for moral support. At gangland funerals, for example, I'll stand right beside the photographer just in case - most other hacks would choose to sit in their car, anonymous and safe. Not that I'd be any good in a fight, but at least they might think twice if there are two of us.
That's why I ended up in that sodden field behind the murder scene in Tallaght on Tuesday morning. We're all in this together. If they have to walk through the mud, so do we. One of the snappers realised that there was a field behind the murder scene that might give a better chance of a picture. So we all slogged together through the watery field until we came to a 10 foot high wall, behind which was the murder street. Luckily, someone had decided a ladder was surplus to requirements and abandoned it in the field. The snappers used it to climb up to the top of the wall and snap the gardai and murder scene around 100 yards away. I stood there getting very wet and very depressed.
In the end, we got some good photographs and the trek through the shit was worth it. The wet feet and dirty shoes are forgotten about in a couple of hours. What really lingers, however, is the murder of Stephen O'Halloran and what it says about Gangland Ireland today. You don't have to be a mobster to be targeted by the Glock-lovers. All you have to do is cross the wrong people.
He wasn't a big fish - he probably wasn't even a drug dealer. He was a thug. What the gardai call a gouger. Nothing more. He broke a woman's jaw; he left a neighbour needing rehab after a row about a dog; he assaulted four people when he burgled their house; he liked throwing his weight around and was quick to use his fists against anyone who crossed him.
But, obviously, he picked on the wrong person, somewhere along the line.
That person served up his revenge on a cold Monday night.

January 19, 2009

The Gangster got lucky last week...

He hates them. When he sees them in the street, he smirks and mocks them. When they bring him in for questioning, he takes a leaf out of the Provos' book and simply stares at the wall – refusing even to acknowledge their existence.
But now he owes gardai his life.
A routine patrol in Dublin last week intercepted suspects who detectives believe were on their way to murder the man who is quickly becoming Ireland's number one gangster. If the unarmed officers hadn't stopped the two would-be assassins, it's highly likely The Gangster would be dead now. Not that he'll thank them, of course. To him, the gardai are more his enemy than the gougers who are now intent on killing him. And anyway, he has his own, extrajudicial, way of dealing with people who try to rub him out.
In my last blog, I speculated that it would only be a matter of time before criminals turned their attention on The Gangster: I didn't think it would happen so quickly, however. I thought he maybe had six or seven months, a year even, before they caught up with him. But gangland moves quickly. He got lucky last week thanks to some good old fashioned police work by the people the State employs to counter him and his ilk: uniformed and unarmed gardai spot a car acting suspiciously and close in.

The only shock about the murder attempt was the people behind it. I thought that allies of Michael Roly Cronin, whose death – along with his sidekick James Maloney – he ordered on January 7 would have gone for revenge. Cronin was a dangerous drug dealer with plenty of allies – surely, I thought, they would target The Gangster. But it wasn't Cronin’s gang. The Gangster is suspected of organising several murders in the last three years and it was friends of one of them who are believed to have sanctioned this hit.

But, thanks to the gardai, they didn't get a chance to take their target out. The irony is that the man the gardai saved will probably go on to order more murders, more drug importations, more mayhem. Doubtless someone else will try to kill him soon. It reminds me of the chilling boast by the IRA when they almost killed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Brighton in 1984. “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” The gangster can’t, won’t, rely on gardai to save his life again. They’ll go for him again - he’ll have to be lucky again. Or else he’ll have to get them before they get him.
Many people will probably be cursing the gardai who prevented last week’s hit. One of them is bound to be the man who The Gangster paid a few grand to kill Cronin and Maloney. His life is now under direct threat from The Gangster. He is a low level criminal from north inner city Dublin. Gardai are amazed that The Gangster even thought of using him as the hitman. He is a chronic drug addict who carries out armed robberies to feed his habit: detectives never had him marked down as a killer. A violent thug, yes, a hitman, no.

And the fact that he left so many vital clues shows that The Gangster was stupid in his choice of killer. He dropped the murder weapon, a Magnum .357 revolver, close to the scene; he abandoned gloves and a coat nearby; he left his DNA in the car in which he shot Maloney and Cronin; he is likely to have been caught on CCTV sitting in the car before the murder. In other words, he has given gardai a huge amount of clues and it’s likely they’ll soon be able to charge him with he murders. If he is tracked down by gardai, the possibility is that he could turn tout and give evidence against the gangster. There is a precedent for this in the shape of James Martin Cahill, who killed Limerick doorman Brian Fitzgerald for one of the gangs there. That would be a huge result for the gardai and a nightmare for The Gangster.
And it leaves him in a sticky situation. He can either hope the killer, who is believed to have fled to Spain, stays hidden and isn’t arrested. Or he can take his own, decisive, action to make sure there’s no danger that the killer ever, ever, talks.

The killer really only has two options: turn himself in to the cops, serve his time and save his own life. Or he can rely on his own wits and try to survive alone in a foreign country – with cops and The Gangster breathing down his neck.

January 12, 2009

"This guy clearly takes no prisoners. Get in his way and you’ll soon be suffering from an extreme case of lead poisoning."

Seven days.

It took just seven days for the guns to come out again. And when they did, they came out with a vengeance. 2009 was only a week old when gangland Ireland claimed its first two victims of the year, Michael Cronin and James Maloney. They obviously won’t be the last. Last year, 20 people were victims of gun killing in Ireland. That was the second highest toll in the history of the state, behind 2006 when the number of gun homicides reached 26. The figure of 20 is quite high, when you compare it with England and Wales, where 42 people died in gun homicides last year. That’s with a population of some 53.4 million – more than 10 times ours. I wonder how many there’ll be this year in Ireland? I think we’re going to have a bad year and I would fear that 2009 will be just as deadly, if not worse, than 2006. The credit crunch even affects gangsters – fewer people buying cocaine because they’ve lost their jobs will mean gangs fighting over a shrinking market. Add that to the slashing of the overall Garda overtime budget and we have a recipe for bloody mayhem.
Drug dealer Cronin was shot in the head as he sat behind the wheel of his UK registered Volvo in Summerhill, in the centre of Dublin, on Wednesday, January 7. His associate, Maloney, died two days later. He had also been shot in the head. A few miles away, and an hour and half later, JP Brennan was shot in the arm and neck in his girlfriend’s house in Malahide. The bullet that hit him in the neck exited through his face. But he’ll live.
In relation to the double murder, it’s likely there will be quick progress. Gardai have the gun, they have what are probably the killer’s coat and gloves. He was sitting in the back seat before he pulled out a Magnum .357 and blasted his two victims from point blank range – he must have left trace evidence in the vehicle, including DNA. The gardai probably have the killer on CCTV. With all that, they have a good chance of catching the killer. Word is they already have a prime suspect.
But the man who ordered the hit, well, that’s a different matter. Like most godfathers, his hands are clean. He may have ordered up to a half a dozen murders in the last five years – but he has never pulled the trigger. Instead, like all bosses, he gets some lieutenant to carry out the hits while he sits back and watches. There’s no chance of the good guys getting him for the murder. He’s too far removed from the smoking gun.
To look at him, you wouldn’t think that he was one of the most dangerous, most vicious, criminals in the country. He just looks like some, admittedly well built and slightly menacing, fella you would see down the pub, or in the gym. But this is one man you would not want to accidentally bump into while heading to the bar to order a pint.
There were plenty of us reporters there when he was brought into the dock of a Dublin court. He was arrested over a high profile incident and we were there to see him in the flesh and facing justice. I can still remember seeing him for the first time. As ever, I was struck by the normality, the banality, of evil. It would be comforting if he had two heads, or three eyes, or some mark of Cain that betrayed what was going on inside his psychotic head. But, the reality is, he just looked like the rest of us humans – on the surface, anyway.
He showed no fear. He had just been charged with an offence that could see him doing over a decade behind bars. But if he cared, he didn’t show it. He was calmness personified as he appeared in front of the judge. Bail was refused because of the seriousness of the crime he was alleged to have committed. But that was only temporary: he was given bail a few weeks later. He came back on the streets and started back to what he knew best: murder and mayhem. The murders of Maloney and Cronin weren’t the first he orchestrated since a judge let him out – they probably won’t be the last.
I’d been following his ‘career’ with interest since early 2007. That was when he started to emerge as the successor to Martin `Marlo’ Hyland, shot dead in Finglas with innocent plumber Anthony Campbell in November 2006. Marlo controlled much of the drugs trade in north and west Dublin – and the man I was staring at in a Dublin court had started making shapes to take over that lucrative market. Not only was he interested in the business, he was also eager to snap up another valuable chunk of the Marlo empire. Hyland had the smuggling networks. Not only did he know where to sell the cocaine when it got in into Ireland, but he also knew how to get it in here in the first place. He had a network of established smuggling routes that brought in millions of euro worth of drugs into Ireland every month, for him and others to sell.
With Hyland out of the way, the new man on the block was ready to step up. And boy did he do that. John Daly was one of the few people in Finglas who would stand up to him. Daly, who shot to fame when he rang RTE’s Liveline from his cell inside Ireland’s supposed top security Portlaoise jail in May 2007, got out prison in August that year. He too saw the vacuum created by the death of Hyland, to whom he was close, and started making plans to take over his pal’s empire. He may as well have signed his own death warrant. Within three months, Daly was dead, killed as he sat in a taxi in Finglas. The main suspect is Marlo’s successor – the man who’ll do anything to protect his patch. He’s also suspected of ordering the murder in Finglas in August last year of armed robber Paul `Farmer’ Martin – shot dead as he sat in a pub following a friend’s funeral.
Gardai also reckon he was behind the murders of Cronin and Maloney.This guy clearly takes no prisoners. Get in his way and you’ll soon be suffering from an extreme case of lead poisoning. I suspect he knows he’s facing a good stretch of time behind bars and is getting rid of anyone who he perceives as a threat to his business before he gets locked up. That’s probably why he got Cronin killed last week – he was living in Finglas and, like all of the wannabe gangsters, thought he was somebody. We can’t name him at the moment. If he’s convicted of the charge he is facing, we’ll be able to name him for that – but it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to unmask him as the serial killer he is. That’s libel for you. The only way we will be able to reveal his name is if he ends up dead himself, which is not as unlikely as he thinks. In recent weeks, he has been boasting that he is confident the charges against him are going to be dropped. I personally would not be too sure. Anyway, 10 years behind bars might just be the best thing that could happen to him. Sooner or later, somebody stronger, more deadly, more vicious and less human will come along and do what he did to Cronin, Maloney, Martin and Daly. Nobody is invincible. Gangland is in a constant state of flux. One day your friend is your enemy, the next day your enemy is still your enemy and he's standing over you with a Glock. There are no friendships, there is no loyalty. Every now and again, a new Mr Big emerges in gangland. Someone who sticks his head above the parapet and reckons he’s the main man; someone who believes the hype about himself and thinks he’s untouchable, that the cops won’t get him and no criminal would dare. He’s invariably wrong on both counts. Cahill, Gilligan, Hyland, PJ Judge, the list is endless of people who either fought the law and the law won – or were killed by their pals. It just might be better for this new Mr Big if the good guys get him – before the bad guys do.

January 4, 2009

“Leave the area now, or I will arrest you.”

You know there’s a problem even before he opens his mouth. He strides up to us, his eyes blazing with contempt, antipathy, anger and probably and little bit of fear.
He stops a few feet away from us and gives us both barrels.
“Right, no photographs. You’re not to take any photographs. Is that clear?”
“But we’re just trying to do our job. And I don’t mean to be rude, but this is a public place – we can take photos where we want.”
“No, you listen, I’m telling you that you are not to take any photographs. In fact, move away now – get way back.”
“But, hold on, there’s no tape up, the scene’s over there. Sure look, all these people are standing here looking and you’re not telling them to move.”
“I am directing you to leave this area. If you do not move away now, I will arrest you.”
“No problem, garda.” Through gritted teeth.
Another day, another row.
The sad thing is he can do what he wants to us. Under the public order act, any garda can tell anyone to leave an area. If they don’t, the garda can arrest them. It doesn’t apply just to drunks: it also applies to reporters just trying to do their job and is being used increasingly by gardai on the ground against the media. Paranoid souls that we are, we all think they are out to get us – and they probably are. The big question is why?
Recently, I was at the scene of a murder in a large town. A man had been killed and the immediate area, beside a busy road, had been sealed off. We vultures were gathered across the road, about 100 yards away. Suddenly, a young garda came up to the photographers and camera men and told them to move back another 100 or so yards – thus ruining the possibility of getting a good shot of the coffin being taken out of the murder scene. (Yeah, I know, we’re scum. The truth is we’d rather not be spending four hours freezing our nuts off waiting for the hearse to come along to get the pic – but it is an integral part of any murder/tragic death story.) The lads protested. They pointed out that people were walking on the road, on which we were standing, past the sealed off murder scene – surely it didn’t make sense to allow them so close and keep us away?
No joy. They had to move back. A senior officer had ordered it, apparently. I hid my notebook in my pocket and stayed my ground while the snappers had to, grudgingly, retreat. But the day will come, undoubtedly, when they refuse to move back. And that’s when the fun will begin. It will be up to a judge to decide of the public order act does actually allow gardai to arrest a photographer for not moving on from somewhere where they are legitimately working.

My theory is that official Ireland is becoming increasingly anti media and increasingly more secretive.
The gardai we deal with on a day to day basis are just victims of the new state secrecy. Reporters of all types are finding it harder and harder to get information as public and civil servants clam up.

It's not the mules' fault...

Nowhere is that more apparent than An Garda Siochana.
I don’t blame the mules on the ground for the increase in hostility, or perhaps more accurately the decrease in civility, at scenes. Most gardai are fundamentally decent, hard working and polite. Obviously, because I’m a crime reporter, I would be close to a lot of gardai – and there are some I’m proud to consider friends. They have a hard enough job without some muppet reporter coming up to them at a scene and acting the fool. Up until few years ago, relationships between gardai on the ground and reporters were, largely, cordial. They have a job to do; we have a job to do. We respect their crime scenes, we don’t act the bollox; we don’t ask uniformed lads just preserving a `Garda do not cross’ line any stupid questions – they leave us at it. All we want, anyway, is just a few pics. That live and let live philosophy is gradually dying. Some gardai become pushy and rude – some snappers threaten to report them to the Garda Ombudsman. It’s pretty nasty sometimes.
Of course, it’s not a one way street. Do reporters or snappers sometimes cross the line? Yes. Is it a regular occurrence? No. The same people go to most murder scenes – they know what to do and what not to do. Occasionally someone new who doesn’t know the score comes along and does something stupid – but they soon learn. Speak to any reporter or photographer who goes to scenes and he or she will tell you that the attitude of many gardai they encounter there is changing, hardening.
But, as I said, I don’t blame them. I blame the culture in which they are working. The message is repeatedly being hammered into them from their bosses: don’t talk to the media. The number of internal investigations carried out every year into leaks is frightening. I’ve been interviewed several times in the past few years, as have most crime reporters, by detectives investigating a leak. It’s a charade, really. They know it’s a waste of time, I know it’s a waste of time, but they still go through with it. They ask you where you got your story, you reply: “I have no comment to make on this, thank you.” Everybody’s happy – they’ve done what their bosses have asked them to do, and I’ve politely declined to help them.
But there is a consequence to every investigation like that. Every garda is now afraid to talk to a reporter in case they are disciplined. Then Justice Minister Michael McDowell (left) brought in the Garda Siochana Act in 2005 that warned gardai they could be jailed and slapped with huge fines (up to E75,000) if they spoke to a reporter and disclosed secret information to them.
Now, the caveat is that the Act specifies that the disclosure of the information must have a “harmful effect” before the leaking becomes a crime. It lists 10 areas that would be defined as harmful – everything from facilitating the commission of an offence, to identifying a witness in an investigation to damaging state security. So, it could be argued that briefing a reporter about some aspect of an investigation that isn’t harmful is not illegal. Remember, most reporters are just looking for a bit of extra information that cannot be given officially – they’re not trying to wreck any probe, or cause the collapse of the state. But the reality is all gardai know about the generality of the act now and are terrified of it. More and more, reporters are getting the response “Do you want to get me jailed?” when you try to speak to a garda off the record.
This probably sounds like a self pitying rant by a frustrated hack – and it is. But there are bigger issues here. One of the biggest strengths of An Garda Siochana has always been the link it has with the people. The media have a role in maintaining that link. Gardai tell us and we tell the people. Sometimes, we can tell the people things that gardai can’t officially say. Gardai might not want to say something officially about an investigation – but want the message to get out to the people. That’s where we come in.

If only Ireland was America...

But gardai are doing that less and less. The culture of fear within An Garda Siochana is getting stronger by the day. And it’s their link with the people that will suffer in the long run.
It doesn’t have to be like this, however.
A few years ago, I was investigating disgraced judge Brian Curtin. Several days after the State in May 2004 dropped the charge of possessing child pornography against him – thanks to gardai searching his house on what the trial judge ruled was an out of date warrant – I decided to see if I could get more information on the images he allegedly possessed. He was charged under Operation Amethyst, which took place on May 27, 2002 and was the first large scale Garda investigation into child pornography in this country.
The information that led to around 100 homes and businesses being raided simultaneously came from the US authorities. They busted a child abuse image operation, called Landslide, that had tens of thousands of subscribers all over the world.
The US cop who headed the investigation was, the now retired, Steve Nelson. There was, obviously, no chance of getting anything juicy from the gardai – they were in the middle of a firestorm over the warrant and were keeping their heads down. So I decided to chance my arm and ring the US cop.
Not that it was much of a risk: US cops – and to a lesser extent their UK colleagues, are much more open with the media than the Garda. I knew that if I got him on the phone, there was a good chance he’d talk.
I did get him. But I was totally amazed by his reaction to me, a complete stranger, phoning from thousands of miles away. “What do you need?” he asked. “Everything,” I joked– yet expecting nothing.
There was a long pause on the phone as he went through his database - by long pause, I mean 30 minutes. Eventually, he piped up: “Yes, here he is,” and started to give me, literally, everything.
He gave me Curtin’s credit card number – even the expiry date – and said exactly how much it paid ($29.95) for a month’s subscription to a website called lolitaworld.com (don't worry, the link doesn't exist any more).
He even agreed that, if necessary, he would swear an affidavit on what he had just told me and would fly to Ireland from Dallas to give evidence for us if Curtin sued.
We ran the whole thing on page one the next day: Curtin didn’t sue.
And, almost five years later, I’m still amazed at the openness of this guy – and depressed by the secrecy of our Garda force.
But I’m heartened by the members who are brave enough to talk to us.
  • Addition at 2pm on Monday, January 5: A reader has emailed me to argue that the media need to bear more responsibility for the increased hostility of gardai, and other state bodies, to us. His argument was that with the increased media competition in this country, some outlets have started writing flyers, particularly in crime. “Now if I was a senior cop, I would be pulling my hair out, over than kind of shite,” he says.
    He has a point. Of course we are obsessed with ourselves and always try to blame others when things go wrong, but it is fair to say there is a large number of reporters working in Dublin who do make stuff up – or fail to check up a line before printing it. We’ve all made mistakes, me more than most, but there is an increased tendency for people – obviously under severe pressure from their bosses – to write crap. Gardai obviously react to that.
    We are obviously not blameless. But I don't think that accounts for the hostility of gardai on the ground - I think that is an institutional problem.