The tiny town of Rathkeale, Co. Limerick and the clans of Traveller families who call it their home base are making international headlines again with a major feature in Bloomberg Businessweek.
The issue of international rhino horn smuggling has become hugely significant and the Rathkeale Travellers are chief suspects.
Following the 2010 arrests of two of the Rovers in Colorado, a massive investigation called Operation Oakleaf was launched, with the cooperation of Interpol, Europol, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dublin’s Criminal Assets Bureau.
“As the robberies continued,” Adam Higgenbotham writes in Businessweek, “Operation Oakleaf began to disentangle the Rathkeale network. Investigators broke down the clan structures and affiliations and identified the two dozen most significant figures in the rhino trafficking ring.”
At the height of the Rovers’ rhino horn-smuggling exploits, from 2011 to 2013, there were 67 thefts across 15 nations, from museums and private collections to auction houses and even zoos. Scattered individual arrests were made in 2012.
In early 2013, Operation Oakleaf came to a head, with coordinated raids across eight European countries that led to the arrests of 30 people with links to Rathkeale, including Richard Kerry O’Brien, the ‘King of the Travellers.’
The backstory on rhino horn is that it’s one of the priciest illegal commodities in the world, part of a global black market trade estimated at $10 million a year. The going rate for powdered rhino horn has skyrocketed in recent years, making it “pound for pound worth more than cocaine or heroin.” The substance has long been prized in Asia as a remedy in traditional medicine and is experiencing a renaissance among the elite of Vietnam and China, where it is sometimes consumed recreationally.
Whether appearing in "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding," convening in Rathkeale for their annual winter gathering, or getting busted as operators in an international rhino horn smuggling ring, the Rathkeale Rovers have been a consistent point of interest in the media over the past year – a slight irony given that the Travellers are one of Ireland’s most sidelined ethnic groups.
Now, in the compehensive feature in Bloomberg Businessweek the magazine takes a look at the Rovers and their web of both legal and illegal trades.
The Rovers began attracting the attention of authorities around the world in recent years. Where once they stuck mostly to traveling to the U.K. and around Western Europe, doing sometimes-legitimate-sometimes-not road-paving and property improvement jobs, now they have “expanded their range to include Canada, Hong Kong, Russia, and the Dominican Republic. In addition to paving, they trade in furniture, carpets, cars, and especially antiques. Renowned for their sharp entrepreneurial instincts, they prefer cash transactions and often drive thousands of miles on short notice to do a deal.”
Because of their mostly transient existence, the Rovers were able to fly under the radar for quite some time, until certain patterns started to emerge from their occasional run-ins with local police. As Businessweek journalist Adam Higgenbotham explains:
“Often the individual had presented a U.K. driver’s license and given a vague or transient address in England; sometimes a German or French policeman had written down a phonetic version of the suspect’s place of origin as ‘Raheele’ or ‘Rackeel.’ When questioned, the men were aggressive; their names were infuriatingly similar; they sometimes had multiple identities; frequently every word they said was a lie. They proved impossible to track in police databases. . . . At the end of a crime report detailing the activities of one Irish suspect, the Scandinavian author broke out of formal bureaucratic language to add a plaintive postscript: ‘Is there anybody that knows how to deal with these people?’”
After being linked to a number of rhino horn-related heists in recent years – from the 2010 customs seizure of a stash of horns at Shannon Airport to a set-up in Colorado later that year in which two sometimes-residents of Rathkeale, Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty, claimed to merely be antiques dealers decorating a castle in Ireland with an African theme – the pieces started to fall into place.
Soon after the Colorado arrests, Michael Slattery, Jr., who in 2010, using a homeless man as his proxy, had purchased a stuffed rhino head from an antiques dealer in Austin, Texas and then sold its horn, along with three others, to a Chinese dealer in Queens, New York, was arrested by U.S. officials as he tried to leave the country via Newark Liberty International Airport. In November, at a district court in Brooklyn, he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge before federal judge John Gleeson, and will be sentenced later this month.
In addition to outlining Operation Oakleaf, the article takes a crack at unraveling the chain of families involved, many of whom have the same last names but use nicknames to distinguish themselves: “The Kerry O’Briens, for example, differ from the ‘Turkey’ O’Briens, the ‘Bishop’ O’Briens, and the ‘Pa Turkey’ O’Briens. The families are large and complicated further by a tradition of giving fathers, sons, and cousins the same first names. It was Richard Kerry O’Brien’s son, also named Richard, who was arrested by the USFWS in Colorado for buying rhino horns—and, along with his brother-in-law, Michael Hegarty, later served six months in federal prison for smuggling; the Michael Slattery Jr. buying horns in Texas was Michael Levan Slattery’s son. Michael and Jeremiah O’Brien, the brothers stopped at Ireland’s Shannon Airport who were later arrested and convicted of illegally importing eight horns, are members of the Bishop O’Brien clan.”
A visit to Rathkeale, a rural town south of the River Shannon, reveals the impressive statistic that the Rovers, who began purchasing houses and land there 20 years ago, now own 80% of the local property. Eugene Corcoran, head of the Dublin Criminal Assets Bureau, is said to believe that the houses and the flashy cars many keep in Rathkeale are “being used to launder the proceeds of crime committed abroad.” The town is fairly quiet for much of the year, until November and December, when the clan members take over Rathkeale for their annual gathering.
While Higgenbotham notes that the frequency of rhino horn thefts has greatly diminished in the wake of Operation Oakleaf (and perhaps because the supply was exhausted), a tentative connection seems to be emerging between Rathkeale and recent heists of ancient Chinese artifacts.
Chances are we haven’t seen the last of the Rovers in international headlines yet.