Late on the morning of April 5, 2011, three men walked into the science building on the campus of the University of Coimbra in central Portugal. When a young biologist who worked in the building arrived, around 10:30, she found the men waiting outside a locked door on the second floor, sitting on a pair of couches next to a stuffed ostrich. The oldest of the three looked to be in his mid-forties and was overweight, with red hair and ruddy cheeks. For a half-hour or so, he had been asking anyone who walked past about seeing the small natural-history collection behind the door. He had an Irish accent, and there was something strange about his persistence. “He kept talking about ‘trophies,’” Pedro Casaleiro, the museum’s deputy director, told me. “He said they wanted to see ‘the trophies.’”
The University of Coimbra, which was established in Lisbon in 1290 and moved to its current location in the 16th century, is Portugal’s oldest university, and one of the oldest in the world. Its science department, housed in a stately neoclassical building on a hilltop with a commanding view of Coimbra’s terra-cotta-tiled skyline, is of comparatively recent vintage, dating to 1772, when the university hired an Italian scholar named Domenico Vandelli to begin building Coimbra’s science faculty.
Vandelli was a celebrated naturalist, a contemporary and regular correspondent of Carl Linnaeus, who named a genus of plants after him. He was also an ambitious collector, and over his career he built an impressive personal museum in Padua, the kind of wunderkammer that was popular among aristocrats and intellectuals of the era. There were stones from Roman ruins, coins from distant countries, and a 17th-century German automaton, a wind-up centaur fashioned out of silver that hurled arrows. There were also dozens of pieces of taxidermy from the far corners of the world. After Vandelli settled in Coimbra, the university persuaded him to bring his museum along, too. The taxidermy collection—augmented in the next century with specimens brought back from Portugal’s colonies—now occupies an L-shaped wing of the second floor of the science building, at the top of a large limestone staircase.
The natural-history collection was open to the public by appointment only, and the three visitors didn’t have one; they had already been turned away by the receptionist at the university’s main science museum across the street. But the biologist was feeling charitable, and she offered to show them around anyway. She unlocked the door and led them from one darkened room to the next, running ahead to find the light switches. The older man stayed close by her, following her into the darkness in a way that unnerved her. The other two lagged behind, taking pictures with their mobile phones.
After several minutes, they reached the room that contained the bulk of Vandelli’s collection. With its tiled floor, heavy red curtains, and exacting woodwork, the space exuded the slightly stuffy warmth of an earlier century. Its only nods to the present were some subtle light fixtures and, tucked unobtrusively in a corner against the high ceiling, a security camera. Against one wall stood a human skeleton and a peacock in full plumage. Next to them was a lion stuffed by a taxidermist with an uncertain grasp of anatomy, the beast’s face curiously broad and flat, with a hint of a smile, like a person wearing a lion mask. Along the opposite wall, a bank of wood-and-glass cabinets contained an array of tropical birds, small primates, and jungle-dwelling rodents. Standing guard at either door were a pair of stuffed manatees whose oiled hides had aged into something resembling obsidian.
As the tour concluded, the ruddy-faced man—the only one of the visitors who ever spoke—asked the biologist an odd question: Did the university ever loan out pieces of its taxidermy collection for the weekend? She demurred, but he seemed appreciative anyway; he told her they’d enjoyed themselves and would bring their families for a visit later that month.
Sixteen days later, another university employee was walking through the room that housed Vandelli’s collection when she felt that something was not quite right. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that one of the cabinet doors was slightly ajar. Inside, everything appeared to be in its proper place, with one exception: A pair of rhinoceros horns was missing.
“They didn’t damage anything,” Casaleiro told me, pointing to the cabinet where the horns had been. “They didn’t even break the glass.” It was a Tuesday afternoon in November 2013, and Casaleiro—a trim man in his forties, with dark brown hair graying at the temples and the bearing of an earnest graduate student—had agreed to show me the scene of the theft. After the horns were reported missing, he told me, the first thing he did was check the security video. “We had cameras in every room,” he said. Reviewing the footage from around 5 p.m. the previous Tuesday, he saw them: two figures entering through the western end of the wing.
They moved quickly toward the room that held most of Vandelli’s collection, walked to the cabinet containing the two rhino horns, and carefully pried the door open. One of the men removed the horns and began zipping them up inside a backpack. When the backpack proved too small, they took off their jackets and rolled the horns up inside them, then tucked the bundles under their arms and left, strolling out of the building into the late-afternoon sunlight.
Beyond that, the video revealed little. The images were curdled and blotty, captured in black and white through infrared cameras in dark rooms. “The thieves wore caps like this,” Casaleiro said, miming pulling a brim down low over his eyes, “so we couldn’t see their faces.” But when the Judicial Police—the law-enforcement authority that investigates serious crimes in Portugal—reviewed the footage, they discovered that the thieves, while careful in concealing their faces, had made a mistake. During the break-in, one of them had pulled out a mobile phone.
Combing through the traffic from that afternoon relayed by nearby cellular towers, the investigators were able to pinpoint a single call made from inside the museum. The receiving number’s country code was 353, and its area code was 086—an Irish mobile phone. Its owner was a resident of a small town called Rathkeale.
Rathkeale is 19 miles southwest of Limerick, the largest city in Ireland’s Mid-West Region, located amid a patchwork of pastureland divided up by flat-topped hedgerows and ivy-covered wooden fences. Once a lively market town, Rathkeale now has about 1,500 permanent residents. It’s pleasant enough, but like agricultural towns in the emptied-out corners of Middle America, it gives the impression of having been frozen in time partway through the last century. There’s a Main Street with a few pubs, a bookmaking parlor, and a closed-down movie theater with a modish concrete-finned facade. A hand-painted sign advertises the local boxing club. A women’s clothing boutique has a life-size ceramic Marilyn Monroe out front. Most of the people are older; most of the storefronts are vacant.
It’s tempting to say that this was an unexpected place to find the principal suspects in a crime wave that, by late 2013, had caused nearly 100 rhino horns to disappear from museums, auction houses, and private collections in 16 countries across Europe. But then it’s hard to say where you would have expected to find them. The thefts, in the world of natural-history museums, were all but unprecedented. That investigators believed them to be the work of several dozen criminals based out of a sleepy village in Ireland was perhaps less surprising than the fact that they had happened at all.
The crimes had begun several years earlier with a few head-scratching incidents: reports of taxidermists and antiques dealers who had received phone calls from men with Irish accents, asking if they had any rhinoceros horns to sell and evincing no particular concern that transporting or reselling the horns was against the law. Then the thefts began. They were happening once a month at first, but at their peak, not long after the Coimbra museum break-in, they were up to two a day.
Sometimes, as in Coimbra, the thieves were relatively artful, leaving behind no damage save for a few splinters around the edges of a display cabinet. In other cases they had been thuggish, like the men who tear-gassed the staff at a museum in Paris before escaping with a white rhino horn at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Even when perpetrators were caught, the horns were almost never recovered, which surprised no one; they were, everyone assumed, quickly cut into pieces and whisked off to China, where rhino horn is believed to have medicinal properties and is worth something on the order of $65,000 a kilogram. (Cocaine, in the United States, has a wholesale street value of around $25,000 a kilo.) A reasonable estimate would put the missing horns’ collective street value somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars.
Some criminal epidemics thrive on the oxygen of their own strangeness, heists of headline-worthy curiosity begetting copycat heists. At least some of the rhino-horn thefts were probably the work of such imitators, like the thief in Colchester, England, who somehow managed to steal the head off a recently deceased rhino from a local zoo; an antiques dealer was later caught trying to board a plane with its horns concealed inside a fake Viennese bronze sculpture of a bird. The copycat theory would’ve explained one of the most striking aspects of the rhino-horn thefts, which was the ubiquity and apparent omniscience of the perpetrators. They had stolen the horns from well-known museum exhibits, but also from out-of-the-way manor houses in several countries—estates where few people save the owners would’ve even known there was a rhino horn on the premises.
But the relative uniformity of the thieves’ tactics, along with the trails of mobile-phone calls and text messages they occasionally left behind, had led many law-enforcement officials to conclude that most of the thefts were the work of a single network—one that was informal and barely organized, consisting of half a dozen families who operated more or less autonomously but all had roots in the same community. The Irish media and police called them the Rathkeale Rovers.
“My suspicion is the vast majority had the Rathkeale Rovers behind them,” John Reid, a senior analyst for the international police agency Europol who spent years studying the group, told me. “But it’s not something I can prove.” In 2013 alone, Irish investigators tracked the Rathkeale Rovers as far east as Russia and as far west as the Dominican Republic, as far north as Canada and as far south as Argentina, and as far from everything else as Australia and New Zealand. “They’re on every continent except for Antarctica, as far as I know,” Andy Cortez, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has investigated the Rovers’ American activities, told me.
The thefts caused a panic among natural-history museums, which were caught by surprise by what appeared to be a coordinated assault on what heretofore had been, crimewise, the least eventful corner of the museum world. “I don’t think there’s been anything similar—not in such a coordinated way,” Paolo Viscardi, a natural-history curator at London’s Horniman Museum, told me. As a pattern to the crimes emerged, museums began taking their rhino specimens off display, or replacing their horns with plastic or fiberglass replicas. At first this seemed to work; by mid-2012, the thefts had mostly abated.
Then, at 10:40 p.m. on April 17, 2013, three masked men forced their way into a large storage facility in Swords, a northern suburb of Dublin. The building was a former Motorola factory the size of two football fields, located in a sprawl of office parks and modest subdivisions not far from the Dublin airport. It belonged to Ireland’s National Museum, which housed the bulk of its off-display collection there. Among the artifacts in storage were four rhino heads, which had been removed from the natural-history building for safekeeping as the thefts reached a fever pitch.
The burglars tied up the lone security guard and began rummaging through the collection. (“If you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Nigel Monaghan, the museum’s natural-history curator, told me, “finding the Ark of the Covenant takes a while.”) After an hour of searching, they found the rhino heads stashed beneath a tarp. By the time the guard untied himself, they had muscled the trophies onto a trolley, loaded them into a van, and escaped into the night.
To Dubliners, the museum’s natural-history building is affectionately known as the Dead Zoo, and the nickname had inspired reporters for the city’s Sunday World tabloid, which had lavished more ink on the Rathkeale Rovers than any other paper, to bestow a second moniker upon the alleged thieves. They called them the Dead Zoo Gang.
“The rhino’s greatest misfortune,” the ecologist Lee M. Talbot observed in 1959, “is that he carries a fortune on his nose.” This has been true for thousands of years, throughout Asia and Europe alike. Greeks and Romans in the early common era believed that the horn of the Indian rhinoceros was an antidote to poison. European apothecaries sold rhino horn well through the Middle Ages; it was considered a passable pharmacological substitute for the horn of the magical unicorn, and was somewhat easier to come by.
But the appetite appears to have emerged first, and persisted longest, in China. Rhino horn’s medicinal use in China and neighboring countries dates at least as far back as the Bronze Age. One fourth-century Chinese materia medica lists the horn as a cure for everything from snakebites to carbuncles to demonic possession. (Contrary to popular belief elsewhere, there is nothing in the Chinese historical record testifying to its use as an aphrodisiac; that myth appears to have originated with ill-informed Westerners.) Ornately carved goblets made from rhino horn, known as libation cups, were believed to impart life-giving properties to the liquid poured into them.
Until the 17th century, China had its own indigenous rhinoceroses. Today, the vast majority of them are found in Africa, with a few smaller surviving populations scattered across South and Southeast Asia. Most Asian rhino species grow a single horn. The African white and black rhino and the Sumatran rhino have a pair of them: a nub-like posterior horn that usually takes the shape of a dulled shark’s tooth, and a larger anterior horn that, in the African species, can grow to several feet.
The rhino’s horn is not, properly speaking, a horn at all—not like the true horns of buffalo or antelope, which grow directly from the skull and are, at their core, composed of living bone. The rhino’s horn is made of keratin, the same fibrous protein that forms hair and fingernails, compacted into a material with the approximate density and texture of mahogany. Cut it off and it grows back, eventually, following a logarithmic spiral: the pattern of beguiling mathematical elegance that recurs throughout nature in the nautilus shell, the falcon’s gyre, the pinwheeling rain bands of a hurricane. A modern physician would interject here that keratin has no documented medicinal properties—and that, in any case, there is no fundamental chemical difference between ingesting $65,000-a-kilo powdered rhino horn and eating your own toenail clippings. Conservationists have loudly advertised these facts for years, to little consequence.
The rhino’s second-greatest misfortune is that, for all its imposing airs, it is not a particularly difficult animal to kill. Lumbering, nearsighted, and fatally curious, it has been an easy mark for hunters ever since they acquired weapons equal to its thick hide. “I do not see how the rhinoceros can be permanently preserved,” Theodore Roosevelt observed after shooting 13 of them, “save in very out-of-the-way places or in regular game reserves.” Gilded Age naturalists and hunters viewed the animal as an exotic anachronism, a fugitive from prehistory living on borrowed time in a world to which it was ill suited. A black rhino that Roosevelt met on a game trail in the Belgian Congo in 1909, he later wrote, seemed like “a monster surviving over from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them.”
By the 1970s, the global math for the rhinoceros was not auspicious. East Asia was rapidly modernizing, while many of the sub-Saharan African countries where rhinos lived were exiting their postcolonial honeymoons and descending into misrule, poverty, and civil war. Militarized poachers were laying waste to populations that had barely recovered from the great white hunters of yore. Auction houses reported moving as much as 3,400 kilograms of rhino horn—representing some 1,180 rhinos—every year, bound for China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and especially Hong Kong.
Hong Kong finally cracked down on horn imports in 1979, and most other importing countries eventually followed suit. Some traditional Chinese medicine authorities helped, too, promoting the use of water buffalo horn in lieu of rhino. Although East Asia’s appetite for the horn never fully abated, by the turn of the 21st century rhino populations had recovered enough from their 1970s and ’80s nadir that the animal could be considered at least a tentative conservation success story. A December 2007 survey of 13 African countries found that in all but two cases with adequate data, populations of both black and white rhinos were stable or improving. Documented poaching incidents in the South African national park system—home to most of the world’s remaining rhinos—numbered at most a couple dozen animals a year.
The sequence of events by which the rhino’s fortunes turned sour again is not entirely clear, but it is generally understood to have started in Vietnam sometime in the early 2000s. The most often repeated story is that at some point in the recent past, a Vietnamese government official stricken with cancer stirred some powdered rhino horn into his drink and later professed himself to be wholly cured, transforming rhino horn into a nationwide phenomenon. The official has never been identified, which speaks to the likelihood that the story is not just scientifically far-fetched but also apocryphal, or at least wildly distorted through circulation. Some conservationists believe it was concocted by enterprising poachers looking to drum up demand for their product.
The less tidy but more plausible story is that about ten years ago, Vietnam’s economic growth began to accelerate, creating both a new moneyed elite and an expeditionary entrepreneurial class, some of which settled in Africa. The confluence of these two trends revived the demand for rhino horn while creating new vectors of supply. Soon rhino horn was being credited with relieving practically any ailment, including ones for which it had never been traditionally used. Some physicians in Vietnam even prescribed it to their patients in pill form.
As rhino horn became more expensive, its very expensiveness became a selling point to Vietnam’s newly flush upper classes; websites touted horn-infused wine as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires,” an iconic form of conspicuous consumption. At the same time, demand for rhino horn began to creep upward in China, too, where conservationists believe that dealers are once again carving it into libation cups and jewelry.
It’s legal to hunt rhinos for sport in South Africa, but the expense and relative unpopularity of big-game hunting has traditionally restricted the practice to a small number of Americans and Europeans. In 2004, however, private-game-preserve operators started noticing a curious upswing in rhino hunters from Vietnam—a country with no tradition of sport hunting, where civilians weren’t even allowed to own rifles. By 2009, there were three times as many Vietnamese hunters in South Africa as there were hunters from every other country combined. Reports abounded of Vietnamese tourists who were willing to pay wildly above-average prices but needed to be shown how to fire a gun; after a successful hunt, they would ask for help removing the animal’s horns but express no interest in what happened to the rest of the body. The practice came to be known as pseudohunting; soon visitors from China, Thailand, and Cambodia were doing it, too.
The South African government started limiting the exports of rhino trophies, but that just pushed the problem elsewhere. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South African national parks. In 2008, it was 83. The next year it was 122, then 333, then 448. The poaching was occurring at a level of technical proficiency park rangers had never seen before; locals with Kalashnikovs had given way to professionals with unmarked helicopters, high-powered sniper rifles, and even the occasional crossbow. Some of them used darts loaded with immobilizing drugs available only to veterinary professionals.
Elsewhere, the few surviving rhinos were faring even worse. More than four times as many rhinos were reported poached in Zimbabwe in 2008 as were the year before. The West African subspecies of black rhino, which once ranged from Cameroon to Sudan, was confirmed extinct three years later. In April 2010, wildlife NGO workers surveying Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park came upon the carcass of the last known Vietnamese Javan rhinoceros—the last wild rhino in Vietnam. The animal had a bullet hole in its leg, and its horn had been sawed off.
Hunting a species that is careening toward extinction is not a business with a long horizon. So it was probably inevitable that someone, somewhere, would ask the question: What if it were possible to get ahold of rhino horn without having to hunt the animal at all?
In 2010, a British police detective named Nevin Hunter was working in the western port of Bristol, detailed to the government agency charged with enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The 1973 agreement was intended to limit cross-border trade in endangered-wildlife products and required each of the signatory countries to monitor their own imports and exports for contraband. That summer, an analyst alerted Hunter to a curious trend. Early that year, the office had started receiving an unusual volume of applications for permission to export antique rhinoceros horns. It wasn’t a huge number, maybe 20 in all by later that year, but it was up from the norm of two or three. In nearly every case, the export destination was China or Hong Kong.
The horns themselves had come mostly from provincial auction houses around England—a good place, maybe even the best place, to find cheap African taxidermy. During Britain’s imperial age, adventurers, professional hunters, and repatriating colonists had filled their houses back home with all manner of heads and horns and pelts, plenty of which later fell into the hands of heirs who considered them eyesores. They had floated around the local antiques circuits ever since, as novelties more than anything else. And unlike trophies from rhinos and elephants killed in the less distant past, they were in some cases legal to buy and sell.
It was strange that someone was suddenly taking an interest in these relics; it was stranger that the rise in interest paralleled, almost exactly, the exponential rise in rhino poaching elsewhere in the world. Detective Hunter dispatched investigators to the auction houses to see what was going on. The most striking data point they found came from an August 2010 sale at an auction house in Yorkshire, where three horns of near identical origin—they were all from black rhinos shot in the 1880s—sold for wildly varying prices: £30,000, £57,000, and £61,000, respectively. The only way the horns significantly differed was in size. “The rhino horns were being sold not based on their history or provenance—they were being valued based on their weight,” Hunter, now the head of Britain’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, told me. The implication was clear enough: “People were not buying them as antiques.”
An English auction-house executive told me he had noticed the same thing, beginning around 2009. “There was no doubt,” he said, that the horns “were being smuggled into China—either through Hong Kong, which has pretty lax border controls, or they were being ground up and stowed in people’s luggage. The prices were extraordinary, and they were increasing all the time. I asked one or two [buyers] what they would do with them; they said they carved them. It was a slightly nefarious market.”
As they attended auctions, Hunter and his investigators were surprised to discover that the Chinese customers weren’t the only foreigners present. Standing alongside them, and often chatting with them, were Irish buyers. Hunter began combing the records for names. The same buyers, he realized, were turning up at sales across the country. I asked Hunter recently if any of the suspects who had later come under investigation for the rhino-horn thefts in Europe were on the list of buyers he’d compiled in 2010. “It’d be stupid to say they weren’t,” he replied. “Let’s put it that way.”
Demand for the horns was growing, however, and prices were climbing accordingly. “The Irish were definitely interested in trying to buy them and were always asking after them,” the auction-house executive told me. “But whenever it came to a public auction, they were always outbid.” But there were rhino horns elsewhere that the Chinese buyers hadn’t yet discovered.
On July 26, 2010, a wildlife sculptor and taxidermist named James Marsico picked up the phone at his home in Cody, Wyoming. The caller introduced himself as an Irishman living in Brazil and told Marsico he was in the market for African trophies—especially a rhinoceros. “I have lots of money,” he told Marsico, “and can pay cash.”
Marsico hung up. That afternoon, he went on Taxidermy.net, an online forum he frequented, and wrote up a post describing the call. “Buyer out there to beware of,” the subject line read.
At first the post elicited snickers. “C’mon Jimmy,” one member wrote back. “The guy just isn’t a hunter.” But others found Marsico’s account unsettlingly familiar:
Lots of funny business going on with this. … They talk with you find out what you have, maybe set up an appointment for one of their Partners come see what you got… next thing you get robbed middle of the night.
My wife got the call yesterday. She thought it was me playing a prank on her.
Then a taxidermist from Florida chimed in: “I got this email today, I guess it’s the same guy!” The email had come from someone named John Sullivan, whose spelling and punctuation were highly irregular. Sullivan wrote that he was attempting to arrange an African-themed opening for his hotel in County Kerry, Ireland. “The thing is,” he wrote, “I’m having grate trouble in locating a real rhino head or horn in Ireland.” It had to be a real horn, he emphasized—“not a fiberglass reproduction.”
Sullivan had sent similar emails to many Taxidermy.net members, though most had ignored or deleted them. But one man, an occasional big-game hunter in Colorado, wrote back. He told Sullivan that he could get him imitation horns—good enough to pass as the genuine article.
Sullivan was unimpressed. “It’s the real thing I’m after,” he wrote back; “if anything comes to mind keep me posted.” Then the hunter told Sullivan he had a friend by the name of Curtis Phillips who had something Sullivan might be interested in.
On the afternoon of November 13, 2010, a Jeep pulled up in front of a small yellow-brick house in Commerce City, Colorado, a down-at-the-heels suburb of truck stops and motels northeast of Denver. Two young men got out and rang the doorbell, then barged into the living room without waiting for an answer. Two older men were waiting for them.
“So,” Curtis Phillips said. “You guys have been traveling?”
“Ah, traveling,” one of the visitors, who called himself Mike, said.
“Are you doing any good?”
The house belonged to the big-game hunter, though both house and man had seen better days. The hunter, sitting on a swivel chair by a computer desk, was in obviously failing health, coughing incessantly. The living room looked like it hadn’t seen the business end of a vacuum cleaner in years. A pair of mule deer heads and a small menagerie of African wildlife peered glassily down from the walls.
The visitors settled in on the couch. They were brothers-in-law from Ireland, Mike and the other one, who called himself Richard. Mike was tall and probably in his late thirties; Richard was in his twenties, shorter and a bit doughy. When the four men had met for the first time, in September, Richard had introduced himself as John Sullivan’s cousin. He and Mike had come to talk with Phillips about several rhino horns that one of Phillips’s relatives was trying to get rid of.
“Have you done this before, and got them out of the U.S. without—without getting caught?” Phillips had asked. “So that I can be assured?” The international trade of rhino trophies, after all, was strictly forbidden under U.S. law, except with special permits that Phillips didn’t have.
“If you get it,” Mike said, “we’ll sort out something.”
Richard explained that he and Mike were antiques dealers; it wouldn’t be difficult to stash the horns in a chest of drawers or something like that. “We’ve got furniture going back to England every couple of weeks,” he said, “you know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s none of our business,” Phillips said. “It’s not my business. That’s your business. I just don’t want it to come back on my cousin and me.”
“It will not be coming back on top of you,” Mike said. “Trust me.”
Now, two months later, they were meeting up for the handoff, but Phillips was still nervous. “I promise you there’ll be no problems, Curt,” Richard told him. “Take my word on it—there’ll be no problems.”
“I don’t even know you, Richard,” Phillips said.
“I understand, I understand, I understand,” Richard said.
“I mean, you don’t know me, either.”
“I can promise you that one—there’ll be no problems,” Richard said. “Can I get a look at ’em?”
“Yes, but I—I still am nervous.”
“Don’t worry, Curt,” Richard said.
“I can be nervous with you,” Mike offered. “Find a bottle of whiskey and we’ll have a drink.”
Finally, Phillips pulled out a plastic bag and a FedEx box he had stashed out of view. “Well, here she is,” he said, unveiling a mounted pair of rhino horns and two spare horns. He was true to his word; they were fine specimens, the largest measuring a good 12 inches. Mike looked to Phillips as if he were trying to hide his excitement.
Mike peeled off bills from a wad of euros—“It’s the only world currency, you know,” Richard said—and laid them on the coffee table. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Alright?”
“I’m very nervous,” Phillips said one last time, as Richard and Mike were leaving.
“Understand me—don’t worry,” Richard said.
“I—I don’t know that this’ll be something that I do ever again,” Phillips said. “Because I’m—I have this nightmare that tomorrow morning I’m going to wake up in handcuffs because you guys got caught.”
“No, no,” Mike said. “Geez.”
“Drive safely, guys,” Phillips said, closing the door behind them.
The Irishmen had just climbed into the Jeep when two trucks appeared, pulling behind and in front of them. Four men jumped out and surrounded the vehicle, guns drawn—uniformed officers who knew Curtis Phillips as one Curtis Graves, an undercover agent with the special-operations division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They ordered Richard and Mike to step out of the Jeep.
Michael Hegarty and Richard O’Brien presented a puzzle to Graves. Their passports were stamped with visas for China, South Africa, and Canada, and as he was setting up the sting operation, Graves had found them to be obviously intelligent and calculating in their work—Hegarty had even shorted him €150 in the wad of bills he’d handed him minutes before his arrest. “They knew what they were doing,” Graves told me.
But the next time Graves saw Hegarty and O’Brien, at a federal courthouse in Denver, their demeanor had changed entirely. “They were acting like they were four-year-olds—literally like children,” he said. “They were so scared.” On the way from the county jail to the courthouse, another agent told him, “they were complaining about some shaved-head guys with tattoos they were scared of—they thought they were going to be killed. They were crying, asking, ‘Why are we here?’”
After the big-game hunter—an informant Fish and Wildlife had picked up on an earlier investigation—brokered the first meeting with them in September, Graves had run Hegarty’s and O’Brien’s names through the agency’s database and come up with nothing. When agents in the head office in Arlington, Virginia, made inquiries abroad, however, it emerged that Interpol and Europol, the international police-intelligence agencies, were familiar with them. Officials at both organizations told the American investigators that the men had connections to a loose network of families out of Ireland called the Rathkeale Rovers.
Graves had never heard of the Rovers, but during his undercover negotiations with John Sullivan—a man whom Graves had come to suspect was simply a pseudonymous Richard O’Brien—he had glimpsed what seemed to him to be a sophisticated operation. When they spoke on the phone after the first meeting, Sullivan had assured Graves that he would get a generous finder’s fee—“It pays to be a good middleman,” he said—and confidently allayed his concerns about getting caught. “Believe me,” Sullivan wrote in one email, “WE NEVER LOSES A HORN TO CUSTOMS, we have so many contacts and people paid off now we can bring anything we want out of nearly any country in Europe.”
Initially, Graves had wanted to run the case out, let O’Brien and Hegarty go with the horns in hopes that they would reveal the rest of the network. But the police back in County Limerick quickly disabused him of the notion. “There’s no way,” one of the officers told him. “We can’t even get in there.” The Rathkeale Rovers, the Limerick police explained, were members of an insular culture that had lived on the margins of Irish society for centuries. They were often called Irish gypsies, though they had no relation to the Roma people. In fact, they weren’t genetically or religiously different from mainstream Irish people at all, nor were they classified as a cultural minority there. Their only clearly definable difference was one of lifestyle. They were nomads who spent most of the year on the road, and this fact had given them the one name that truly described them and the one that had stuck. They were called Travellers.
Nobody can say, with even the remotest approximation of certainty, where the Irish Travellers came from. Prior to the 19th century, their history is a capacious vacuum into which anthropologists and historians have pitched various theories, none of which quite fill it. It has been proposed that the Travellers’ ancestors were itinerant tradesmen who roamed Ireland in the Middle Ages, or possibly landless peasants who were forced onto the road by the economic and social dislocations that wracked Ireland over the centuries—people who, after being rejected by the settled world, rejected it right back. An inverse theory suggests that the Travellers are remnants of a nomadic Irish culture that preceded the arrival of the Vikings and the Normans—that it was Ireland that turned its back on the Travellers’ way of life, not vice versa. It’s possible they came from more than one place. A 1952 survey asking a broad cross section of the Irish public who the Travellers were revealed that nobody, really, had the faintest clue. Responses ranged from “the descendents of [Irish] princes and kings” to “the lost children of Israel.”
All that is really beyond dispute is that, by some point in the early 1800s, there they were: families camped along the roadside on the outskirts of town, living out of tents of canvas and hooped willow branches. They spoke their own language, called cant or gammon, a rapid-fire patois of Gaelic and Irish English. They moved regularly, though not necessarily widely, circuiting through a county or two. By the early 20th century, many of them were living out of the barrel-top wagons that remain their iconic representation in the Irish popular imagination, cylindrical carriages stretched with green canvas and drawn by piebald horses, like pioneers in search of no particular frontier.
Many of them were tinsmiths—the origin of the term tinker, by which Travellers were known for many years, though it’s now considered a slur—or else peddlers, horse and donkey traders, or itinerant farmworkers. They were what anthropologists called an atomistic society, organized around close-knit family units that were guarded in their dealings with other Traveller clans and settled Irish. Necessity had made them gifted entrepreneurs, and they had a reputation for being shrewd readers of people, uncanny in their alertness to the threats and opportunities posed by the communities through which they passed.
Agrarians have always looked askance at nomads, and the settled Irish were no exception. They considered the Traveller to be an outcast or, at best, a kind of trickster figure. Many Travellers, perhaps in reaction to this, considered it a point of pride to pull one over on settled people, whether through clever dealing—passing off an old nag as a valuable piece of horseflesh, for instance—or full-blown scams. Still, the two cultures were ultimately symbiotic. Travellers repaired farming tools, sold goods that were otherwise hard to come by far from town, and provided seasonal farm labor. Settled Irish paid the Travellers for these things and tolerated small transgressions like garden poaching, trespassing, and grifting.
It was modernity that undid the relationship. Forces as disparate as urban migration, farm industrialization, and the widespread replacement of metal with plastic unraveled the Travellers’ livelihoods with astonishing speed. A subsistence economy that was barely changed from its traditional form as late as the end of World War II was, within 15 years, essentially gone. Travellers moved en masse to the outskirts of cities in Ireland and England, drawn by welfare stipends and the heaps of scrap metal produced by urban-renewal projects, the dealing of which became their central source of income. Proximity worsened relations with the settled Irish and English. “The tinker is a throwback to the past and has no place in the life of a modern city, where people come to live in a settled, orderly, and mutually helpful society,” a councilor in Birmingham told The Guardian in 1963. “We intend to make conditions so intolerable, so uncomfortable, and so unprofitable for these human scrap vultures that they won’t stop here.”
The Irish government saw the Travellers as a disadvantaged minority best served by full integration into mainstream Irish society, and beginning in the 1960s an array of housing, education, and employment programs were established with the aim of enfolding the Travellers in the country’s welfare state. Many Travellers at the time were genuinely destitute; “There were lots of legitimate issues that would make settled people feel like, ‘Well, if we’re a modern, developed society, it’s unconscionable to have this in our midst,’” Sharon Gmelch, an American anthropologist who conducted the first extensive academic research on the Travellers, in the early 1970s, told me. Still, she said, “Very few people thought of nomadism as a choice.”
The settlement effort succeeded in one sense: By the turn of this century, more than two-thirds of Ireland’s Travellers had come off the road and adopted a sedentary lifestyle, according to the 2002 census. But the same census suggested the more profound ways in which the project had failed. Twenty-two percent of the work-age Traveller population—and nearly 70 percent of the self-identified Traveller workforce—were unemployed. A majority of Travellers over age 15 had stopped their education in primary school. When Gmelch returned to Ireland recently to visit the Travellers she had lived with 40 years earlier, she was stunned to learn that nearly all of them had at least one relative who had committed suicide; the rates within the community, according to the National Traveller Suicide Awareness Project, are now six times the national average.
The clearest evidence that the Travellers had perhaps not wanted to come off the road in the first place was the fact that many of the most successful among them hadn’t come off the road at all. They belonged to an emerging class of Traveller traders who had reapplied their entrepreneurial skills to antiques dealing, import-export businesses, or building contracting. They had swapped their horses and wagons for RV trailers and transit vans and moved between roadside encampments and trailer parks in Ireland and England, and occasionally continental Europe and the United States. In many ways, they remained fiercely traditional; they often married as teenagers, were deeply conservative about premarital sex and gender roles, and still organized their society by family units. But some Traveller communities—among which there is enormous cultural variance—had also developed a taste for the most jewel-encrusted forms of acquisitiveness: bechromed luxury cars, blowout wedding ceremonies and First Communion celebrations, chunky Rolexes for the boys and spray tans and sequined halter tops for the girls.
This aspect of modern Traveller life particularly fascinated the Irish and English. In 2010, when Britain’s Channel 4 began airing Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—a reality TV series about Traveller and Roma weddings that later jumped to the TLC network in the United States—it was the highest-rated unscripted program in the network’s history. Even beyond the title, the show was controversial, often gleefully so; when it arrived in the U.S., The New Republic called it “voyeuristic, stereotypical, judgmental, and shallow,” which was not that far off from TLC’s own tagline (“outrageous and unbelievable”). But the ratings also reflected the genuinely captivating dissonance of the show’s subjects. Settled Irish, trying to explain Travellers to a visiting American, will often reach for the Amish as a point of comparison, which is not terribly accurate, but still: Imagine a strap-bearded Amish youth pulling into Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Bentley Continental and that gets you part of the way there.
Not all these Travellers were as wealthy as they made themselves appear, of course—but at least one group of them was. They were known among other Traveller clans, in a manner that conveyed both disparagement and envy, as the Gucci Travellers, and they hailed from the town of Rathkeale.
The first Rathkeale Travellers to edge into prosperity seem to have been horse dealers; others sold carpets in England. By the 1970s, even Travellers on the other side of the country—accustomed to looking down on the Travellers from Ireland’s threadbare west, whom they called “roughs”—had heard about the Rathkealers’ houses. At first the properties were mostly confined to a single street, called Roche’s Road, which ran uphill away from Main Street along the eastern boundary of the town center. By the 1990s, Travellers had bought up several whole neighborhoods, which were immediately identifiable to anyone passing through the village.
There were remodeled terraced houses and new American-style McMansions, built in the mock-colonial and hacienda styles, a few of them palatial by the standards of small-town Ireland. They were meticulously well kept, most of them, with fresh paint and design flourishes that called to mind a kind of suburban fortification: granite surrounds on the windows and stone cladding where a yard might otherwise have been, all of it enclosed by brick walls and wrought-iron gates. The owners of these properties did not really occupy them—most of the year there were metal shutters pulled down over the windows. For the 5,000 or so Travellers who identified as being from the Rathkeale clans, the town was a spiritual home. They spent all but a couple of months a year elsewhere and returned to bury their dead, marry, christen their children, and celebrate major holidays.
When American investigators first started trying to make sense of the Rathkeale Travellers they had arrested in Colorado, the most comprehensive portrait available of the group they had to go on was in a book called The Outsiders, published by a true-crime imprint in Dublin several years earlier. The author was an investigative reporter named Eamon Dillon.
I met Dillon recently at a pub in Dublin near the offices of the Sunday World newspaper, where he has worked as a reporter and editor for 13 years. Dillon is 46 years old, with a salt-and-pepper goatee; when I met him he was dressed in a pinstripe suit and carried himself with the slight world-weariness of a veteran crime reporter. Dillon had come to the Rathkeale Traveller beat by happenstance shortly after joining the World, when his editor had dispatched him to write a feature on the ten wealthiest Travellers in Ireland. Dillon had gone to Rathkeale the previous spring to cover a rare murder in the town—a young Traveller named Paddy “Crank” Sheridan had stabbed his brother-in-law, David “Tunny” Sheridan, in the heart with a screwdriver after a drunken argument. Reporting on the incident, Dillon had made some contacts in Rathkeale, and he called one of them to ask whether anyone he knew there might qualify as one of Ireland’s richest Travellers. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got some guys here,’” Dillon told me. “And he started telling me stories.”
None of the prominent Rathkeale Travellers would speak to Dillon; they had almost never spoken to any reporter. But as Dillon assembled a picture of the community, he came to believe that there were perhaps 20 Rathkeale Travellers who constituted a kind of elite—family patriarchs, often, or their sons—who were collectively worth somewhere between $275 million and $690 million. The ease with which they operated in dozens of countries, and their relentless work ethic, fascinated Dillon. “These guys could be sitting in a bar, having a conversation like this,” he told me, “when a guy walks in and says, ‘There’s something going on in Munich. We’ve got to go now.’ Or it could be Prague or Krakow. And if your ten-year-old son is with you, he comes, too.”
The exemplar of the Rathkeale Traveller community’s business acumen, Dillon argued in The Outsiders, was a man named Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, then in his late forties, “probably the ultimate Traveller entrepreneur.” In Rathkeale, Dillon had heard O’Brien called the King of the Travellers—an honorific sometimes given to the most influential member of a Traveller community (though the title is often suspected of being a fiction concocted by Travellers for the benefit of settled people to enhance their mystique). Once a successful antiques dealer, O’Brien had diversified in the 1990s into aluminum manufacturing, buying a gutter factory in County Cork. As the Irish housing boom took off, O’Brien sold the factory and began importing home furnishings from Asia. He would later claim to be the largest importer of cast-iron fireplaces in Ireland.
The Irish police believed that other segments of the Rathkeale Travellers’ income were less legitimate. A sizable share of it—reported by Dillon to be as much as $140 million a year—was thought to come from an improbable-sounding scam known as tarmacking, which some Travellers have practiced in various permutations for several decades. Practitioners roam Europe and occasionally elsewhere in small work crews, usually a couple of Traveller supervisors and a team of low-paid non-Traveller workers. In a typical job, a well-dressed young man will knock on a homeowner’s door and introduce himself as a member of a road crew hired to resurface a stretch of nearby highway. The crew, he says, has some asphalt left over from the work that’s going to be thrown away; would the homeowner like to have their driveway resurfaced for a few thousand euros?
If the homeowner agrees, the crew will quickly do the job, collect the money, and leave. The scam is only revealed the next time it rains, when what appeared to be asphalt shows itself to in fact be a mixture of used engine oil and gravel, which breaks apart and runs off in a greasy slick when exposed to water. By that time the crew is miles away, in the next county, or country.
The effectiveness of the tarmac ruse lies in its relative modesty. Tarmackers do occasionally get caught. (In the summer of 2009, a crew from Rathkeale was apprehended in Italy after attempting to con the nuns of the Immaculate Missionary Sisters convent near Milan; the nuns smelled a rat and notified the local police, who dispatched an officer disguised as a priest to catch the crew in the act.) But it’s the kind of small-bore scam that most cops would rather not have to investigate, especially when even proving that it was a scam at all is tricky. “Throw in the odd genuine job,” an agent from Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), the country’s investigative law-enforcement agency, told me, “and then all of a sudden all there is is bad workmanship. It’s not a crime; it’s a civil action.”
Other Rathkeale Travellers were suspected of dealing in counterfeit merchandise imported from China. “They’re sourcing container loads of fake iPhones and iPads, cheap Chinese leather suites of furniture that don’t conform to EU safety standards,” said the CAB agent—one of two I met in Dublin who had spent years monitoring the Rathkeale Travellers’ criminal dealings, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. Most infamous were the off-brand diesel generators, which quickly broke down or otherwise malfunctioned, sometimes dangerously. In June 2009, a handful of Travellers from Rathkeale materialized in Australia and sold over $400,000 worth of them before they were arrested in Sydney and the remainder of their stock seized. The salesmen themselves made it back to Ireland without consequence.
When the authorities did attempt to catch the Rathkealers, even the ordinarily simple matter of identifying them proved enormously difficult. Like other Travellers, the Rathkeale clans share a handful of surnames and first names. Investigators would report having questioned a Danny O’Brien from Rathkeale, only to discover that there were a dozen Danny O’Briens there, all with birthdays within a year or two of each other. Distinguishing one from another required knowing the nicknames attached to each family—being able to tell a “Bishop” O’Brien, for instance, from a “Turkey” O’Brien. The Rathkealers routinely skipped town before court appearances, even for minor infractions.
On only one occasion had any of them been convicted of a serious crime. In May 2004, four Rathkeale Travellers, all young men, were caught operating a tobacco-smuggling operation out of a roadside travel plaza in West Flanders, Belgium, near the French border. Thanks to wildly varying tax regimes, tobacco products in Belgium cost as little as one-fifth what they do in Britain; the Rathkealers, according to the Belgian Federal Police, had bribed truck drivers to help them move $2.8 million worth of rolling tobacco through France and across the English Channel. Significantly, the Belgians tried and convicted the men on organized-crime grounds. “To get the convictions,” Dillon, who covered the trial in Bruges, told me, “they had to show that they were a hierarchy, that they were working in a joint enterprise and had been doing it for more than a year. And the Belgian authorities were able to prove all this.”
One of the members of the group was a 19-year-old named Richard O’Brien—the same Richard O’Brien whom Curtis Graves would arrest six years later in Commerce City. As he would in Colorado, O’Brien presented himself to the court in Belgium as a naïf who had blundered into a criminal world that baffled and frightened him. He claimed he knew nothing about the smuggling, swearing he had simply been vacationing in Belgium and crossed paths with the other Rathkeale Travellers at a hotel, and he begged to be allowed to return to Ireland to finish his schooling. The judge was unmoved and gave each of the defendants nine months in prison. Before the end of the trial, O’Brien told his lawyer, “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this.”
The more he learned about the Rathkeale Rovers, the more Curtis Graves was sure the horn-hunting expedition he had infiltrated marked the leading edge of an illicit empire, and he badly wanted to prove it. But as far as evidence of an organized operation went, he told me, “We had nothing but news articles.” Hegarty and O’Brien ultimately pleaded guilty to narrower smuggling charges and were sentenced to six months in prison and six months of house arrest. At a hearing shortly after their arrest, Linda McMahan, the assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case, tried to convince the judge to take into account the organized nature of the smuggling operation. “One of them has a prior conviction similar to the conviction in this case: conspiracy to smuggle,” she told the judge. “They are part of an itinerant group out of—”
“Stop,” the judge said, cutting her off. “They aren’t.” At the end of the day, all the prosecutors had were two men buying some rhino horns. “The Rathkeale Rovers,” he said, turning over the odd name. “Sounds like a musical group playing at the pub.”
By the time the case was settled, Fish and Wildlife agents had discovered a third Rathkeale Rover hunting rhino horns on American soil. In September, Michael Slattery, Richard O’Brien’s 24-year-old cousin, had flown to Houston, Texas, rented an SUV, and driven to Austin, where he and two partners tried to buy a black rhino head from a taxidermy auction house. The dealer turned down Slattery’s offer; by law, the trophy could only be sold to an in-state resident. The next day, Slattery picked up a homeless man with a Texas driver’s license, drove him to the auction house, and sent him inside with $18,000 in $100 bills to buy it for him.
Two months later, Slattery walked into the Rose House, an English-style tearoom at a shopping center in Flushing, Queens, to meet a Chinese buyer. By now, Slattery was selling not only the horns he’d stripped off the head from Texas, but also another pair he’d acquired. The buyer handed him three cashier’s checks totaling $50,000. By the time Fish and Wildlife agents got wind of what had happened, just before Christmas, Slattery was already back in Ireland.
Four days after Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty were arrested in Colorado, twenty-odd police officials from across Europe filed into a meeting room at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague. The meeting had been called by John Reid, an Irish detective who was then serving as the Europol liaison for the Garda Síochána, or Gardaí, Ireland’s national police force. It was Reid’s job to field queries from other countries’ law-enforcement agencies about Irish nationals’ activities abroad. By the end of the summer of 2010, it was probably easier to list the Western European countries whose police hadn’t asked Reid to explain the mercurial Irishmen they’d come across peddling worthless knockoff generators and driveways that washed away when it rained, whose passports often turned up addresses in a small town in County Limerick.
The requests were so similar, Reid told me, that by September, “I decided the best thing to do was inform these other agencies that we were actually dealing with the same people.” At The Hague, the investigators unburdened themselves one by one. “The question,” Reid said, “was, what was this thing? Was it going to get worse?”
It was. The first reports of the Rathkealers’ dabbling in rhino-horn smuggling had surfaced the previous January, when two Rathkeale Travellers named Jeremiah and Michael O’Brien—twentysomething brothers from the “Bishop” O’Brien family—were stopped by customs officials at Ireland’s Shannon Airport on their way back from Portugal with eight rhino horns in their luggage. CAB had been notified, but nobody there knew what to make of the incident at the time. “At first,” one CAB agent told me, “we were going, ‘What’s it got to do with us? What in the name of God are Travellers doing with rhino horns?’”
But as the intelligence began to trickle in—about the solicitations that big-game hunters and taxidermists had receivied, about the Rathkeale Rovers’ appearances at auction houses in England—Reid started to notice a pattern. Before taking the job in The Hague, he had spent 20 years as a police detective in Ireland, and he was familiar with the Rathkeale Rovers. “They were sort of—I won’t say famous,” he told me. “But they were well known as a particular group of Travellers who were—business orientated, shall we say?”
The arrest of O’Brien and Hegarty in Colorado had caught his attention immediately, for he recognized the young men’s names: They were the son and son-in-law, respectively, of Richard “Kerry” O’Brien—the man he knew as the King of the Rathkeale Travellers. Although the elder O’Brien had never been convicted of a crime—nor, to the knowledge of any Irish investigator I spoke to, charged with one—Reid knew that he had extensive business dealings in China.
Reid was still trying to make sense of it all a month and a half later, when zookeepers at the All Weather Zoo in Münster, Germany, making their morning rounds on New Year’s Day, discovered a broken window in a small building on the grounds. Inside, the glass door had been unscrewed from a display case housing an educational exhibit of illegal wildlife products. Missing were a monkey skin, a leopard pelt, half a dozen pieces of elephant ivory, and three pieces of rhinoceros horn.
At 8:15 p.m. on February 21, 2011, less than two months after the All Weather Zoo break-in, a car crashed through the reinforced-glass doors of an auction-house showroom half a mile outside the village of Stansted Mountfitchet, north of London. When the police arrived ten minutes later, the vehicle was gone. So was the moth-eaten head of a black rhino that had been mounted on the wall.
The All Weather Zoo theft might have been a random incident, but Guy Schooling, the managing director of Sworders Auctioneers, knew the smash-and-grab at his showroom was not. Like others in the antiques business, he had kept a close eye on the price of rhino horns. “I made quite a lot of money selling those horns,” he told me. “I didn’t enjoy it, but we were satisfying a demand in China”—and better to sell the remains of animals that expired a century ago, he figured, than worsen the poaching epidemic. The European Community had recently restricted the export of antique horns, and Sworders was planning on auctioning off eight of them, as well as the mounted head, at its showroom on February 22, in one final sale before the new regulations went into effect.
After an attempted break-in two weeks before the scheduled sale, the auction house had moved the horns into a strong room for safekeeping but left the head where it was. “It was bolted to the wall; we thought it was safe,” Schooling told me. But the thieves, after ramming open the front door, levered the trophy loose from its mount, then ran with it out the back door across an open field. The head, stripped of its horns, was found a few days later in a roadside ditch 30 miles away. Police reviewed the security-camera footage, but the thieves had worn caps with the brims pulled down low, obscuring their faces.
On March 5, a horn was reported stolen from the Museum of Natural History in Rouen, France. A month later, the burglars struck the University of Coimbra; the Irish mobile-phone number the Portuguese police pulled from the cell-tower traffic belonged to the wife of a prominent Rover. Around 2 a.m. on the morning of May 27, thieves broke into the Haslemere Educational Museum in southeast England and made off with the head of a rhino shot in East Africa in the early 1900s by a British army lieutenant. Museum staff were paying attention now, aware that their collections were being pillaged systematically. “It was clearly criminals,” Paolo Viscardi, the Horniman Museum curator, told me, “who wouldn’t necessarily know what they were looking for if they hadn’t been told.” Curators began trading stories of advance teams casing their institutions: “Literally people calling and asking, ‘Do you have rhino horns?’” Viscardi said. “Or hanging around outside, looking shifty, asking people questions.”
The thefts were also growing more brazen. On the morning of June 11, two Rathkeale Travellers—Michael Kealy and Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, who had been imprisoned with Richard O’Brien Jr. in Belgium for tobacco smuggling—jumped an antiques dealer in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Nottinghamshire, England, and stole a rhino horn the man had brought to sell them. As they started the car, the dealer managed to climb halfway into an open window. Kealy and O’Brien drove off, running a string of red lights with the man’s legs still sticking out of the vehicle, eventually shaking him loose and badly injuring him in the fall. Kealy was arrested a week later, attempting to board a ferry to France. O’Brien was caught in Cambridgeshire the following December but jumped bail several months later and fled the country.
Five days after the Nottinghamshire incident, staff at an aquarium and museum in the Belgian city of Liège were making their rounds of the building’s top-floor zoology wing at closing time when they came upon a man wrestling a mounted rhino head off the wall. The thief attacked them with pepper spray and fled the building with the trophy, wrenching loose the horns and hurling the rest of the head into an artificial pond before getting into a car with Dutch license plates that was waiting outside. When the thief—a 34-year-old Polish national residing in the Netherlands—was caught at a police roadblock, he told investigators he had been instructed to leave the horn at the foot of a statue in the Dutch city of Helmond, where he would be paid €3,000.
The London-based Natural Sciences Collections Association was now advising its members that rhino horns “should be taken off display and put in a secure location.” In Italy, three horns had been stolen from the Hall of Skeletons at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, the oldest public museum in Europe. In Germany, thieves lifted a horn from the Natural History Museum in Bamberg, sawed another off a trophy mount at a hunting museum in Gifhorn, and absconded with the entire upper jaw of a rhino from the Hamburg Zoological Museum.
In early July, horn thieves hit the natural-history museum in Brussels, down the street from the European Parliament. Next was Blois, France, where thieves dragged a 200-pound rhino mount out of a natural-history museum and escaped in a van. Two and a half weeks later, in the early hours of a Thursday morning in late July, police in England’s Suffolk County were notified that someone tripped the alarm on the back door of the Ipswich Museum—the home of a locally beloved stuffed Indian rhino named Rosie. When they arrived five minutes later, the museum was deserted, and all that remained on Rosie’s snout was a bare patch of plaster and burlap.
Europol decided that it was time to go public with what it knew. On July 7, 2011, the agency issued a bulletin identifying the likely culprits in the rhino-horn thefts as “a mobile Organised Crime Group involving persons of Irish and ethnically Irish origin.” In fact, John Reid thought he knew more than that.
Since the previous November, Reid and other countries’ police liaisons in The Hague had continued meeting periodically and sharing whatever bits of information about the Rathkeale Rovers passed across their respective desks—an arrangement they had dubbed Operation Oakleaf. Even Reid, who thought he knew the Rathkeale network as well as anyone, was surprised by how far they’d roamed in pursuit of rhino horns, tarmacking work, and off-brand merchandise. “We realized they’d been to South America, South Africa, China, probably Russia,” he told me. “The whole breadth of Europe—Cypress even. These were things I certainly wasn’t aware of, and I don’t think too many Gardaí were, either.”
To Reid, who has a master’s degree in international business studies, the Rathkeale Rovers were a remarkable case study in entrepreneurship, legal or otherwise—and he thought he was finally beginning to understand them. “At one point in time,” he told me, “it seemed to us like every traveling Rathkeale Rover was looking for a rhino horn.” As the intelligence piled up, however, he had begun drawing a smaller circle. The thefts, he believed, were the work of perhaps half a dozen Rathkeale Traveller families.
The Rathkeale clans, like other traditional Traveller groups, were thought to be patriarchal hierarchies, but only in the loosest sense. The head of each was generally a man in middle age who had attained the position by virtue of his business prowess. Beneath these figures, authority diffused rapidly through a welter of sons and sons-in-law and nephews. The individuals Reid considered worth pursuing—the ones “that were highly active, that you’d be most interested in”—numbered perhaps 30 in all. But by Reid’s estimation, at any given time the family organizations could encompass ten, maybe even twenty times that many people who were available to play a role, even a tiny one, in the operation. “It became a really live network,” he told me. “At any point in time, anyone in that chain could be doing something, whether it was casing a place to see if there was a rhino horn there or shipping money for them.”
Early in Operation Oakleaf, Reid had been puzzled by the rhino-horn thieves’ eerie omniscience. They weren’t just targeting well-known museums and auction houses, but also estates in secluded corners of France, Belgium, and Germany. “These thefts in these small towns in the middle of France—how did they know there was a rhino horn there?” he said. It was only after consulting with a French police investigator who’d spent months tracking the Rathkeale tarmacking crews that he understood. Years of chatting up the owners of large estates across the continent had left the Rathkeale Rovers with a detailed knowledge of the topography of European wealth—which châteaus had hunting rooms, which castles had been passed down through families with colonial adventurers in their past.
The tarmacking experience explained another aspect of the rhino-horn thefts. Museum staff often reported visitors with Irish accents making inquiries about rhino horns weeks before the thefts occurred. But aside from Michael Kealy and Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, the few thieves who had been caught were never Rathkeale Travellers; they were usually immigrants from Eastern Europe, Travellers from poorer clans, or unfortunates from the margins of society, homeless or ex-convicts with few work prospects. In this regard, they almost exactly matched the profiles that the French investigator had assembled of the work crews the Rathkealers hired for the tarmacking business. “We knew [the Rathkeale Rovers] are involved in this rhino-horn theft, but how are all these foreign nationals involved in it?” Reid told me. “It was because of the tarmacking.”
The perpetrators who had been caught were usually scrupulous in not divulging the names of their employers—but not always. On August 26, 2011, an Austrian aristocrat reported that two rhino horns had been stolen from his family’s castle in the Danube Valley wine country. The local police caught the thieves in January; the three men were, as in past incidents, Polish nationals. But this time at least one of them—a 30-year-old named Damian Lekki—was willing to reveal whom he worked for. His break-ins, he later told prosecutors in the regional court, had been ordered by an Irishman who called himself John Ross.
According to documents later filed by the Austrian prosecutors, Lekki “was able to identify him unambiguously [in] a photo.” The man he picked out was a Rathkeale Traveller named John “Ross” Quilligan. Austria issued a European arrest warrant calling for Quilligan’s extradition from Ireland. “John Quilligan,” according to the warrant, “is strongly suspected of being a member of an Irish criminal group specialized in theft of rhinoceros horns.”
Quilligan fought the extradition for months, all the way to the Irish High Court, which ruled definitively against him in August 2013. But I could find no mention of the case since then in the Austrian or Irish press, and the local prosecutors in Austria refused to comment on it. When I mentioned the case to one of the CAB agents I interviewed, however, he laughed darkly. By the time Quilligan had been delivered to Austria, he explained, the thieves had withdrawn their statements. “He was sent to Austria on a Monday,” the agent said. “And he was back in Rathkeale on Thursday.”
But investigators were catching more promising breaks elsewhere. In Portugal, the Judicial Police had been scouring local antiques dealerships looking for the Coimbra burglars. Although the thieves themselves remained elusive, the search had turned up another person of interest: an antiques dealer—an Australian national living in China—who was suspected of serving as a go-between for some of the Rovers and buyers in China. The police finally caught up with him at the Lisbon airport in September 2011, boarding a flight to Paris with his son; in his luggage were six rhino horns. According to the Portuguese attorney general’s office, the case remains under investigation.
The Rovers themselves, however, mostly remained frustratingly out of reach. Retracing Michael Slattery’s footsteps in the United States, Fish and Wildlife investigators had begun to grasp the sophistication of the people they were dealing with. “They generally travel with the clothes on their backs and little in their suitcases,” Andy Cortez, the special agent detailed to the investigation, told me. “They travel with very little money—the money’s wired when they arrive. They change cars, switch out rental cars. We’ve seen them use counter-surveillance-type tactics: pulling over, making U-turns, trying to see if anyone’s following them.”
When they were entering the country, the Rathkeale Rovers would book a flight, then arrive at the airport the day before and pay in cash for a ticket on an earlier one. They worked exhausting hours, “from dawn until maybe ten o’clock at night—constantly moving, constantly on the phone,” Cortez said. Looking through the travel records for one Rover who had recently left the United States, Cortez saw that the man had hopscotched across seven countries in 13 days before landing back in Ireland. They used multiple identities, passports, email addresses, and mobile phones. Although police had been furiously compiling family trees and dossiers on prominent Rovers, sorting out one Danny O’Brien from another remained a vexing business. “A lot of times,” Cortez said, “the only way you could verify who they were was by a photograph.”
There was one respect, however, in which the Rovers’ activities were predictable. Every year, in early December, they returned to the town they called their spiritual home.
Everyone I spoke to about the Rathkeale Rovers told me that if I wanted to understand the group, I had to visit Rathkeale in December. Some local Travellers returned to town for Easter and St. Patrick’s Day, but that was nothing compared with the Christmas season, when nearly all of them did, filling every vacant lot with trailers and clogging the narrow streets with luxury cars. It was the only time of year when many local Traveller families crossed paths, and the atmosphere was accordingly charged. Teenage boys litigated family feuds with fists and blunt instruments in the middle of Main Street while girls, caked in makeup and clad in day-glo miniskirts, paraded in groups up and down Roche’s Road trying to attract suitors. St. Mary’s—the severe stone church on the hill overlooking town—hosted back-to-back weddings, and Mann’s Hotel, the reception hall on Main Street, was booked solid with engagement parties, what the Travellers called “pop the questions.” Big Fat Gypsy Weddings had dedicated an entire Christmas special to the spectacle.
December is not the time of year that a sane person visits western Ireland. The sun rises in the late morning and stays aloft only until midafternoon, as if it doesn’t really see the point. The sky is more or less permanently the shade of oatmeal. When I drove into Rathkeale from Limerick City last December, a week before Christmas, it was raining. It was raining every day after that, too. The landscape—in the summer the near bioluminescent green that foreigners think of when they think of Ireland—looks desaturated, as if the colors have been stored away until the weather improves.
Just before dusk on my first afternoon in Rathkeale, I was walking up Main Street, admiring the blackened ruin of a 13th-century Augustinian abbey, when I heard the thrum of a performance engine. A silver Mercedes E350 shot up a side street past the abbey, rounding the corner onto Main in a virtuosic, tire-smoking drift. As the car flew past, I caught the sound of teenage-male whooping. Up the street were a group of girls who looked maybe 11 years old, decked out in fake-fur-trimmed coats, bleached and distressed skinny jeans, and hairspray-devouring updos. They were tottering down the sidewalk on glittery platform wedges, toward a row of well-kept terraced houses festooned with Christmas lights, with trailers and high-end SUVs out front.
The Travellers had begun to arrive a week or so before I did. Most of the men, I learned, would be coming later that week, after their wives and children. This explained why, as the sun went down, Rathkeale’s diminutive downtown took on a Neverland quality, the sidewalks filling with Traveller children embarking on a night on the town. Everyone was fanatically well groomed and seemed older than they surely were; even the little boys carried themselves with the confident swagger of grown men.
“They’ve gone from horse and trap to Porsche—Beyoncé stuff,” Seamus Hogan said. It was later that night, just before midnight, and Hogan, a boyish-looking 44-year-old DJ at the local radio station, was slumped in a high-backed leather armchair in front of the fireplace in the lobby of my hotel. There was a Christmas party going on in the adjoining bar, and guests, most of them in late middle age, drifted in and out of a banquet room down the hall, where a live band was belting out Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers covers. “I remember,” Hogan said, “when they had sweet feck-all.”
Hogan had lived in Rathkeale all his life; I’d called him on the recommendation of a couple of Irish reporters, who relied on him for his encyclopedic knowledge of local affairs. “Roche’s Road,” he went on, “is where Rathkeale came from. By maybe thirty-odd years ago, one house was sold to a Traveller. Then”—here he turned portentous—“it was a domino effect.” He ticked off the other neighborhoods on his fingers: “Next was Ballywilliam. After that was Abbeylands, then Boherboui, then St. Mary’s Terrace, then Abbey Court. They now own 95 percent of the homes in all of these estates.”
At that moment, a man in his sixties dressed in a windbreaker, bald with piercing blue eyes and bearing a passing resemblance to Anthony Hopkins, walked out of the hotel bar with a pint of Carlsberg. “Paddy!” Hogan called out. “What was the first house the Travellers bought on Roche’s Road?”
“It was Mrs. Lee’s home,” the man said, without hesitation. “Number 1 on Roche’s Road. Nobody could afford it—but the Travellers could.” Joining us by the fire, the man introduced himself as Paddy Collins. “They talk about Rathkeale as the spiritual home of the Travellers,” he said. “That’s bullshit. There were originally just six Traveller families. A lot of the people moving into Rathkeale now are just criminals—they hide behind the Traveller identity.”
Collins was a musician who played Irish folk music at the pubs in Adare, a town just up the road that was popular with foreign tourists. In Rathkeale, too, he said, “we try to make it nice for people to come visit. And then we have this,” he spat, gesturing sweepingly out toward Main Street.
“But it’s too far along now,” Hogan said ruefully.
“’Tis,” Collins said.
I kept trying to prod the conversation back toward the powerful Rathkeale Rovers I had come to town to better understand, the men who were thought to be behind the rhino-horn thefts. But Hogan and Collins seemed less interested in them than in the scene unfolding up Main Street: the traffic jams of Porsche Cayennes and Audi A8s, the spray-tanned midriffs, the street brawls. “Wednesday night, that was the last straw,” Hogan said. “They erected a pop-the-question marquee in the middle of the street, with a bunch of cones around it! And the Gardaí, what do they do? They do nothing!”
These were the kind of nuisance complaints that hovered around the edges of something much larger and more unspeakable: the overturning of a longstanding social order and the recalibration of the balance of power between two cultures that had lived uneasily alongside each other for centuries. It didn’t take much walking around Rathkeale to understand that the town had seen better days. The local meatpacking and dairy industries were mostly gone now, casualties of economic realignments and industry consolidations. Of late the biggest employer in town was a factory that made costume jewelry. Its owner announced plans to shut it down in September.
The Rathkeale Travellers’ economic ascent had coincided almost exactly with their settled neighbors’ decline—and the fact that Travellers were, to many Irish, synonymous with poverty made the reversal all the more dizzying. By some estimates, Travellers now own 80 percent of the property in Rathkeale. “They pretty much dominate the place,” Niall Collins, County Limerick’s representative in the lower house of the Irish Parliament, told me. “I suppose the local community are being—I don’t want to use any inflammatory language, but they’re kind of being squeezed out.” It was hard to tell whether the settled locals in Rathkeale were more perturbed by the idea that the Traveller elites might have gotten wealthy off the spoils of international crime, or simply by the fact that they had gotten wealthy at all. The rolling bacchanal out in the street was the sound of the Travellers finding a footing in the world, while everyone else in Rathkeale felt theirs slipping away.
Hogan and Collins weren’t wrong about the crime, though. In 2012, there were more than three times as many criminal incidents reported in Rathkeale as there were in neighboring Adare, which has 1,000 more residents. I asked the local police sergeant, Niall Flood, what percentage of the local crime was committed by Travellers. “At Christmas?” he said. “Ninety-five percent of it.” The Gardaí had adopted a special patrolling plan for December. Rathkeale was hardly a police state—there were only eight officers in town—but the Gardaí vans rolling slowly past crowds of young Travellers on Roche’s Road did suggest an odd sort of occupation; there were even checkpoints on the outskirts of town. “I won’t use the words ‘zero tolerance,’ but it’s as close to that as you’ll get,” David Sheahan, the police superintendent at the Gardaí’s county headquarters in Limerick City, told me. “They have to know that things are the way they are.”
Flood agreed to let me ride along on an evening patrol later that week, and on Friday night I met up with Patrick O’Rourke, one of the younger officers on the force. As O’Rourke steered his van down Main Street, I asked him about an ongoing feud between two Traveller families I’d heard about. “Oh yeah,” he said—that one had been going on for years. “The youngsters are fighting about something that started before they were born. Sometimes they’ll go at it with slash hooks and baseball bats.”
Still, most of the crimes in town were, in truth, pretty unspectacular. In the 12 years since Paddy Sheridan stabbed David Sheridan, there hadn’t been a single murder in Rathkeale. A few years back, in the midst of a feud, someone threw a pipe bomb through a window, but no one was injured.
None of the police I met in Rathkeale were from the area, and all of them spoke of the local situation with a sort of anthropological detachment. Rathkeale was, for them, a desirable post as far as rural Ireland was concerned; it was certainly an interesting one. Since the Rathkeale Rovers had come under international scrutiny, CAB agents and investigators from other countries had often relied on the local beat cops for intelligence on figures of interest and help comprehending the family networks and the histories of the Rathkealers they were tracking abroad.
Rolling up Main Street, O’Rourke detailed the genealogical landscape we were driving through. “These here are the Sheridans,” he said, pointing at the terraced houses along the street in the neighborhood of Boherboui. “And the Kealys, up here,” he said as we pulled up Roche’s Road, past a large brick house with stone lions guarding the front door. He looped back up Main Street and into the Abbeylands estate, where the “Bishop” O’Briens lived. Several expensive-looking cars were parked at the end of the street; as he turned the van around, O’Rourke looked at them a bit longingly. “BMW X6—nice machine.”
The streets seemed uncharacteristically empty that night, and as we drove through Ballywilliam, I remarked that for all the stories I’d heard, things seemed pretty quiet. “The thing with this place,” O’Rourke said, “is it’s a powder keg, like. And if it goes off, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. By the time the reserves come in from Limerick City, everything would’ve happened already.”
The longer I spent in Rathkeale, the more I wanted to know how things looked from the other side of the vast cultural crevasse that ran through the middle of town. But while the Travellers I met there were all unfailingly cordial and polite, the moment I identified myself as a reporter their friendliness stiffened, almost imperceptibly, into a mask. I didn’t particularly blame them. As the tales of rhino-horn thefts, counterfeit generators, and tarmacking scams had multiplied, the local Traveller community had been increasingly besieged by camera crews. The previous summer, Ireland’s Channel 5 had aired a series of comically dire reports in which Paul Connolly, a crusading investigative reporter, attempted to find evidence of a criminal underworld among Rathkeale’s Travellers. The first installment opened with Connolly standing amid the ruins of the abbey on Main Street, intoning gravely about “the long, dark shadows over a town the Travellers plan to one day take over completely.”
One night I walked up to the Black Lion, one of the town’s two Traveller-owned pubs, which the elites were known to frequent, and introduced myself as a reporter to an older woman who was watching the door. She looked me over and laughed with genial incredulity, as if I had just suggested going for a quick dip in the local river. “You picked a bad time,” a man standing next to her said. “There’s a big Travellers do here tonight.” The doorway was blocked by a group of men, a few of them eyeing me warily.
The next day, at the local supermarket, I introduced myself to a man who, by his high-and-tight haircut, I guessed to be a Traveller. He grinned. “I’m from Liverpool, mate,” he said, not bothering to conceal his local accent. “Just passing through.”
On the morning of February 20, 2012, a group of curators strolled through the natural-history gallery of the Norwich Castle Museum, in the east England county of Norfolk. A few of them worked at the museum; the rest were visiting from a similar institution in Cambridge, just down the road. As they passed the museum’s lone rhino head—housed in a large Edwardian mahogany-and-glass display case as part of an exhibit of colonial taxidermy called Out of Africa—the two groups compared notes. The Cambridge museum lately had been getting the kind of suspicious phone calls inquiring about rhino horns that typically preceded the thefts; the Norwich curators were considering fitting their rhino mount with a replica horn.
The Norwich museum had certain advantages, security-wise. It was a fortress, literally, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century while he was in the midst of subduing East Anglia, 70 feet tall with fortifications of limestone and flint. The castle withstood a revolt and a Flemish invasion before it was converted into a prison in 1220, and remained as such until the late 19th century, when the city of Norwich turned it into a museum. The museum’s natural-history wing—one of several chambers branching off of a high-ceilinged central rotunda—would have been nearly impossible to get at after hours without breaking down the heavy front door.
Still, the spate of robberies had left the museum’s curators as worried as everyone else in their profession. That December, thieves had tear-gassed employees at the Museum of Hunting and Nature, a small taxidermy gallery occupying a pair of mansions in Paris, and made off with a South African horn specimen—the 14th attempted theft in France alone since the beginning of 2011. Just two days before the Cambridge curators’ visit to Norwich, a young English couple had distracted the security guard at the town museum in Offenburg, Germany, while two men made their way to a second-floor gallery, where a rhino head was mounted high on the wall. One of the men pulled out a long-handled sledgehammer he’d hidden down his pant leg, climbed onto a display case and knocked down the trophy, then pounded the horns loose. The thieves hid them under their jackets and left, slipping into a Catholic Carnival celebration on the street outside.
February 20 was a Monday—a day when most English museums are closed—and only a handful of visitors milled around the Norwich museum. Passing through the natural-history wing, the curators had taken note of one group in particular: four young men dressed in dark jeans and black sweaters, wearing what looked like black beanies on their heads.
The curators had adjourned to the rotunda for tea when one of them looked up and saw them: four figures in balaclavas emerging from the natural-history gallery, heading in their direction, toward the exit. One of them was running; the other three were moving at a pace that was not quite running but as close to it as a person could manage while carrying a piece of taxidermy the approximate size and weight of a filing cabinet. One of them shouted, “Get out of the fucking way!”
“By that time,” one of the curators told me, “we knew what was happening.”
The thieves were already in the midst of a panicked plan B. After jimmying open the display case with a crowbar, they’d tried and failed to pry the horns loose from the rhino head, leaving them only two choices: leave empty-handed, or somehow make it across the rotunda and out the door with the entire trophy. At first the curators stood frozen, silently running the odds of getting tear-gassed or worse. Finally, one of the Cambridge visitors threw himself in front of the head bearers.
In the scrum that ensued, a Norwich curator tripped one of the thieves, and the trophy thudded to the floor. For a moment, criminals and curators alike stood around the head, unsure of what to do next. Then another Norwich staff member made a grab for the trophy and began dragging it to safety. The thieves sprinted for the exit, climbed into a waiting car, and fled the scene.
About 20 minutes later, the Norfolk police got a call from a man who said he’d seen something suspicious on Argyle Street, a dead-end side road less than a mile from the museum. A Renault Laguna sedan had pulled over, he said, and the driver had gotten out, removed the car’s license plates, and driven away. The witness’s description of the vehicle matched the getaway car in the museum’s CCTV footage.
Rushing to Argyle Street, officers recovered the plates and lifted a fingerprint from one of them, which they plugged into the British police’s national database. It turned up a match: a homeless 21-year-old Iraqi immigrant and small-time thief named Nihad Mahmod.
Mahmod surfaced four months later, when police in London arrested him for an unrelated crime and sent him to Norfolk for questioning. According to Andy Ninham, the Norfolk police detective who interviewed him, Mahmod admitted to driving the getaway car in the museum theft but wouldn’t give up the names of the other thieves or their employer. He did, however, describe how he had come to be involved in the failed heist. He had been panhandling in East London’s Stratford district, he said, when a man with an Irish accent approached him and asked if he wanted to make some money. When Mahmod agreed, the Irishman drove him to Norwich. It was only en route, he said, that he learned what he would be doing there.
Mahmod appeared in court two days later and pleaded guilty to his role in the robbery, for which he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. By that point, however, museums across England had another problem: Whoever was stealing the rhino horns appeared to be setting their sights higher.
At about 7:30 p.m. on the evening of April 13, 2012, a security alarm went off at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge. When campus security personnel arrived, they found that a large rectangular hole had been cut in the metal shutter covering a ground-floor window in a room housing a permanent exhibition called Arts of the Far East. The window itself was smashed, as were a pair of strengthened-glass cabinets a few feet away. The cabinets had held 18 small artworks, most of them jade carvings from Qing- and Ming-dynasty China, which the prominent Asian antiques collector Oscar Raphael had donated to the museum in the 1940s. They were collectively valued at $25 million, and all of them were missing.
The theft was a surgical strike, executed in minutes, but the thieves had been careless. Cambridgeshire police quickly recovered footage from one of the museum’s exterior CCTV cameras showing three men and a teenage boy approaching the building shortly before the theft; another camera showed them parking a white Volkswagen van on a nearby street. The BBC aired the images in early May, and within the week two of the suspects were caught in London. One of them was a 29-year-old Irish Traveller living in East London named Patrick Kiely.
Back in Norfolk, Ninham, who was still looking for three of the four Norwich Castle Museum thieves, decided to take a look at the Fitzwilliam CCTV footage. One of the four men the cameras had captured had an odd-looking profile that instantly struck him as familiar; he had seen that bulbous nose before.
Ninham went back to the footage he had pulled from the Norwich museum two months earlier. Even on the grainy video, he told me, “You could look at him and say, ‘That’s definitely the guy.’” One of the thwarted rhino-horn thieves was Patrick Kiely.
By the time Kiely appeared in a Norwich courtroom the following December, he had already been convicted and sentenced to six years for the Fitzwilliam theft; now he was looking at another 18 months for the botched rhino-horn job. The judge offered him a reduced sentence if he gave up the names of the two rhino thieves who were still at large, but Kiely refused. His lawyer told the court that Kiely had been forced to steal the horns by men who had threatened his family. When he’d failed at that, he was ordered to take part in the Fitzwilliam robbery.
The judge was unconvinced. “If you think I am going to buy that sort of twaddle, you are talking to the wrong man,” he said. But from the police investigators’ standpoint, the significant fact was not whether he had been threatened. It was that the two thefts appeared to have been ordered by the same people.
Police investigators had followed the rhino-horn thefts with interest but also a certain fatalism—knowing what they knew about where the horns were headed, nobody much expected to recover them intact. The Fitzwilliam theft, and the headlines it generated, was different. “You’re talking tens of millions of pounds’ worth of stuff,” Ninham told me—many times the value of the individual horns, and all of it potentially recoverable. “That focused attention. Then we got the break in our investigation of Kiely’s involvement, so the two things joined up.” Since the horn thefts began, police had been studying the Rathkeale Rovers. Now it was time to act on what they knew.
An hour before dawn on September 10, 2013, several dozen CAB agents and local police officers quietly gathered around five houses in Rathkeale. In the English city of Wolverhampton, a tactical team armed with battering rams was preparing to scale the wrought-iron fence surrounding a tidy brick house; in Belfast, Northern Ireland, officers were making plans to raid a rug store on Castle Street. And in Cottenham, England, riot-gear-clad officers from the Cambridgeshire Constabulary filed into an encampment of trailers and transit vans, a campsite known as Smithy Fen that was regularly inhabited by Rathkeale Travellers. They were looking for the men whose houses the CAB was raiding in Rathkeale.
On the signal, the Cambridgeshire squad descended upon the camp. “Police!” a man in one of the trailers yelled.
“Get back!” a cop shouted.
“I’ve got the key! I have the key!” the man called out in vain as the police pried the door loose from its frame with an ax and tumbled inside.
According to David Old, the press officer for the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, most of the 19 people arrested in the raids “were held on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle in connection with the museum thefts.” British investigators have otherwise refused to go into any detail about the grounds on which they associated the Rathkeale Rovers with the break-ins. According to a CAB agent who was apprised of the investigation, however, the connection between the Fitzwilliam thieves and the Rovers was not a terribly difficult one to make. “They ran the phone traffic,” he told me.
The Rathkeale Rovers, another CAB agent told me, seemed genuinely shocked by the amount of weight that came down upon them. For years, he said, many of them thought that the increased attention from authorities was simply the result of the wealth on display in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. “A lot of ’em would say, ‘Those programs have brought nothing but bad luck on us,’” he said. “And we were quite happy for them to think that.” The Rovers were stunned, he said, by the effort that had been expended in tracking their movements, understanding the convoluted business relationships and family trees.
The following day, Michael Slattery was boarding a plane at Newark International Airport in New Jersey when he was met at his gate by several agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A month later, Spanish police apprehended Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, who had been on the lam for 18 months, at an airport in the Mediterranean port city of Alicante, and returned him to Britain. Both men subsequently pleaded guilty—to conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking and robbery, respectively—and are now serving prison terms.
The suspects arrested in the September 10 raids in Cambridgeshire weren’t immediately charged with any crimes, and the local police didn’t release their names. But they did allow a photographer for the local newspaper, the Cambridge News, to accompany them on the raid, and later that day the News posted an edited snippet of the video footage on its website. The clip shows a heavyset, gray-haired man in his underwear, handcuffed and seated unceremoniously on a couch in the trailer—the same man who had been shouting about the keys as the police forced open the door. The man’s face is out of view, but in an earlier and more generous edit of the footage, which circulated briefly among English and Irish reporters, you could see him clearly—not for long, but long enough to identify him as Richard “Kerry” O’Brien, the man the press and police called the King of the Rathkeale Travellers.
O’Brien’s house was among the five the CAB raided in Rathkeale. At the time, his wife, Christina, daughter Kathleen, and four young grandchildren were home. In an account of the raid she later gave to the local parish priest, Kathleen said the police had arrived in full riot gear and balaclavas around 4:30 a.m., shouting at the family and ordering them around at gunpoint. The CAB agents spent the next several hours in the office O’Brien kept down the hall, a closet-sized room with a small desk and a pair of filing cabinets, overflowing with papers. By then the sun was up; photos the police later released show CAB agents in O’Brien’s driveway, loading computers and boxes of documents into the back of a police car.
By the time I visited Rathkeale, three months after the raid, the Cambridgeshire suspects had been released from custody and allowed to return to Ireland. The CAB agents, who had been keeping tabs on them, told me that O’Brien, though not the others, was back in Rathkeale, a free man for the time being. The law-enforcement officials, Rathkeale locals, and Irish reporters I talked to told me that approaching him was at best futile and at worst unadvisable. He had never said a word to a reporter, and a CAB detective told another journalist that he had been attacked by men hurling bricks when he tried to take pictures near O’Brien’s property. Still, the men who were targeted in the raids were so elusive that knocking on O’Brien’s door seemed the only chance of speaking with any of them. So on the Saturday before Christmas, my last afternoon in Ireland, I drove up the hill to the house I had been told was his.
It was one of the largest in town, a two-story red-brick colonial with white trim, surrounded by a brick-and-stone wall and a wrought-iron gate. The gate was open when I arrived, with several luxury cars and a transit van parked in the broad driveway. As I got out of the car, a woman emerged from the house. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, wearing a red pullover with her blond hair held back in a loose ponytail, and had a harried look about her. I asked if O’Brien was home.
“What do you want with him?” she said.
“I wanted to ask him about the rhino horns,” I said.
She looked at me for a moment. Two burly gray-haired men, I noticed, had emerged from around the side of the house.
“He’s gone away,” she said, and walked back inside.
A month later, the Irish government was buffeted by a scandal involving allegations of abuse of power by high-level Gardaí, and by late February, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny was forced to address the affair in a speech, calling on anyone with “any other relevant material in their possession” concerning wrongdoing by the national police force to come forward. The following week, a nondescript WordPress site appeared online. “I am ready to provide Mr Kenny with that evidence,” read a statement posted on the site. “My name is Richard Kerry O’Brien.”
The statement seemed genuine; describing the September raids in Cambridgeshire and Rathkeale, O’Brien mentioned details that had never to my knowledge been reported—I had only heard them from officers who had been on the scene. “In my opinion,” O’Brien wrote, “the systematic harassment I have experienced is because certain Gardaí resent the idea that a traveller might live in a nice house and drive a nice car. Uppity travellers, you might say.” At the end of the statement was a Gmail address. I wrote to it immediately.
O’Brien emailed me back within the hour. “It is good to see interest from the USA,” he wrote, and apologized for my being turned away at his house in December. “I am sorry if my wife was short with you,” he wrote. “That is not our way with visitors.” When I called the mobile-phone number he gave me, the man who answered—his voice was gruff but not unfriendly—told me I was the first reporter he had talked to. I asked him why. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said, and eagerly asked what I had heard about him from the police. When I asked about his son’s arrest in Colorado, it was clear I was either speaking with O’Brien or with someone who had read as many hundreds of pages of court documents as I had. I booked a flight back to Ireland that afternoon.
When I stepped off the bus in Rathkeale four days later, a barrel-chested man was leaning against a silver Volkswagen Golf parked on the side of the road. His gray hair ascended from a widow’s peak into a boxy four-cornered cut, framing a broad face that seemed drawn inward to the bridge of his nose. He was dressed in a dark pin-striped suit over a spread-collared purple shirt, with a matching tie knotted in a thick double Windsor. It suddenly seemed improbable to me, as I looked him over, that Richard “Kerry” O’Brien was the figure others had made him out to be; surely the actual head of an organized-crime syndicate would know better than to show up for an interview dressed like one.
“I never had anything to do with a rhino horn,” O’Brien told me as we pulled up to his house in the Volkswagen. Rathkeale residents and police I’d met on my previous visit spoke of the house in slightly awed tones, the way someone in Westchester County might describe the Rockefeller estate. From the outside, it looked impressive if not enormous, and as O’Brien showed me inside, I realized it was smaller than most houses you’d encounter in an American exurb. It had the look of a somewhat lived-in model home—the white leather living room set in the sunroom was covered in plastic, and there were few decorations aside from a handful of family photos and Catholic figurines. Two friends of O’Brien’s, men in late middle age, were sitting at the granite kitchen table, where his wife had set out plates of cookies and soda bread. From behind a half-closed door to a den off the kitchen, I could hear the muffled sounds of grandchildren and cartoons.
“I’m not actually from this town,” O’Brien told me after we settled in around the table. In fact, he said, “I’m not really a Traveller.”
He told me he had come into the community by way of Christina, who was a Flynn, one of the earliest Rathkeale Traveller families. O’Brien himself was from Kanturk, in County Cork. “We had no money,” he said, and he left home when he was 16 to seek his fortune. He had eventually gotten into antiques dealing and had been successful at it, but he found the pace and unpredictability of the work unsatisfying. “I like to buy stuff today and sell it tomorrow and get a profit, like,” he said. “In the antique business, you buy this”—he nodded at the table—“that dealer might like it, and you go and go on and it turns out the check bounces. There’s a lot of problems.”
There were faster and larger profits to be made, he realized, from the construction boom under way in Ireland at the time. After buying and later selling his aluminum factory in County Cork, he started pursuing import opportunities from Asia. “You see that lamp?” he said, pointing out the kitchen window at a wrought-iron lamppost at the end of the driveway. “I was buying them for $270 in China,” he said, and selling them for four times that in Ireland. By the late 1990s, he was a regular at the annual trade exhibition in Guangzhou, “the biggest in the world—it’d take you nearly four days to go around it.” He’d scouted factories in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia—“I was three months in the jungle in Indonesia one time,” he said. As the market for building supplies dried up with the implosion of Ireland’s real estate market, O’Brien shifted gears again; now, he told me, he mostly imported furniture like the suite in the sunroom.
Eventually, I recited the litany of suspicions I’d heard voiced about him by various investigators. O’Brien professed total ignorance of the rhino-horn thefts and the museum break-ins that had prompted the raid. After he was brought out of the trailer in handcuffs and taken to the police station in Cambridgeshire, he explained to me, “I told them I was never in any museum in my life.” The detectives who questioned O’Brien were mostly interested in his travels to China and Vietnam, he said—what he was doing there, who he was meeting. When they gave him back his passport, he said, his Vietnamese visa had been removed without explanation. Still, O’Brien said, “they’re sort of civilized over there. They gave me coffee and tea.” He was much angrier at the armed Irish police who had raided his house in Rathkeale and, he said, held his wife and children at gunpoint. “They ran up the stairs like they were taking over a bank or something, you know what I mean?” (Representatives of the CAB and the Cambridgeshire police I spoke to later declined to comment on O’Brien’s account of the raids.)
When I asked about his son’s rhino-horn dealings in the United States, O’Brien told me he had been in the dark about them until Richard Jr. was arrested. In any case, he said, his son’s arrest had been “a setup—it was proper entrapment. It wouldn’t happen here in Europe. He could’ve beaten that case. But, you know, in America, the court cases there are very, very expensive. He would’ve won it, but it would’ve dragged on and dragged on.” Besides, he said, “what he done—it’s not illegal to buy a rhino horn, when you have the proper paperwork.”
It was true that there were certain narrow circumstances where it was legal to buy and sell an antique horn if you had the right permits. But Richard Jr. and Michael Hegarty had been well outside of them—a fact they were clearly aware of in their dealings with Curtis Graves. O’Brien’s son and son-in-law, I protested, were on tape speaking openly of deliberately breaking the law. “He’s describing how they’re going to move the horns back to Europe,” I said.
“They never mentioned that,” O’Brien said. I told him I’d seen it myself, in one of the government’s tape transcripts, of which I had copies. “Maybe—I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it is.” Still, he said, “I wasn’t in touch with him at all. My son was 27 years of age; I left home when I was 16. He paid the price, and that’s it.”
After we had talked for a couple of hours, O’Brien asked if I wanted to see the local cemetery. Graveyards, more than anything else, are what tether the Irish Travellers to a place. In Rathkeale, the wealthiest Traveller families had erected towering monuments of marble, granite, and gold leaf, and were known to bring the deceased to their graves in glass-walled carriages drawn by teams of black horses. We climbed into the Volkswagen, with O’Brien’s 11-year-old grandson Michael—Michael Hegarty’s son—in the backseat. O’Brien turned onto a road out of town, followed it under a highway overpass, and then pulled into a small parking lot. A storm had recently blown through and torn up a line of trees shielding the cemetery from the road; beyond the tangled roots and dirt stood a forest of white marble Marys and saints and crucifixes.
O’Brien got a call on his mobile phone, and Michael led me down the rows of headstones. Beneath the immaculately well-kept slabs of black granite lay generations of Flynns, Quilligans, O’Briens, Slatterys. Michael pointed out where David “Tunny” Sheridan was buried. “His there, he was murdered in front of his mother,” he said. “Stabbed with a screwdriver.” He showed me another large plot—“My uncle,” he said. A bronze pietà, draped with a rosary, sat at the center of a broken heart carved from dark granite, flanked by statues of Pope John Paul II and St. Anthony.
“I’m moving after Easter,” O’Brien said when we got back in the car. Away from Ireland—to France, maybe. “I have to get out. My wife don’t want to live in our home anymore. I’m locking up and leaving my property behind me. ’Cause you cannot have any kind of conversation with your house being bugged, your cars being bugged—which I can prove. My son paid a price, but he didn’t murder anyone—he didn’t rob a bank. I cannot describe the way we’re treated here. We’re treated like Hitler treated the Jews.”
When we got back to the center of town, I thanked O’Brien and set out walking down Main Street. A few minutes later, the Volkswagen pulled up again. “Make sure you get that down,” O’Brien said. “We’re treated like Hitler treated the Jews.”
O’Brien and the other men and women who were arrested in September are due to report back to Cambridgeshire in April. But although more than six months have passed since their arrests, the authorities have not yet indicated whether any charges are forthcoming—and O’Brien was right that for the time being, at least, nobody had made clear what evidence there was that he was some kind of Rathkeale godfather. On the flight back to New York, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something almost hopeful in the machinations that had been ascribed to him—a sense that a criminal episode as unusual as the rhino-horn thefts demanded an architect of equal stature. At the pub in Dublin, I had asked Eamon Dillon what he thought explained Ireland’s fascination with the Rathkeale Rovers. “There is a love of the rogue in Ireland,” he replied. “I think it’s a universal thing—people like the idea of a good scam artist.”
The two CAB agents I met in December were convinced that they were nowhere near closing the file on the rhino-horn thieves. When I remarked that the burglaries seemed to have ended—there hadn’t been one since the Swords heist eight months earlier—one of them cut in.
“Well, no,” he said. “They’ve kind of plateaued, maybe.”
“‘Plateaued’ would be best, yeah,” said the other agent.
“They’ll probably rise again,” said the first.
Sure enough, a month and a half later, I woke up to find a link to a story from that morning’s Irish Independent in my inbox, accompanied by a one-line note from Europol’s John Reid: “You probably saw this one.”
The previous Monday evening, Michael Flatley, the Riverdance impresario, was playing video games with his wife and son at his riverside mansion in County Cork when he heard a noise coming from another wing of the building. He looked out the window to see four men in dark clothing sprint across the lawn toward the driveway, jump in a car, and speed off. They had somehow evaded the sophisticated security perimeter and opened a window in Flatley’s “safari room,” where he kept his collection of antique hunting trophies. The Lord of the Dance took off after them in a sports car.
By the time Flatley reached the edge of his property, the thieves were gone, and he returned to the house to inspect the damage. In the safari room, a rhinoceros head had been relieved of its horn.
The Dead Zoo Gang, by Charles Homans, is Issue No. 35 of The Atavist, published March 2014.
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Author: Charles Homans
Charles Homans is the executive editor of The Atavist. He has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications.
Editors: Evan Ratliff and Max Linsky
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research: Laura Smith
Illustrations: Danijel Zezelj
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Images: Alen MacWeeney, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Charles Homans, Wikimedia Commons
Video: Cambridge News (www.cambridge-news.co.uk)
Soundtrack: Kevin MacLeod
Although most of the details in The Dead Zoo Gang come from interviews and primary-source documents, I’d be remiss in failing to acknowledge several invaluable resources that aren’t mentioned in the story itself. The rhinoceros history in Chapter 3 was informed by Kelly Enright’s Rhinoceros, Richard Ellis’s Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn, and Tom Milliken and Jo Shaw’s “The South Africa–Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus,” a 2012 report published by the wildlife-trade-monitoring organization Traffic. Chapter 7 draws significantly from George Gmelch’s The Irish Tinkers: The Urbanization of an Itinerant People, George and Sharon Gmelch’s forthcoming Irish Travellers, Sinéad ní Shuinéar’s “Apocrypha to Canon: Inventing Irish Traveller History” (published in History Ireland), and the photographs and essays collected in Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More, by Alen MacWeeney. Many of the stories attributed to Eamon Dillon here appear in his two books on crime in the Traveller community, The Outsiders and Gypsy Empire.
In addition to the individuals named and quoted in the story (and others who wish to remain anonymous), I’m grateful to the following people for interviews and other assistance: Edward Grace and Dorothy Manera of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jann Olsen of the Nottinghamshire Police, Naomi Doak of Traffic, Roland Arkell, Seth Barrett Tillman, Barry Duggan, Ronan Judge, Joana Henriques, and Matthew Shaer.
© 2014 Atavist Inc.