Gardaí in Limerick have seized a rare and extremely valuable Chinese libation cup they believe to be made from rhinoceros horn, in a major investigation into the notorious Rathkeale Rovers criminal Traveller gang.
Such rarities command hundreds of thousands of euro on the black market.
More than 50 gardaí, led by members of the Criminal Assets Bureau, also seized a “six-figure” cash sum when they raided 11 properties in Rathkeale, west Limerick.
The planned raids were timed to coincide with the return of huge numbers of Travellers from abroad. Members of the Rathkeale Rovers gang figured in a high-profile court case in the UK earlier this year when they were jailed for dealing in stolen rhino horns and other valuable property.
Three high-end watches worth in excess of €100,000 were also seized in the planned operation, along with bank statements and other documents.
A Garda source said: “One piece of ivory was seized in the searches. It’s a (Chinese) libation cup, made from rhino horn. We are examining it to make sure it is what we believe it to be. It will be forensically examined; it’s an ornament of some sort.”
Yesterday’s raid targeted known members of the gang. Seven residences and four other premises were raided and a large amount of cash was confiscated. Documents were also taken for further examination.
The modus operandi of the Rathkeale Rovers is to roam Europe carrying out thefts of rhino horns.
The horns are cut from dead rhinos in Africa and Asia after been shot by hunters in an illegal trade worth millions of euro. They are sold on to gangs and investors on the black market.
Libation cups were drinking vessels used on important ceremonial occasions and are considered extremely rare.
Authorities across the globe have been monitoring the Rathkeale gang for years.
“The search phase has finished and the investigation phase will continue for some time.We seized cash in excess of six figures but the exact amount cannot be disclosed for operational reasons. We also have to determine the exact value of the three high-end watches we recovered but we believe they have a combined retail value of in excess of €100,000,” said the Garda source.
A statement released by the Garda press office said: “The CAB investigation relates to suspected criminal activity by an organised crime gang in Ireland, the UK, and Europe.”
Chief Superintendent David Sheahan, head of the Limerick Garda Division, said: “We have CAB profilers in Limerick who prepared background work for the national unit which led to today’s investigation. We are happy to support CAB, and this was their investigation.”
Thirteen members of the Rathkeale Rovers gang were jailed last April for their part in robberies where property valued at £57m (€73m) was stolen in a series of UK museum raids.
A jury convicted four of the gang’s “generals” who helped to plan and oversee a string of offences, including break-ins at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham’s Oriental Museum in 2012. John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Jr, aged 26, Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien, aged 31, Michael Hegarty, aged 43, and Daniel ‘Turkey’ O’Brien, aged 45, were found guilty by a jury.
Ten others were convicted previously for their parts in the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, two men who tried to block detectives during the raids yesterday were arrested for breaches of public order.
The men, one aged in his early 20s and one in his late 40s, were arrested and charged before Limerick District Court in connection with “minor public order incidents”, which arose during the Garda searches.
The two men were granted bail on strict conditions.
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