An Irishman linked to a criminal clan has pleaded guilty to charges he used forged documents to sell horns from endangered black rhinos to a New York collector for more than €35,000.
Michael Slattery wept, rubbed his face, and waved his arms before entering the plea in federal court in Manhattan, prompting US district judge John Gleeson to comment: “You look like a nervous wreck.”
Slattery, aged 23, told the judge he barely knew how to read but understood the trafficking charges.
“I knew I was doing wrong,” he said.
Asked how he was doing in jail, Slattery claimed one inmate had threatened to “spin my head off”, and that he had overheard conversations about how a murder suspect “wanted me to sleep with him”.
Prosecutors cited a letter from Irish authorities linking him to a Traveller criminal network based in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, that is suspected in dozens of thefts of rhino horns across Europe.
The Travellers in Rathkeale had purchased “most of the real estate in this town in recent years and shown incredible signs of wealth”, the letter said.
According to Europol, thieves known as the Rathkeale Rovers targeted museums, galleries, zoos, auction houses, antique dealers, and private collections in Britain, Europe, the US, and South America. It says they were behind a heist this year by masked men who stole stuffed rhinoceros heads containing eight horns from the warehouse of the National Museum.
US authorities alleged Slattery travelled from London to Houston in 2010 to try to buy two horns at a taxidermy auction house. Learning that he needed to be a resident of Texas to make the purchase, he recruited a day labourer to be a straw buyer. He and other unidentified suspects gave the straw buyer over $18,000 in $100 bills to complete the deal, a complaint said.
Later that year, Slattery met with a Chinese buyer in Queens and sold four horns using endangered species bills of sale with fake Fish and Wildlife Service logos on them, the complaint said. It is unclear where he got the additional two horns.
Slattery was arrested in September at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport boarding a flight to London. He faces a maximum term of about 30 months at sentencing next year, followed by deportation.
In 2011, two Irish nationals from Rathkeale were jailed for six months on charges they bought black rhino horns in a sting operation in Colorado. Irish authorities say one of the men is Slattery’s cousin.
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