Wire-tap was knockout blow for Kinsella defence

JOHN KINSELLA’S case is unique in many ways.

He was convicted in relation to a drugs haul in Belgium, even though he was in Ireland when they were seized.

In addition to that, the main evidence against him were foreign wire-taps of phone conversations of him obtained by Dutch police.

Conspiracy to import drug charges are very rare in Irish courts.

The case had thrown up substantial difficulties in terms of admissibility of evidence and Kinsella’s right to privacy.

The trial was set to be, in the words of Judge Tony Hunt, a “complicated, lengthy and expensive”, involving large a number of witnesses from abroad and “substantial” issues of law.

But, at the eleventh hour, on the day before the trial was due to begin at the Dublin Circuit Court, Kinsella changed his plea to guilty.

Yesterday, he received a 12-year prison sentence, with two years suspended, backdated to his detention on September 26, 2006.

Kinsella had little reason leading up to that date to believe that he was being monitored.

As with most Garda drug investigations, it began when the Garda National Drug Unit (GNDU) received information that a group of Irish criminals, along with other criminals, based in Spain and possibly Holland, were going to be involved in bringing in a substantial amount of heroin into the country.

“Officers from the GNDU approached those countries,” said a Garda source. “One of the main suspects mentioned was James Rankin, who was well known to us as a criminal.”

Rankin was arrested by the Dutch police after the drugs were seized and was subsequently sentenced to eight years by a Belgian court.

After being approached by the GNDU, Dutch police placed an intercept on Rankin’s mobile phone.

“It became apparent that Rankin was in the immediate process of sending in a substantial quantity of drugs,” said the Garda source. “He made contact with a number of Irish numbers, including a number that was identified as being used by John Kinsella. He was known to us. It became apparent his involvement was on the Irish end.

“We’re quite happy he’s not the main person and that there was a Mr Big controlling things.”

He said the night before the seizure in Belgium on September 26, Rankin picked up a man, Simon Scott Whittard, at Schipol Airport. “They travelled to Belgium and were under observation by the Dutch. It became apparent that Whittard was going to be the courier. We picked that up from conversations between Rankin and Kinsella. Kinsella said to make sure Whittard was ‘suited and booted’. Whittard suffered from drink problems, so that was to make sure he had a suit and a laptop.”

The source said Rankin and Kinsella did not mention the word drugs in their conversation, but discussed exact quantities — the same as those seized.

They also discussed a “bird in the sky”, referring to a plane. The GNDU were able to establish there was an Irish plane landing at the same time Whittard was due to land.

He said the plane Kinsella had hired from businessman Jim Mansfield — along with two pilots — was at Wevelgem airport in Belgium to transport Whittard and packages back to Weston Aerodrome.

When Belgium police established the plane was due to land at Weston, they arrested Whittard and seized the drugs.

Back in Ireland, the GNDU arrested Kinsella.

“He denied any involvement, right up to the trial and changed his plea on October 5,” said the garda.

He also said that on a practical level there was “exceptional” cooperation between the GNDU and Spanish, Dutch and Belgian police authorities.

But he said the problems came at the judicial end. He said this had been the third attempt at a trial. Initially the Belgian authorities tried to extradite him, but Kinsella fought that. He later changed his legal team, further delaying matters.

The garda said the case was “the most contested pre-trial case” the GNDU had ever been involved in.

“There were so many difficulties regarding evidence. The other countries have different procedures to here. We never had so many meetings with the State.”

He said the police in Holland and Belgium are not typically questioned in court, and some have never been in court.

He said a major obstacle was the admissibility of wire-tap evidence from a foreign country.

“The issue is there is no legal constraint to using wire tap evidence from abroad here, but the law doesn’t say it can be used either. The defence said it was unconstitutional until the last day.”

He said they had 35-40 Dutch prosecution people, including magistrates and police, to give evidence. The prosecution also had on hand a voice expert.

Judge Hunt referred to the legal points yesterday, much of it around the wire-tap evidence.

He said the right to privacy — as had been argued by the defence — did give way to other rights, including the right of public interest in investigating serious wrongdoing.

He said the “democratically expressed policy” in Ireland now was that wire-tap evidence was accepted.

Gardaí do not believe this was Kinsella’s first operation, due to the massive size of the haul and the sophistication of the operation.

The situation could get worse for Kinsella.

At the end of yesterday’s sentencing, the court set a date for a confiscation order hearing.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1994, a court can, in a case where a person is convicted of a drug trafficking offence, make a confiscation order requiring the person to pay an amount equal to what he accrued from drug trafficking.

Kinsella has a property in Thailand, a number of bank accounts and the plush family home in Navan, once valued at more than €1 million.

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