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Revealed: Belfast man's links to crime gang that plundered historic artefacts worth £57m

By Matthew Cooper

Published 01/03/2016

Terence McNamara
Terence McNamara
An 18th century Chinese jade bowl with a poem inscribed inside
An 18th century Chinese jade bowl with a poem inscribed inside
Chinese Dehua porcelain figurine of seven fairies in a boat
The robbery scene at Durham Oriental Museum

A Belfast man was among 14 linked to an organised crime gang and convicted of plotting to steal rhino horn and Chinese artefacts worth up to £57 million in a series of museum and auction house raids.

A jury yesterday 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 jnr; Richard 'Kerry' O'Brien; Michael Hegarty and Daniel 'Turkey' O'Brien were found guilty after a trial that could not be reported because of similar offences committed by Traveller criminals dubbed the 'Rathkeale Rovers'.

The two-month trial at Birmingham Crown Court heard that 10 other men had previously been convicted for their parts in the conspiracy, which included a bungled attempt to steal a rhino head from Norwich Castle Museum in February 2012.

One of them was Terence McNamara (46), of Marquis Street, Belfast - who liaised with a thief sent into Durham's Oriental Museum to steal a Ming dynasty sculpture.

McNamara pleaded guilty at the start of the final trial.

Although jurors heard that exhibits stolen in Durham and Cambridge were valued at around £17m, detectives believe they may have fetched up to £57m on the "booming" Chinese auction market.

At least eight of the men convicted after a four-year international police inquiry have family or business links to Rathkeale village in the Republic of Ireland.

The trial of John O'Brien (26); his brother Richard O'Brien (31) their uncle Daniel O'Brien (45), and Hegarty (43) was told that a computer used to make incriminating internet searches was found at a house in the Co Limerick village.

Their trial was due to be heard with a ban on reporters making reference to the Rathkeale Rovers or another criminal grouping known as the 'Dead Zoo Gang'.

But a judge opted to ban reporting until the end of the trial, after accepting that previous media coverage of rhino horn thefts across Europe could prejudice jurors. Among those convicted are six members of the same Rathkeale family, Travellers' rights campaigner Richard Sheridan, and Donald Chi Chong Wong, a London-based fence who made frequent trips to Hong Kong.

None of the 18 jade exhibits stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in April 2012 have been recovered, but a jade bowl and figurine stolen in Durham were found.

Police arrested six of the gang in September 2013 at Traveller sites in Cambridgeshire and Essex after examining telephone traffic between the gang's main organisers and "hired in" thieves.

Opening the case against the final four defendants in January, prosecutor Robert Davies told jurors that paid accomplices unsuccessfully targeted a rhino horn libation cup at an auction house in Lewes, East Sussex. The trial heard that Sheridan was seen with Wong shortly before police found £50,000 in cash in a car.

Sheridan (47), of Water Lane, Smithy Fen, Cottenham, Cambs; Wong (56), of Clapham Common South Side, London; Alan Clarke (37), of Melbourne Road, Newham, London; Patrick Clarke (33), of the same address; John 'Cash' O'Brien (68), of Fifth Avenue, Wolverhampton; Paul Pammen (49), of Alton Gardens, Southend, Essex; Danny Flynn (45), of Orchard Drive, Smithy Fen, and Ashley Dad (35), of Crowther Road, Wolverhampton, were all convicted by jury of conspiracy to steal.

Robert Gilbert-Smith (28), of no fixed address, pleaded guilty to his part in the conspiracy and has already served a prison sentence.

Richard O'Brien, of Dale Farm, Billericay, Essex, denied taking part in the plot between September 2011 and August 2012.

Hegarty, John O'Brien jnr and Daniel O'Brien, all of Orchard Drive, Smithy Fen, also denied any involvement in the offences but were unanimously convicted.

Sentencing will take place in Birmingham on April 4 and 5.

Derbyshire Chief Constable Mick Creedon, the national policing lead for organised crime, said: "Organised crime takes many forms and seeks to exploit any opportunity to harm communities and make criminal profit.

"This case starkly demonstrates the level of threat, the lengths criminal gangs will go to and the importance of law enforcement agencies sharing intelligence and working together."

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