Gang boss John Gilligan (61) has been released from jail in Republic
One-time suspect in killing of journalist Veronica Guerin walks free from Portlaoise prison
Drug baron John Gilligan, the one-time chief suspect in the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, has walked free from jail.
The notorious crime lord was released from Ireland's high-security Portlaoise prison shortly before 9.40am after spending 17 years behind bars.
The 61-year-old walked to a waiting car inside the prison gates carrying a bag, and chatted on a mobile phone and smiled at photographers as the Ford Mondeo sped off.
Armed soldiers patrolled the rooftop above the prison entrance, barely visible through fog.
A small group of locals watched nearby, eager to catch a glimpse of one of Ireland's most infamous prisoners.
Caught in legal battles with the State to the bitter end, the organised crime boss lost his latest court case yesterday which challenged the courts' legality to sentence him to consecutive jail terms for offences committed in prison.
He also lodged a fresh action in the High Court over the legality of the sale of his prized Jessbrook estate in Co Kildare, which was put on the market by the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) a month ago after yet another lengthy legal wrangle.
It is believed the action is intended to act as a deterrent to potential buyers.
It is not known if Gilligan plans to return to a home attached to land around the equestrian centre, where his estranged wife Geraldine still lives, stay with his son Darren on the outskirts of Dublin or flee to daughter Tracey in Spain.
Last week he issued a letter through his solicitors insisting he would not speak to the media, even if all the newspapers and broadcasters paid him a million euros each - fuelling speculation that he plans to pen a book on his life.
Gilligan has been in jail since October 1996 when he was caught by UK Customs officers with IR£296,000 hidden in a suitcase as he boarded a plane for Amsterdam in London's Heathrow Airport.
Dressed in a light grey shirt and black trousers, Gilligan held his head up and smiled broadly as he emerged through the large wooden prison gates.
He carried a black suit jacket, paper bag and newly pressed shirt wrapped in a dry cleaning bag to the car, in which two men were waiting.
The Ballyfermot man maintains he was only targeted by police after the murder of mother-of-one Ms Guerin, who was one of Ireland's leading crime reporters when she was killed.
The journalist embarked on a crusade to expose in the Sunday Independent the ruthless dealings of drugs barons in Ireland in the mid-1990s.
But her high-profile war against gangsters ended when a gunman on a motorbike shot her dead as she waited at traffic lights in Naas Road, Dublin, on June 26 1996.
Her murder outraged the public and gardai, who vowed to track down her killers.
The criminal investigation that followed was one of the largest in the history of the state and led to more than 150 arrests and the setting-up of the CAB.
Gilligan, a career criminal who was first convicted at the age of 15, was the chief suspect.
He was accused of ordering the murder when charges were brought against him for a vicious assault on Ms Guerin as she tried to quiz him over where his gang got the cash for designer clothes, expensive cars and exotic foreign holidays.
He was detained in the UK four months later and eventually extradited to Ireland in February 2000.
Gilligan was later acquitted of Ms Guerin's murder and firearms charges, but convicted of possession of an estimated 20,000kg (44,093lb) of cannabis resin for sale and supply over two years.
He was handed a record 28 years behind bars, which was later reduced on appeal to 20 years and backdated to 1996.
Sources say the convicted drugs smuggler is being released to a criminal underworld much more dangerous than the one he once part-controlled.
While Gilligan was acquitted of Ms Guerin's murder, his fellow gang member, Brian Meehan, was jailed for life for the killing.
Paul Ward was also convicted but his conviction was later overturned on appeal.
The man named during one court case as having pulled the trigger in the Guerin murder, Patrick "Dutchy" Holland, died in June 2009.
Elsewhere, Gilligan used the legal protection of a High Court case in Dublin in 2008 to name wanted fraudster John Traynor, known in gangland circles as The Coach, as the man who ordered the hit.
Jailed on March 15 2001, Gilligan would have been due for release two years ago with remission for good behaviour.
But in 2006 he was handed another two-year sentence for assaulting a prison officer, to start on the date of the expiry of the drug sentence.
He has also been twice convicted for having a mobile phone in prison.
Meanwhile, his former home, the Olympic-sized Jessbrook Equestrian Centre, in Mucklon, near Enfield, remains on the market, having been empty since July 1996 when it was seized by gardai.
Once valued at €5m (£4.2m), it is for sale for a mere €500,000 (£420,000).
The sprawling estate is just shy of 50 acres, and includes a 3,500-seat equestrian arena with a VIP section and commentary booths which has since become a shell for rat poison and bird droppings.
The family also still owns the Judges Chamber bar in Alicante, Spain, which is run by his daughter, Tracey.
Belfast Telegraph Digital