Friday, March 4th, 2016
Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.
This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.
This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.
We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.
The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.
Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).
Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.
Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.
The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.
The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.
Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.
For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.
The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.
Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.