By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Gang leader John Gilligan received a record four consecutive 28-year sentences on 11 drugs charges connected with his multi-million-pound marijuana-smuggling operation but has been cleared of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin almost five years ago.
The three-judge, no-jury Special Criminal Court also cleared Gilligan, 48, of four firearms offenses after a 43-day trial that followed the biggest manhunt in the history of the state
Gilligan was the third man to face charges for the June 1996 murder of Guerin, who died in a hail of bullets when two men on a motorbike drew up alongside her car at a traffic light on the outskirts of Dublin.
Despite having been attacked and shot twice before her murder, Guerin had continued covering the activities of the criminal underworld for the Sunday Independent.
The murder led to the recall of the Dail and the passing of a series of anti-crime laws, the setting up of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the country’s first witness-protection program.
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Gilligan had been on trial since last December after he had been brought back from England earlier in the year despite fighting his extradition to the British House of Lords.
Almost 200 witnesses testified during the lengthy trial, including three members of the gang who are currently in jail but are on the state witness-protection program.
The court had failed to convict on the murder charge because it did not want to rely on uncorroborated supergrass evidence given by accomplices in the killing.
Police had claimed that while Gilligan was not present at the murder scene — he was out of the country at the time — he had ordered the killing because Guerin was taking an assault case against him.
He had strongly denied the charges and his solicitor said he still maintained his innocence and would appeal the "unprecedented" sentence at the earliest opportunity.
The four concurrent 28-year sentences, the longest ever imposed for drug offenses, runs from Gilligan’s arrest at London’s Heathrow Airport on his way to Amsterdam in October 1996 carrying £330,000 in cash.
The judges found "there was the gravest suspicion that Gilligan was involved in Guerin’s murder, but that it had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt." The judges also accused Gilligan of "insatiable greed" and said he had shown no remorse. They said that never in the history of Irish jurisprudence had one person been found to have caused so much wretchedness to so many.
Guerin’s brother Jimmy, who regularly attended the trial, was disappointed by the murder acquittal but was pleased with the drug sentence.
The man who led the hunt for Guerin’s killers, Assistant Commissioner Tony Hickey, said the result was "cold comfort for the Guerin family." But developments in law enforcement since her murder meant that she had not died in vain.
Both Hickey and Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne said the investigation was not over. At least three members of the gang are believed to be still at large.
More than 100 gardai worked on the investigation. They interviewed 1,400 people, there were 214 arrests, 39 convictions and 105 guns seized. Drugs worth £5 million were seized and the CAB has seized £6.5 million worth of property including Gilligan’s stud farm.
Gardai estimate the gang imported 20,700 kilos (over 20 tons) of Moroccan cannabis through Holland over a period of three years. They are believed to have made a net profit of over £14 million.
Gilligan, who was originally from Ballyfermot, became a career criminal after his first conviction for larceny at the age of 15. He has 16 convictions previous convictions.
Two members of the gang have been found guilty of murder and are serving prison sentences. Brian Meehan drove the motorbike on the day of the murder and Paul Ward disposed of the gun and bike afterward.