Traveller gang targeted over stolen rhino horns
By Cormac O’Keeffe and Kerry Sheridan
Friday, May 11, 2012
A notorious Traveller criminal network which dominates a multi-million dollar global trade in stolen rhino horn is being targeted in a huge police operation in the United States.
A crackdown in the US has resulted so far in the seizure of 37 rhino horns, which authorities there have valued at between $8m (€6m) and $10m (€7.7m).
Operation Crash has not to date arrested any members of the so-called Rathkeale Rovers, a criminal Traveller network, originally from Rathkeale in Co Limerick.
The Rathkeale Rovers have become notorious across Europe and beyond for their involvement in the highly profitable rhino horn trade.
Last July, the EU police agency, Europol, said the Traveller gang was an "organised crime group" which was also heavily involved in tarmac fraud, the distribution of counterfeit goods, organised robbery, money laundering and drug trafficking.
It said their reach spread across North and South America, China and Australia and that they used "intimidation and violence" in their activities.
Europol estimate that rhino horns, which are used in traditional medicine and decoration, were worth between €25,000 and €200,000 each.
The agency said the Irish gang sourced horns by targeting antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections and zoos.
It said they sold them by "exploiting" international auction houses in France, the US and China.
Europol said the gang had invested "significant proceeds of crime in Ireland — mainly in real estate and other assets".
Rhino horn is sold in Chinese traditional medicine, as an aphrodisiac, as a decoration or to produce luxury products.
Trading in rhino horns is illegal under UN laws as they are an endangered species.
Last February, three agencies in the US — the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Homeland Security Department and the Internal Revenue Service — set up a huge operation to uncover buyers of rhino horn.
Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said 37 rhino horns were seized in the country’s biggest ever operation in this area.
Among eight people arrested were a rodeo cowboy, a Chinese businessman, a Vietnamese nail salon owner and a US antiques expert.
Though no Irish people were arrested in the crackdown, more arrests are expected in the coming months, Mr Grace said.
"This case also involves other Irish buying rhino horns in the US," Mr Grace told AFP. "I can’t go into a lot of details on it."
He said criminals scoured the country for trophies of the animals hunted illegally in South Africa and brought back in the US in recent decades.
It was the activities of two Irish men, Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty, from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, that brought the attention of US law enforcement to the trade.
The duo were arrested after paying undercover agents in Colorado some $17,000 for four black rhino horns.
They told agents they planned to hide them in furniture which they would ship to Ireland.
They were charged with conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering, and served six months in a US prison.
Mr Grace said the trade in illegal rhino horn was "really being fuelled by the Irish Travellers", but said Chinese and Vietnamese criminals were also involved.
He likened the crime to the drugs trade: "It is similar to an operation of a drug cartel. You have the higher ups who provide the money, the mid-level lieutenants who get the couriers and the smugglers, so you have the whole organised criminal element here."
In the United States, it is illegal to sell most types of rhino horns across state lines and none may be imported or exported without a special permit.
The maximum penalties are a $250,000 fine and five years in prison for conspiracy and trafficking of endangered species, and $100,000 and one year in prison for violating the Endangered Species Act.
Since illegal trafficking fuels poaching of endangered rhinos abroad, "part of the responsibility worldwide to help protect these species falls on the United States," said Mr Grace.
Cash and jewellery found as search for burglar gang continues
Thursday, May 03, 2012
As wide-scale searches continued in West Limerick last night for three members of a Cork City-based burglar gang, gardaí discovered a large quantity of cash and jewellery discarded in a field.
The money and jewellery was stolen in house break-ins earlier this week in Co Limerick.
One member of the Traveller gang, aged 23, who was arrested on Tuesday will appear at Limerick District Court this morning.
He and the three others are suspected of being involved in burglaries on Monday and Tuesday at Martinstown, Ballyneety and Pallsagreen.
Garda search teams were yesterday backed up by the Garda helicopter and armed members of the Regional Support Unit as they combed wide tracts of bogland and forests near the village of Raheenagh.
The three men abandoned a black Volvo with a false ‘D’ registration before they took off through open countryside on Tuesday. They drove into a Garda checkpoint set up under an operation mounted in Cork, Kerry and Limerick to tackle known gangs roaming the three counties.
The car which was originally registered in England, was not stolen and gardaí believe it may yield vital clues in the investigation which is a joint Limerick/Cork operation. It is being forensically examined.
Gangs have been responsible for a spate of burglaries in the Limerick area in recent weeks and gardaí are confident developments this week will help deliver a major blow to mobile criminals drawn from various Traveller families living in Cork City.
A Garda spokesman said: "Our people in Cork and Limerick are working very closely on this investigation and we are confident of more arrests."
Retired L.A. Art Crime detective sentenced to 27 years to life for 1986 murder
Los Angeles (CNN) -- A California judge sentenced a retired Los Angeles Police detective Friday to 27 years to life in prison for murdering her ex-boyfriend's wife in a jealous rage more than two decades ago.
Stephanie Ilene Lazarus, 52, was convicted of biting and shooting Sherri Rasmussen, 29, in her townhouse in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986.
Lazarus, who rose through ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department and became a veteran art theft detective, could be eligible for parole in 22 years. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry gave Lazarus credit for time served in jail since her arrest at LAPD headquarters in June 2009.
A jury convicted her in March of first-degree murder.
Friday's sentence was the maximum under state law, prosecutors said.
Lazarus was charged with staging the crime scene to look like a burglary gone bad, and police long believed that Rasmussen was the victim of two male burglars.
The 1986 case went cold for years. Then it was reopened in 2004 and again in 2009, when DNA from a bite mark on the victim's arm came back as a match to the detective.
When Lazarus became a suspect, homicide detectives faced "special challenges as Lazarus' office was located next door to the detectives who were now investigating her," police said in a statement in March.
Rasmussen, a hospital nursing supervisor, was the new bride of John Ruetten, who had been Lazarus' college sweetheart. Married for just three months, Ruetten found his wife's body when he returned home from work. Rasmussen was brutally beaten and shot three times in the chest, authorities said.
Los Angeles County deputy prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez submitted a written statement to the court prior to the sentencing, according to the prosecutor's office.
"Lazarus has never taken responsibility for her acts," the prosecutors wrote. "Lazarus has never expressed any regret or remorse for her actions. Lazarus' profound narcissism led her to kill and continues to motivate her denial of responsibility. This unrepentant selfishness poses a real and significant danger to any person whose interests conflict with Lazarus' egotistic desires."
Before the sentencing Friday, Rasmussen' mother, Loretta, told the court that her family has endured "extreme pain" over her daughter's murder.
"Every day we miss her laughter and her love," the mother told the judge.
In his remarks to the judge, a tearful Ruetten said Rasmussen was "just trying to save her own life" on the day of her murder.
"I just can't bear thinking about these moments," Ruetten told the court.
After the sentencing, Lazarus, manacled and dressed in a jail jumpsuit, waved and smiled to an apparent loved one in the courtroom gallery as she was escorted back to jail, carrying a folder.
Following Lazarus' conviction in March, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the case was "a tragedy on every level."
"Not only did the family of Sherri Rasmussen lose a wife and a daughter, a life that can never be returned, but also the LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime," Beck said in a written statement.
"I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy," he said.
Rasmussen, director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, was a tall, athletic 29-year-old with a pretty smile.
At the time of the slaying, Lazarus was in her second year with the Los Angeles Police Department. The killing occurred on February 24, 1986, a Monday. Lazarus had taken the day off; Rasmussen had called in sick that morning. Authorities estimate she died before lunchtime.
Prosecutors argued that Lazarus was in love with Ruetten and distraught when she learned he married someone else.
During the trial, Ruetten testified he casually dated Lazarus after college, but he never considered her a girlfriend and dated other women while seeing her. Lazarus eventually married a Los Angeles Police detective and the couple adopted a daughter.
According to prosecutors, the key to unlocking Lazarus' dark secret lay for years on the back shelf of an evidence freezer in the coroner's office. In a vial inside a sealed evidence envelope was a cotton swab. On that swab, prosecutors say, was DNA taken from saliva from the bite wound on Rasmussen's left forearm.
Testing in 2005 revealed the assailant was a woman. Some detectives, however, clung to the burglary theory and focused their inquiries on known female prowlers.
But from the beginning, the victim's family had pointed to an ex-girlfriend of Ruetten's who was a cop, and as the DNA testing advanced, undercover police followed Lazarus to a Costco store and retrieved a discarded soda from a trash can. Saliva traces from the straw matched the bite mark DNA, and she officially became a suspect.
Lazarus was confronted, and another sample was taken from her shortly before her arrest. Tests revealed the DNA found in the bite mark on Rasmussen's left forearm belonged to Lazarus.
Deputy Assistant District Attorney Presby told jurors during the trial that the chance of the killer being anyone else is "one in 1.7 sextillion."
To avoid botching an undercover investigation of one of their own, LAPD officials carefully devised a plan to arrest Lazarus. On June 5, 2009, Detective Daniel Jaramillo from the department's robbery-homicide division approached Lazarus at her desk in the department's headquarters and asked her to accompany him downstairs to the department's jail facility, where she would not be able to bring her gun.
He told Lazarus he needed her help interrogating a man who claimed to have information on stolen art, Lazarus' specialty in the detectives unit. A nearly hour-long recorded interview followed.
After one of the detectives alludes to the evidence that implicated her in the killing, Lazarus said, "Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane. This is absolutely crazy. This is insane."
Minutes later she walked out of the interview room, only to be stopped, handcuffed and told she was under arrest in the murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen.
Lazarus's attorney, John Overland, has argued in court that the crime scene evidence from 1986 was mishandled and tainted years ago and couldn't be trusted.
Cops unravel New York link to Sringeri idol theft
KOCHI: Three years after the trail turned cold in the sensational robbery of a centuries-old emerald idol of Lord Shiva from Sringeri Mutt in Kalady, Kerala police claim they have cracked the case. State crime branch officials said they suspect Subhash Kapoor, an UP-born US citizen and antique smuggler who runs a gallery in New York, and is the public face of a clandestine international racket in ancient artefacts.
Kapoor is allegedly behind a number of idol heists from Tamil Nadu as well, and police here surmise that he is involved in the burglary of five idols, similar to the Sringeri one, from other temples in Kerala. A report of the economic offences wing of the Tamil Nadu police reveals that Kapoor runs a private museum called Art of the Past and an export company, Nimbus Import Inc, in New York. He specialises in shipping out and selling stolen antiques to museums, private collectors and dealers through a wide network ranging across India, Pakistan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand.
Kapoor was arrested in Germany in October 2011 following a red corner notice issued by the CBI with the help of Interpol. "We will approach the TN police and are planning to make a joint effort to extradite him from Germany," a senior crime branch official, who requested anonymity, told TOI.
Kapoor is believed to have masterminded the theft of 18 panchaloha idols from the Arulmigu Sundareswarar and Varadharaja Perumal temples at Suthamalli village in Ariyalur district on April 13, 2008. "The TN police are already at his back in connection with the theft of antique idols from various temples in Tamil Nadu. We are now expecting to make a breakthrough in the Sringeri Mutt case also," the official said.
The TN police report points out that antique idols were shipped from Chennai harbour to US in two batches between May and July 2006. Kapoor paid a dollar equivalent of Rs 1,16,37,694 from his account with HSBC Bank in New York to an accomplice identified as Sanjivi Asokan, suspected to be his point man in Chennai. Asokan was earlier arrested by a special team of the Kerala police in connection with the Sringeri case but it is only now that they became aware of his link with Kapoor.
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