Irish National Pleads Guilty to Rhino-Horn Smuggling Scheme

In this Saturday, July 8, 2017, photo, a one-horned rhinoceros wades through flooded Kaziranga national park in Kaziranga, 156 miles east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/ Anupam Nath)

(CN) – An Irish national pleaded guilty in Miami on Friday to participating in a plot to smuggle a libation cup fashioned from the horn of an endangered rhinoceros.

A statement from the Justice Department on the conviction of Michael Hegarty, 40, offers no insight as to whether Hegarty belongs to a gang of Irish Travelers called the Rathkeale Rovers who were accused by Europol of a conspiracy to plunder tens of millions of dollars worth of rhino horn and other priceless Chinese artifacts from British museums.

Reporting on the UK case from the Irish Times and The Independent mentions a man with the same name as the defendant, but describes him as older. In separate 2016 articles, the Times called this Hegarty 43, and The Independent put his age at 46.

The 40-year-old Hegarty who pleaded guilty Friday in Florida admitted that he and a co-conspirator joined a Miami resident in mid-April 2012 at an auction in Rockingham, North Carolina, where they entered a winning bid for the libation cup made of rhinoceros horn.

Though no full name is given for the Miami resident or Hegarty’s co-conspirator, the Justice Department identifies the bidder just as “Sheridan.”

It is unclear whether this Sheridan is the same individual as Patrick Sheridan, an Irish national who was extradited to the United States in 2015 on charges of rhinoceros horn trafficking.

After picking up the cup with Hegarty in Florida, according to a statement from the Justice Department, Hegarty’s “co-conspirator then smuggled the libation cup out of the United States in his luggage.”

Metropolitan Police arrested the co-conspirator, along with two other Irish nationals, in London, while attempting to sell the same rhinoceros horn libation cup to a Hong Kong native.

Prosecutors say a government forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, confirmed that the libation cup was fashioned from the horn of a great Indian rhinoceros, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act. 

Hegarty was extradited to the United States from Belgium after he was arrested through an Interpol red notice. His co-conspirator is currently incarcerated in England meanwhile; the government notes he was convicted there on unrelated charges and is still wanted to face wildlife-trafficking charges in the Southern District of Florida. 

U.S. District Donald Middlebrooks accepted Hegarty’s guilty plea and will conduct sentencing on Nov. 14, 2017 at 2:20 p.m.

Hegarty faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, or up to twice the gross gain.  

Europol says the Rathkeale Rovers have been involved in an epidemic of raids on museums in Europe involving the theft of rhinoceros horns. The group allegedly leverages the rising price for rhinoceros horns on the black market to be used for traditional medicines and carving.

Some Chinese people believe that drinking from rhinoceros horn cups with bring good health. The giant, prehistoric beasts are protected by U.S. and international laws. More than 90 percent of wild rhino populations have been slaughtered illegally since the 1970s, because of the price their horns can bring, the Justice Department says.

America’s multiagency crackdown on the illegal rhino trade is known as Operation Crash, a nod to the term for a herd of rhinoceros.

The only predator of the rhinoceros is humans. Prosecutors said increasing demand is partly responsible for fueling a thriving black market that includes fake antiques made from recently hunted rhinoceros.

Among members of the gang who have been charged with smuggling crimes in the United States are Michael Slattery Jr. and Patrick Sheridan.

Another Irish traveler, Richard Kerry O’Brien, sued Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014 for reporting that he belonged to the Rathkeale Rovers.

O’Brien was a resident of Rathkeale in County Limerick but said there was nothing criminal about his business of importing antiques from China.

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