International crime wave of notorious rhino gang
Members of an organised crime gang have been jailed after plotting to steal up to £57m (€71m) in rhino horn and Chinese artefacts in a series of museum raids.
The group, dubbed the Rathkeale Rovers because of their links to the Limerick town, targeted high-value objects in a string of break-ins across the globe.
They first struck in South Africa in April 2009 when they stole two 19th century white rhino horns from the Iziko Museum in Cape Town.
From there they moved on to carry out raids in Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and Sweden.
In England they targeted Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham's Oriental Museum in 2012.
Judge Murray Creed, at Birmingham Crown Court, heard that although the items stolen in Durham and Cambridge were valued at around £17m (€22m), detectives believe they might have fetched more than three times that on the booming Chinese auction market.
Members of the same gang also masterminded an offence at Gorringes Auction House in Lewes, East Sussex, and organised the disposal of stolen artefacts.
Sentencing seven of the 14-strong gang, Judge Creed said the criminal enterprise "involved high-value goods with significant harm caused to victims, both museums and members of the public who would otherwise have viewed the material stolen".
"It is a sophisticated, skilled and persistent conspiracy that involved significant cultural loss to the UK," he added.
Thirteen men are being sentenced after three trials that concluded with the gang and its associates being convicted of criminal conspiracy to steal, which uncovered connections to Ireland, Europe and China.
The judge began by jailing Richard 'Kerry' O'Brien Jnr (31), of Cambridgeshire and Rathkeale, for five-and-a-half years.
His uncle, John 'Cash' O'Brien (68), of Fifth Avenue, Wolverhampton, was jailed for five years and three months.
Daniel 'Turkey' O'Brien (45) and Daniel Flynn (45), both of Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, were jailed for six years and eight months and four years respectively.
The judge said he found Flynn played "a leading role", but reduced his sentence based on "the fragility of his mental health".
Alongside the men in the dock was 56-year-old Donald Wong, of Lambeth, London, described by the judge as "a buyer, seller and valuer". He was jailed for five-and-a-half years.
Paul Pammen (49), of Southend-on-Sea, and Alan Clarke (37), of Newham, London, who was said to have headed the gang's "disposal team", were also jailed for five-and-a-half years each. Six other men will be sentenced today.
A 14th man had already been convicted and sentenced last year for his part in the crime.
The judge said the operation to "plunder" rhino horn, carved horn and carved jade items started off "small-scale" in January 2012, but after initial failures and botched thefts - in one case they forgot where they had hidden their haul - "planning paid off".
In their most successful theft, 18 pieces of Chinese jade were stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum. Experts provided various valuations up to almost £18m (€22.5m), but Judge Creed said they were "priceless".
"The conspiracy spanned England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, references were made to France - the Cherbourg visit, Hong Kong and the United States and Germany, also featured in the evidence the court heard over the three trials," said the judge.
He said the gang had either stolen or tried to steal "museum-quality" items, often with historic imperial Chinese dynastic connections, with the exception of an attempted theft at an auction house in March 2012 in which the bungling thieves took the wrong item.
On two occasions the Oriental Museum in Durham was targeted, but also the Castle Museum in Norwich, Gorringes Auction House in Lewes and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
The men carried out reconnaissance of these and other sites, including three museums in Glasgow.
Judge Creed said there had been "no expression of regret or remorse" from the men, and acknowledged there was "no prospect of recovery".
The remaining gang members will be sentenced at the city's crown court today.