Reputed IRA chief arrested

Friday, November 9, 2007
Thomas "Slab" Murphy, a millionaire Irish republican, arrives at the District Court at Ardee, Ireland, Thursday Nov. 8, 2007, where he appeared on charges of tax evasion. Murphy, 58, alleged to be a one-time chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army, faced nine charges of failing to file tax returns.(AP Photo/Julien Behal-pa) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT: NO SALES: NO ARCHIVE: **

DUBLIN, Ireland -- The Irish Republican Army's reputed commander emerged from his life in the shadows Thursday, appearing in court for the first time to be charged with massive tax evasion.

Irish police and prosecutors -- stymied for decades in their efforts to put the alleged terror mastermind and fuel smuggler Thomas "Slab" Murphy behind bars -- are now using the same approach that U.S. authorities took to nail Al Capone: following the money trail.

The rarely photographed Murphy, 58, had been lying low since British and Irish authorities raided his border-straddling farm in March 2006 and found a vast fuel-smuggling operation that included several tanker trucks, an underground pipeline, cash and checks in bags, and laptops hidden in hay bales. They suspected he escaped at that time using a tunnel underneath the property.

On Wednesday night detectives from the police's anti-racketeering squad caught Murphy as he was being driven away from a Gaelic football game.

Police and doctors said he feigned illness to go to a local hospital and stall for time. But early Thursday he was charged with nine counts of failing to make tax returns.

As police escorted Murphy into Ardee District Court, he tried to shield his face with both arms held high, exposing only his bald pate.

But when he walked free hours later -- courtesy of Ireland's unusually liberal bail laws -- the stocky, short bachelor managed a Mona Lisa smile as photographers and camera crews captured the puffy, uncovered face of one of the country's most feared militants.

Detective Inspector Kevin Ring of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau said when he read the charges to Murphy in police custody, Murphy repeatedly responded: "I want my solicitor here."

Prosecutors argued against granting Murphy bail, noting that the alleged tax evasion involved some $3.7 million. He could face heavy fines and a possible prison sentence if convicted.

But Murphy's lawyer, Paul Tiernan, said his client was a bachelor farmer "of good character" with no previous convictions.

Judge Flan Brennan accepted $102,500 in sureties from the Murphy family, including deeds to two plots of land provided by a sister and brother-in-law.

IRA chief of staff

Brennan ordered Murphy to surrender his Irish passport, report daily to a local police station, and to appear in court next Wednesday.

Murphy lost two libel suits against Britain's Sunday Times newspaper after it published a 1985 investigation describing him as the IRA's chief of staff, as well as a smuggler of arms and fuel. Two Dublin juries -- which heard testimony from ex-IRA men identifying him as the commander in the IRA's major rural power base, the borderland of South Armagh -- ruled that the Sunday Times report was truthful.

Murphy has been arrested many times since the early 1970s, but before Thursday was always released without charge.

Efforts to shut down the IRA's involvement in organized crime has increased since September 2005, when the underground organization surrendered its Libyan-supplied weapons stockpile. The IRA killed about 1,775 people during its failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.

When the IRA was on a war footing, police could not operate in Murphy's South Armagh heartland. British patrols had to use helicopters instead of vehicles because of the risk of roadside bombs. People who were suspected of telling police about IRA activities often were tortured, shot and dumped by the roadside.

Histories of the IRA have identified Murphy as an IRA weapons-smuggler who helped to procure supplies by traveling to Libya using false passports. Libya supplied the IRA with more than 100 tons of weaponry, chiefly in the mid-1980s.

In October 2005, detectives raided a property management agency in Manchester, England, in pursuit of what they alleged was a 250-property portfolio purchased, at least in part, with money laundered from Murphy's fuel business. The Manchester property managers denied wrongdoing, but said they had sold several properties to Murphy's brother Francis.

In January 2007, the United Kingdom Assets Recovery Agency said it seized 77 of those Manchester properties valued at $24 million. The anti-racketeering agency said all the properties had been purchased and rented "through the proceeds of unlawful conduct, including money laundering, tax evasion, false accounting, mortgage fraud and benefit fraud."

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