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Roller skates and rifles: how IRA group tried to sneak arms out of US

Previous articles in this series have described fund-raising activities in the United States by the Irish Northern Aid Committee (Noraid) and court testimony indicating that some of the money has been used to buy arms for the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army. Today's article chronicles the arms-smuggling attempts of a group of IRA gunrunners in 1982 and their 1983 trial. ROLLER skates and comforters. Innocuous enough products, although not exactly the kind that might be listed on shipping orders to conceal a heavy shipment of 51 rifles, 55 blasting caps, and remote control bomb equipment bound, in May 1982, for the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

But the ploy might have worked had the gunrunners themselves not already been under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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Indeed, the FBI learned about the smuggling effort while in the process of setting up a sting operation aimed at closing down the same Brooklyn-based IRA gunrunning group. An agent monitoring a wiretap overheard that a shipment of guns was ready to go. The FBI simply kept an eye on the individuals involved and followed the boxes of roller skates, comforters, and guns from Brooklyn, to Manhattan, to Port Newark where they were finally seized by federal authorities.

But this haul represented only a small part of the Brooklyn gunrunning operation. As the FBI had learned, these gunrunners were interested in sending more than just Armalite rifles and bomb equipment to the IRA. They were also shopping for US surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.

The resulting 1983 gunrunning trial in Brooklyn ended with the conviction of four men, including an illegal Irish immigrant said to have been the head of all IRA operations in the United States.

The case -- the largest successful prosecution of IRA gunrunners by US authorities -- offers a detailed portrait of the inner workings of an IRA weapons-smuggling operation in New York City.

It also illustrates the tangled web law-enforcement officials must deal with in trying to keep up with a dedicated corps of Irishmen and Irish-Americans determined to smuggle arms, ammunition, and bombs to IRA guerrillas in Northern Ireland.

The story begins in Buffalo, N.Y.

In February 1982, five men were arrested trying to sneak into the United States near Buffalo. They were carrying $10,000 in cash and what appeared to be a ``shopping list'' for weapons and bomb equipment.

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Two of the arrested men turned out to be Desmond Ellis and Edward Howell. Both were suspected by Canadian and British authorities to have been involved in the 1979 assassination of Earl Mountbatten. Lord Mountbatten, a World War II British hero and great-grandson of Queen Victoria, was killed when his fishing boat was blown up in an apparent remote-control detonation of a very large bomb. The Provisional IRA said it carried out the killing.

Ellis was reported to be an IRA expert in remote-control detonation of bombs.

Howell was suspected of being the mastermind of the Mountbatten assassination plot.

Among items the men were said to be shopping for in the US: 200,000 rounds of ammunition, various remote-control detonation devices, and remote-control model airplanes capable of carrying 20 pounds of explosives as far as five miles.

Benedict J. Ferro, director of the Buffalo office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says that in addition to recovering the cash and the ``shopping list,'' federal officials found an address book with names and phone numbers of contacts in the US.

It was this item that made at least one group of New York City-based IRA gunrunners nervous in early 1982. Among the names in the book: Gabriel Megahey, a New York bartender.

A few days after the five were arrested in Buffalo, the FBI -- as part of an investigation begun months before -- placed a wiretap on Megahey's home telephone in Queens, New York. Megahey was believed to be the head of an IRA gunrunning ``cell'' operating in New York.

Federal documents on file in Manhattan indicate that Megahey and his middleman (SEE CORRECTION BELOW) in the a problem,'' Megahey told an unidentified man in a arms deals, Andrew Duggan, a construction foreman, were alarmed when they learned of the Buffalo arrests.

``Every time somebody comes down, there is a problem,'' Megahey told an unidentified man in a phone conversation monitored by the FBI on Feb. 14, 1982. The conversation went on: ``You know what they had on them. My name.''

Two days earlier in a phone conversation, Duggan asked Megahey, ``Are any of the boys going to get a break?''

Megahey answered: ``Four are getting a break and one's got to stay.'' (In the Buffalo case, four of the defendants were released on bail, while Ellis -- wanted on explosives charges in Dublin -- remained in jail.)

There is no indication that either Ellis or Howell ever made direct contact with Megahey.

But according to testimony in Megahey's trial, an IRA bomb and electronics expert was expected at that time to be sent to New York City to assist in equipment purchases.

According to court documents, the new IRA bomb expert was supposed to replace a man named Brendan Sloan (alias Brendan Dougherty), who had lived in the Bronx the previous year.

Sloan had paid some $7,000 for electronic components that, according to court testimony, were to be used in remote control bombs.

As for Howell, he was deported from the US and was subsequently deported from Canada and sent back to Ireland. But during a change of planes in Paris on March 4, 1982, Howell managed to ditch his Canadian escort with an old trick.

He asked to go the lavatory -- alone. Newspaper reports speculated that he simply hailed a cab and disappeared in Paris. Roughly a month later, Howell was seen in a Dublin restaurant receiving a bag filled with $80,000 in US currency. According to testimony in Dublin's Special Criminal Court, the money was handed to him by Joe Cahill.

Howell testified that the cash was to finance the political activities of Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the Provisional IRA. Indeed, Cahill, a convicted gunrunner and former Belfast commander of the IRA, is joint treasurer of Sinn Fein.

Howell denied in court he was a member of the outlawed Provisional IRA. He was subsequently acquitted of charges that he was a member of the illegal group.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Megahey was in the process of being set up for a sting operation by a well-placed informant and a host of FBI undercover agents. The agents, posing as Latin American arms merchants, offered to sell the IRA gunrunners five Redeye surface-to-air missiles at $10,000 each.

Megahey and Duggan were interested. According to wiretap transcripts and transcripts compiled by the FBI from other electronic surveillance, Duggan told undercover agents: ``I know one of the things that's super important is the SAM missiles.'' He called their purchase a ``No. 1 priority.''

He noted that the IRA wanted the missiles to shoot down British helicopters in Northern Ireland.

At one point Megahey bragged to an undercover FBI agent that he was the head of the IRA in the United States. He also boasted that he had access to $1 million for weapons purchases.

``What we are dealing for here at the minute moneywise is chicken feed. It's nothing,'' Megahey told special agent Enrique Ghimenti speaking of the proposed $50,000 deal for five SAM missiles.

He added, ``Once we hit the first one, right, and we build a relationship up, then we're prepared to come in with a lot of big money.''

Duggan is recorded saying that the group had ``probably 10 sources'' of arms in the US.

Surveillance transcripts even record Megahey getting cold feet on the SAM missile deal. He was concerned that he was being set up.

In one recorded conversation he told an undercover agent posing as the head Latin American arms merchant that the way the deal had been arranged it would be an ideal setup for a police sting operation. The details troubled him.

He said he wasn't concerned that he might be conned by professional thieves. ``It wouldn't bother me getting ripped off for $50,000 or $60,000, because I know sooner or later with the network we have I'm gonna come up with somebody,'' Megahey told the undercover agent.

``I've only one worry -- police,'' he said.

But Megahey had a system worked out to ensure not only that the goods were delivered but that his people were protected.

It involved the holding of mutual hostages until the deal was successfully completed.

As Duggan explained it: ``What we've done before is you hold our man there. . . . We hold your man here until the transaction is finished. . . . You got your money, we got the stuff, and your man is released, and our man is released. . . . That's what we usually do.''

Megahey explained it a bit more tersely to an undercover agent: ``If any of my men get nicked, you're dead. . . . If any of your men get nicked, . . . the guy you have is dead.''

He added, ``If I go to jail, I'm gonna know somebody's going down a hole. And it gives you the same protection it gives me.''

Later Megahey speculated that even if the arms deal was detected by the ``Feds'' that he wouldn't go to prison. ``Probably the only one that won't go to jail in this whole thing will be me because I'm never near nothing,'' Megahey said.

He was wrong.

Last September, Megahey started serving a seven-year sentence in a federal penitentiary. He, Duggan, and two associates were convicted of conspiring to ship arms to the IRA.

Due to computer difficulties, a sentence was garbled in Friday's installment of a series on Noraid's links to the Irish Republican Army. The sentence should have read: Federal documents on file in Manhattan indicate that Megahey and his middleman in the arms deals, Andrew Duggan, a construction foreman, were alarmed when they learned of the Buffalo arrests.

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