Dale Farm gypsy Richard Sheridan who held taxpayers to ransom …
Around the village of Crays Hill in Essex, the prosecco corks began popping as news spread that an international ring of rhino horn smugglers had been smashed.
While undoubtedly a positive development for the future of this endangered species, the focus of the residents celebrations earlier this week was less about conservation and more about vindication.
Because of the 14 men convicted of crimes relating to the 57 million scam, one police mugshot stood out from all the rest. Ruddy-cheeked and topped by an unruly crop of hair, the face belonged to a 47-year-old by the name of Richard Sheridan.
Villagers remember him well. Because, for the best part of a decade, he made their lives hell.
Richard Sheridan is arrested during a police raid at the Cottenham traveller site near Cambridge in 2013
It was Sheridan and his extended Irish family who were behind an illegal travellers site on green belt land near the village a rag-tag spread of mobile homes and caravans that would become known across Britain and, indeed the world, as Dale Farm.
There, Sheridan and others manufactured a fight with the authorities that lasted the best part of a decade and ended up costing taxpayers millions of pounds.
As president of The Gypsy Council and official Dale Farm spokesman, it was Sheridan who exploited not just the legal system but the naivety of the nation s bleeding-heart brigade.
When Basildon Council argued that because the site was green belt land, no one should be allowed to build on it, Sheridan accused them of ethnic cleansing .
Legally-aided, he and his supporters then argued their case at every level of the British legal system.
In Westminster, there were meetings with the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, and backing from Sally Bercow, the Speaker s wife.
Sheridan canvassed the Council of Europe for support, addressed the United Nations in Geneva and even befriended the campaigning actress Vanessa Redgrave, who visited the site and announced: The whole situation is really about planning: there s no crime being committed.
One wonders what she, and they, would make of Sheridan now. Because at the same time that he was publicly fighting the Dale Farm eviction, he and his gang were secretly masterminding the theft of rhino horn and valuables from museums and collections across Europe.
The sums involved were astronomical. At 57 million, the value of the items stolen dwarf the loot taken in the Hatton Garden raid.
More than that, experts say the market they fuelled has pushed the rhino even nearer to extinction.
Currently waiting to be sentenced, Sheridan is facing ten years in jail, after which he could face extradition to the United States.
Sheridan, who after the closure of Dale Farm moved to Smithy Fen in Cambridgeshire a notorious travellers camp similar to the one he d just left is not a man who will be missed.
As residents in Crays Hill toasted the news ( Put it this way, we certainly won t be visiting him in jail, one told me this week), what they cannot understand is how so many people were taken in by him for so long.
While others were suckered by his high-minded talk, villagers maintained in vain that his main motivation was not the well-being of an embattled ethnic minority but simply money.
And, as the world now knows, he did not care one jot how he got it.
Turn the clock back to March 2011, six months before the site was finally forcibly cleared, and in the Downham Arms pub, a couple of miles from Dale Farm, a meeting was taking place.
As waitresses served diners with fish and chips or sausages and mash, Sheridan was busy outlining how he believed the situation at the site could be amicably resolved.
Taxpayers funded a 7.1million eviction of the Dale Farm site (pictured) in Basildon, Essex in October 2011 following a bitter 10-year battle over the land
Give me 6 million and we ll go! was the essence of the message he delivered to the man sitting opposite him, Tony Ball, the then leader of Basildon Borough Council and the person in charge of the eviction.
Over the coming months there would be three further secret meetings at which the proposal would be fleshed out. If the council handed over the cash, Sheridan said, he would track down and buy other sites that had planning permission and move everyone on to them.
Given that the piece of land over which they were negotiating was worth a fraction of that sum, it was perhaps surprising that Mr Ball even considered the offer.
But then, as Sheridan was all too well aware, the cost of the coming eviction had been put at 18 million.
And why was the cost so high?
Because the travellers had vowed to fight it to the end. Indeed, even as these meetings were taking place, defensive scaffold barricades around Dale Farm were going up, with Left-wing activists and anarchist groups lining up to join the travellers and defend the site against the bailiffs.
Ultimately, the council walked away from the deal, saying they d met only because they had a duty to explore any way of saving taxpayers money.
Meanwhile, Sheridan tried to sidestep any criticism by claiming his was an adult approach that would have saved money and hassle.
Others were far less gracious, telling me at the time that they saw it as blackmail, pure and simple.
Because, right from the start, they had been in no doubt that the travellers occupation of the site was nothing less than a land grab.Dale Farm, the area under dispute, had first been occupied by gypsies in the Eighties. These were English gypsies, who legally settled on part of the land, securing planning permission for a permanent site.
Richard Sheridan pictured at the Dale Farm site
At the time, there were harmonious relationships between the villagers and the gypsies something that would change dramatically at the turn of the millennium.
It was then that Irish travellers, led by the Sheridan family, started to buy up the legal plots, paying up to 50,000 for each of them.
Having secured a foothold there, one of their number, a man known as John Sheridan, paid 120,000 for a bungalow and land to the east of the legal site.
The land had, in the past, been illegally used as a scrap yard, but it remained green belt and, as such, should have enjoyed the strongest protection from development.
Instead, the land was divided into 51 plots, hardcore and tar were laid down, and the illegal occupation begun.
While the council took out enforcement notices ordering the land to be restored to its original state, the travellers applied for retrospective planning permission. They knew that if that was granted, then the value of the plots would soar, making each one worth upwards of 50,000.
And so the battle began.
But, in many ways, even then it was just a diversion for Sheridan and Co, who had far bigger fish to fry. Because he was part of a wider group of loosely-related Irish travellers living at Dale Farm with links to the town of Rathkeale in County Limerick.
They travelled around Britain and Europe, dealing in antiques, importing furniture, asphalting drives and selling generators and other electrical items door-to-door.
Once a year, over Christmas, they d return home to Rathkeale, where many still owned properties, with the sole purpose of flaunting their wealth.
At that time, the town s population would triple, and the streets clog up with top-of-the range 4X4s, Mercedes and BMWs.
Because of their ostentatious displays of wealth, some dubbed them the Gucci Travellers. But the name that stuck was the Rathkeale Rovers.
And, as we shall see, he was not scared of breaking the law. In the early days, it was cigarettes that Sheridan smuggled 67 million of them.
In 2006, he received a 12-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to evade excise duty fraudulently.
He d also been jailed for a year in 2004 after admitting a similar offence.
The convictions related to two separate imports in 2003. In the first, cigarettes were discovered hidden among fruit and vegetables in a lorry that arrived at King George Dock, Hull. Duty evaded was 161,000.
Less than a month later, Sheridan was arrested after being caught red-handed unloading 640,000 cigarettes from a trailer at a Midlands address, where 69,000 cash was found.
The duty evaded was 70,000 and he was duly jailed for that offence in September 2004.
Only after his release was he charged with the earlier incident.
During his sentencing in 2006, Hull Crown Court was told how Sheridan and his father, John O Brien, funnelled the illicit cigarettes from Belgium.
They were buying anonymously registered mobile telephones to make contact with people back in the UK, showing perhaps a degree of sophistication, trying to cover their tracks, said Nick Worsley, prosecuting.
When these convictions were unearthed by a local paper in Basildon in 2009, Sheridan shrugged it off, claiming they were in the past and that he d paid his dues. In fact as we now know they were a dry run for a far bigger scam that he was in the process of planning. From 2010 onwards, Europol began to piece together reports that suggested an Irish-based gang was targeting museums and stately homes, taxidermists and museums.
What they were after was rhino horn worth more, by weight, than gold, diamonds and cocaine.
Using hired-in criminals to do their dirty work, the gang bored through walls, tied up and pepper-sprayed guards and took sledgehammers to exhibits.
The work of police and bailiffs to move in on Dale farm led to protesters setting fire to tyres and wood at their barricade, with one woman bearing a cross
The gang then sold the stolen artefacts at a massive profit to the Chinese or Vietnamese markets, where rhino horn is reputed to have medical or narcotic properties. As a result of the thefts, many museums removed rhino horns from display, but the gang then targeted rare Oriental artefacts such as jade ornaments and vases instead. There were raids at the Norwich Castle Museum, an auction house in Lewes, East Sussex, and the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, as well as those in Cambridge and Durham.
One Ming Dynasty bowl that was taken in a raid on Durham University was estimated to be worth as much as 16 million.
It was later discovered dumped on waste ground.
During one bungled raid, the thieves attempted to make off with a rhino s head on display at Norwich Castle Museum, but were forced to leave it because it was too heavy to carry.
While the gang s foot-soldiers were relatively easily picked up and convicted for their part in the raids, identifying who was commissioning the jobs took painstaking detective work.
In all there would be three trials, the final one of which concluded earlier this week with the conviction of four men at Birmingham Crown Court.
Ten others had previously been convicted for their part in the raids, details of which can only now be reported.
Among those found guilty of conspiracy to steal were eight individuals with links to Rathkeale, including Sheridan and his father.
The trial heard that Sheridan had been seen in the company of Donald Chi Chong Wong, a millionaire antiques dealer who acted as go-between in the jade deals, shortly before police found 50,000 in cash in the boot of a car.
Officers had put Wong, who lived in a multi-million-pound townhouse overlooking Clapham Common in South-West London, under surveillance after noticing he tended to fly back to and from Hong Kong shortly before and after raids.
Sheridan was arrested in 2013, officers swooping on a mobile home at the Smithy Fen traveller site in Cambridgeshire.
It is a place bitterly familiar to the residents of Crays Hill.
When he was fighting the eviction from Dale Park, Sheridan claimed that he and his fellow travellers had nowhere else to go.
The local villagers believed they were lying and discovered that a number, in fact, owned plots at Smithy Fen.
One such plot was said to have been registered in Sheridan s name in 2002 after it was bought for 30,000 in cash.
The pictures of the moment he was led away by police red-faced and in a state of some undress did not go unnoticed by his former neighbours.
Hence those popping prosecco corks.
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Dale Farm gypsy Richard Sheridan who held taxpayers to ransom …