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Irish crime lord acquitted of having reporter killed

A crime boss was acquitted Thursday of ordering the 1996 slaying of newspaper reporter Veronica Guerin, though the presiding judges said they had "grave suspicions" he was responsible.

John Gilligan sat impassively throughout the 100-minute reading of the verdict in Ireland's no-jury Special Criminal Court. The 48-year-old Gilligan stared at the ceiling as the senior member of the three-judge panel, Justice Diarmuid O'Donovan, cleared him on murder and weapons possession charges but convicted him on 11 counts related to running what was Ireland's biggest drug-smuggling operation.

Gilligan later received a 28-year sentence _ the longest for a drug-related offense in Irish legal history.

His defense lawyer, Joe Rice, vowed to appeal a term that would likely mean no parole for about 15 years. But O'Donovan said it was punishment proportionate to Gilligan's "insatiable greed."

"Never in the history of Irish jurisprudence has one person caused so much damage to so many people, damage that is going to last for generations," O'Donovan said of Gilligan, who police think personally netted more than $25-million in two years of smuggling marijuana from Holland.

The sentence offered some consolation to relatives of Guerin, a 37-year-old reporter for the Sunday Independent newspaper who specialized in exposes of Dublin's criminal underworld.

"He received a fitting sentence, but I was saddened that he wasn't convicted of her murder," Guerin's brother Jimmy said outside the court.

Guerin was fatally shot as she sat behind the wheel of her car on June 26, 1996. She and police had been pursuing criminal proceedings against Gilligan after he allegedly beat her up and threatened to kill her. The gunman, a passenger on a motorcycle, fired six bullets into Guerin.

Her slaying, which captured worldwide attention and inspired a Hollywood film, spurred the Irish government to create a Criminal Assets Bureau with widespread powers to seize suspected criminals' property, money and documents.

The government also funded Ireland's first witness-protection program. That proved crucial in securing murder convictions in 1998 and 1999 against two lower-ranking members of Gilligan's gang: Brian Meehan, who drove the motorcycle, and Paul Ward, who disposed of it and the firearm. The gunman has never been publicly identified or charged.

Three gang members now in the witness-protection program testified against Ward, Meehan and Gilligan in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

But the three judges said Thursday they needed much more evidence separate from the informers' testimony _ some of which they said was suspect _ to ensure that Gilligan was guilty of ordering Guerin slain.

Police Commissioner Pat Byrne said the investigation, the biggest ever launched in Ireland, involved some 100 detectives, 425 searches and 420 arrests, resulting in 40 convictions.