When Veronica Guerin was murdered in June 1996, she was not only the most famous journalist in Ireland, she was something of a national heroine. Her exposes on the criminal underworld in Dublin and the violent rise of powerful drug dealers captured the nation's attention.
Her murder touched off the largest criminal investigation in Irish history, one that brought new breaks in the case as recently as last November. Moreover, her death transformed the country in ways few could have expected. Correspondent Steve Kroft revisited the story in 1999 for a 60 Minutes Classic.
The first radio bulletins were sketchy, saying only that someone in a red sports car had been murdered execution style at a major intersection outside Dublin. The police and reporters on the scene knew the victim's identity. They just didn't want to believe it.
When news spread that it was Veronica Guerin, in some mysterious way it touched the Irish soul. People left flowers and cards at government buildings. There was a national moment of silence at offices and factories around the country. Thousands of people attended the funeral, including the president and the prime minister. The country wept when her 6-year-old son Cahal kissed his mother's casket in a final goodbye.
"Everybody read Veronica Guerin," said Chris Finnegan, a retired narcotics detective who was one of her sources. "Everybody throughout the length and breadth of Ireland who wanted to know what was happening went to the Veronica Guerin column, because it was undiluted."
The stories she wrote took her readers into an Ireland few people ever saw, away from the peaceful streets of a tranquil country into an underworld of drugs and organized crime. Inner-city neighborhoods had become infested with heroin. There were 8,000 addicts in Dublin alone. Angel dust, ecstasy and marijuana were finding their way into middle-class neighborhoods. There were a dozen gangland murders. Not one of them was ever solved.
It was as if no one cared, except for Veronica Guerin, who spoke out frequently on Irish television.
The gangsters finally had someone to fear. In the fall of 1994, gunshots were fired through the front window of her house. It didn't stop her. A few months after the warning shots, a gunman burst through the front door. The assailant pushed her up against a wall and put the gun to her head, then moved it slowly down to her thigh and pulled the trigger.
"I could hear the gunman's footsteps running out of the house, and I was just banging my head off the floor saying, 'Christ, I'm alive! I'm alive'!" Guerin said.
Subsequently, her newspaper spent thousands of dollars on a security system for her home. For a while she was given around-the-clock police protection, but she called it off because it was interfering with her work.
That work involved a man by the name of Joh Gilligan, a nasty thug and suspected drug trafficker who, in the few years he had been out of prison, had managed to build a multimillion-dollar estate and equestrian center in the Irish countryside. In September 1995 Guerin paid Gilligan a visit and was unprepared for his response.
"She said he just came out at her, and he started beating and punching her and swearing at her," said Paul Williams, a crime reporter for Dublin's Sunday World newspaper, who was Guerin's competitor and friend.
"There was so much venom in his voice that it scared her," Williams continued. "And he punched her, and he hit her very hard, scared the living daylights out of her. She was on her own. And she said afterward, she said, 'I shouldn't have gone out there, I know that'."
According to a statement Guerin gave the police, her attacker called the very next day to make sure she'd gotten the message. If she wrote about him, he told her, "I'm going to kidnap your son and sodomize him. I'm going to shoot you, do you understand? I'm going to kill you."
If anything, the threats made her more determined to carry out her work.
"Every time we would write about the fact that these guys were getting more dangerous, more sinister and more prepared to blow anybody away who tried to stop them or tried to expose them, we were laughed at," said Williams.
In the end, it took Veronica Guerin's own murder last June 26 to convince people that everything she'd been writing about the criminal underworld was true. About 1 p.m. in the afternoon she stopped for a traffic light at a busy intersection on the outskirts of Dublin. She was being followed by two men on motorcycles.
According to several witnesses, the motorcycle pulled alongside her car, the passenger on the back jumped off, walked over and fired five shots through the window. Veronica Guerin was killed instantly. The gunman jumped back on his motorbike and disappeared in the midday traffic.
"And I know for a fact that in the moments before Veronica was murdered she actually said something to one of the guys because I know that the scumbags who murdered her actually bragged about it to each other afterward," said Williams. "She said, 'Don't shoot me in the face.' And they didn't shoot her in the face because the guy on the bike, who rode the bike, talked about it afterward."
It's impossible to know right now whether that story is true, but it will no doubt become part of Veronica's legend. It's also impossible to know exactly why she continued to pursue the story in the face of such danger. Was she simply naive? Did she allow ambition and the thrill of a good story to cloud her judgement?
Here's what she herself said: "If I said, 'OK, over the next 12, 18, 24 months you're going to have shots fired into your house, be shot yourself and be severely assaulted, and that your family are going to be threatened and intimidated,' a I going to get into it? No, I would never have got into it. But having got into it, I cannot walk away from it because it is a job that must be done, and I'm a journalist."
The investigation has been meticulous, and police have a number of leads. Whether the authorities will be able to prove their suspicions in court is another matter. John Gilligan has not been charged in the murder case, although he has acknowledged he is the prime suspect. Since October he's been locked in an English prison awaiting trial on money-laundering charges.
Irish police recently raided his equestrian center and seized many of his assets, an action made possible through tough new laws passed as a result of Veronica Guerin's death. But maybe the most dramatic evidence of change can be seen at least once a week in the streets of Dublin.
There had been anti-drug marches before, but now people come by the hundreds and, on some nights, by the thousand, adults and children, ordinary people, activists and politicians, marching through poor inner-city neighborhoods and surrounding the homes of suspected drug dealers and ordering them to leave.
"What we're seeing here at the moment is probably one of the most dramatic periods in Irish criminal history," said Williams. "The criminals are on the run big time, and literally gangland has become a very quiet place suddenly."
It may have been quiet in gangland, as the people responsible for Veronica Guerin's murder fled the country within days of the shooting. But since 60 Minutes ran the first story in 1997, it has not been quiet at police headquarters in Dublin. Investigators have been relentless, and their work has paid off.
The first big break in the case came with the arrest of Charles Bowden, a member of John Gilligan's gang and the person who supplied the weapon for the hit squad. Bowden told police he didn't know Veronica Guerin was the target. He has since given the police crucial information, deciding to testify against the drug gang.
He told reporter Paul Williams, who is writing a book, what it was that made him crack during a long police interrogation.
"One old detective was interviewing him and he said, 'You know, you don't realize what this is about do you?' And he said, 'I do.' And there was a lot of mind games going on," says Williams.
"So the police officer left the interview room, came back with a picture of Veronica's body on the slab and another picture of her lying in the car. And he threw them down on the table in front and he said, 'This, Charlie, is what all this is about.' This is what it's all about.' And after that he saw visions that night, he just couldn't hack it anymore. He broke down and he decided to talk," Williams continues.
Bowden is now under heavy guard in the basement of an Irish prison and the first person to enter Ireland's witness protection rogram, which is part of the emergency legislation passed after Guerin's death. Police fear Bowden is still in danger, and they are worried that evidence at police headquarters could get blown away.
"Part of the roof had to be removed from the police station," Williams explains, "in case the terrorists were being paid by the mob, by John Gilligan and his gang, to blow up the police station. In case they did manage to plant the device, that they wouldn't damage the evidence."
Williams says it is now known why she was murdered. It all goes back to that visit she paid to John Gilligan's horse farm. Gilligan was on parole when he beat her up, and when she decided to press assault charges against him, her testimony could have sent him back to jail.
Gilligan is still tossing out threats from his prison cell in England. He reportedly placed a $5 million bounty on the head of Charles Bowden. Recently, the police foiled two assassination attempts on Bowden's life, both linked to former IRA operatives.
None of this has scared Irish reporters and newspaper editors away from the story.
"We've told the people of Ireland every aspect of the case, what they did, what they did with the money, even up to finding the gun," says Williams. "We told them everything, the public, of what happened and who these people were and their background."
Patrick Eugene Holland, who has links to the Irish National Liberation Army, was reportedly paid $200,000 to pull the trigger. While he has not yet been officially charged in Guerin's murder, he is serving a long sentence on drug charges while the investigation continues.
The man suspected of driving the motorbike, Brian Meehan, was finally cornered in Amsterdam by a Dutch SWAT team working with Irish authorities. Last November, Paul Ward was given a life sentence for his role in the murder.