VIDEO: Former Dublin gangster talks drugs, violence and cash
He was the classic soldier for the mob.
A teenager from the flats desperate for more, a street fighter with a feared reputation and a boy with an insatiable hunger for hard cash.
Looking back now, Joey O’Brien (32), sees that his was a clear path right into the heart of a murderous drug cartel, a brutal world where money is everything and life can end in an instant.
His own story is still unfolding. He lives now on the run, with a €250k bounty on his head, every trip back to Ireland is taken at huge risk to his life and he has been exiled from the world he once knew – a world now dubbed the Kinahan Cartel.
Branded a ‘rat’, Joey committed the ultimate sin when he turned State witness and gave evidence against a hit-team which he was part of. He did it to save his own skin. He did it for a second chance.
“It is the ultimate sin. It is totally unforgivable. For me there is no going back. I knew as soon as I agreed to give evidence that that was it – I had wiped away my entire life. It was over. Life, as I knew it, was over,” he says.
Joey had been part of the team hired by Christopher ‘Git’ Zambra to kill his love rival John ‘Champagne’ Carroll in 2009.
Zambra and Carroll, both high-level dealers, had been fighting over the same woman. Zambra, who was shot dead in 2014, stood trial twice for murder on the evidence given by Joey, but was acquitted.
However, hitman Peter Kenny was convicted on his testimony. Two other men, Bernard Hempenstall and Damien Johnston, also stood trial on evidence given by Joey, but were acquitted.
In the years since he turned ‘supergrass’, life as a protected witness has meant one thing for Joey – working hard for a living. He now earns a normal salary working as a tradesman and, like any normal civilian, he has to scrimp and save to afford the luxuries in life.
Once it was very different.
“I was earning so much dealing drugs that I would think nothing of blowing €5,000 on a bet. I would spend three days on a cocaine and champagne booze binge in hotel rooms,” he says.
“That is the reality of making so much money. You have so much of it you have absolutely no respect for it. You don’t care if you drop thousands on a night out because you know you will make it all again tomorrow. That’s the lure. That is what it is all about.
“I would go out and buy a car on a whim – a big car, an expensive car, not a new car, but a BMW, a Merc or whatever took my fancy. The last car registered to me in Dublin was a huge big bullet-proof Mercedes. It was for sale and I thought it would be fun to buy it. I was only 22 years old at that stage.
“I bought nice watches, clothes and wouldn’t have thought anything of spending €10,000 on a holiday. All on a whim,” he says.
“You just woke up one day and decided you needed these things and you had the money to buy them. It was nothing, a drop in the ocean. I went to Thailand, Lanzarote and holidayed in Spain.
“Who is ever going to get fed up with all that money? I know now that there is more to life than money, but back then that is all that mattered. Anyone who got in the way or rocked the boat was just removed. It was as simple as that.”
Joey’s closest friends were all in the game too. He hung around with David Byrne, who was murdered in the Regency Hotel last year, with Kinahan kingpin Greg Lynch, who now runs the south inner city for the gang, and with James Quinn, currently in custody in Spain on suspicion of murdering Gary Hutch, and other Kinahan targets.
“A few years after I started selling [drugs], my family moved up to Crumlin and that is when I got really embedded in it all. I knew them all – Liam and David Byrne, Gareth Chubb, Liam Roe and Greg Lynch. We were distributing the drugs and making tens of thousands a week. We hung out together, we partied hard,” he says.
“We would often head into town, usually somewhere around Temple Bar, and we’d start on a session. We’d be sniffing [cocaine] all day and then we’d book a hotel room and continue there. It could last for days on end.
“We were regulars at the Vatican [nightclub]. Me and Greg Lynch were really good friends. He is a strange guy but he gets all the girls. David [Byrne] and I were always out and about. Liam [Byrne] doesn’t take coke and I don’t think he even drinks.
“Gareth Chubb is a mad f***er. He loves the coke, but he can’t control his temper. He is in prison now in Holland and he would need to be careful or he will get himself killed. He just flies off the handle.
“Everyone has their thing – be it the coke, the booze or the girls. My thing was gambling.
“I’d be popping in and out of the bookies all the time, placing huge bets on the horses or the football. I’d lose thousands in a few minutes, but it never bothered me. I had plenty more.
“While the gambling did it for me, for others it might have been the coke. Some of the lads could go forever on it and they never seemed to have enough.
“With others it was the women. Girls just want to be with the guys that are making the money, don’t they? They have a bloke that will hand them €500 for a night out and pay for holidays and things for them and they are happy.
“There is no doubt but some girls seek out those lads. And some will accept that there might be two or three women on the go.
“Once they get looked after that’s all that matters. Men don’t analyse these things. They know they want the money, but they believe they want them too. And when women are throwing themselves at them they just take it.
“I was like that with gambling. No bet was too big or too risky for me. When I think back now I would regularly blow what is now a month’s wages in a couple of minutes. I’d be pissed off that I didn’t win, but I would try to win it back.”
But everyone understands one rule, that all of it – the money, the girls, the drugs, the good life – is built on a foundation of blood.
“The violence is all part of it. Nobody in the business has any value on anyone else’s life. If someone is shot there is never a thought for their families or their kids, it’s just done. I don’t think anyone who gets involved has a conscience. It’s a brutal world.
“If you give drugs to someone and they don’t pay you, the first thing is that you have to do something.
“It’s not as if killing is part of the buzz. I know that when someone dies it is not a nice feeling afterwards. When I was involved in the murder [John ‘Champagne’ Carroll] I didn’t feel good about it afterwards.
“Maybe when you stab someone or slice them you feel good about it, you stand back and you look and you think ‘I did that’, but when someone dies it’s not good.”
Joey was subjected to violence himself. He says he once had a fight with David Byrne and gave him a beating. In retaliation, he wastaught a lesson.
“I was bundled into a car and taken up the mountains and I was beaten very badly. They burned me and everything. They had a blow torch or a Bunsen burner or something. But that is part of the business. If you are perceived to step out of line you get it,” he says.
“If someone takes a hit out on you, you have to get to them first. Before it all came to an end for me I was at war with the dealer who introduced me to it all in the first place.
“He was trying to kill me – and I will admit I knew that to survive I would have to kill him first.
“There were cars parked up all around the city loaded with guns. It was him or me. But before anything happened I was picked up after the Carroll murder and I was out of circulation then.”
For Joey O’Brien, it all began when he was just 16 and living with his parents and five siblings in a cramped flat in Fatima Mansions, the vast social authority housing complex that once ran up along Dublin’s Grand Canal.
The Mansions had long been dubbed a drugs supermarket by locals and had been one of the birthplaces of the ‘Concerned Parents’ movement of the 1980s, when campaigners marched on the homes of dealers and pushed them into the flats.
By the 1990s the dealers had become firmly entrenched. There was barely a family in the flats that wasn’t blighted by drug use.
Among the stairwells and balconies in the 14-block complex, blood-filled syringes were strewn on the ground. Addicts stole and sold their bodies to get their fix. They looked like zombies. The dealers worked day and night.
Joey’s parents were often absent from the home and he learned to look after himself from an early age. He loved boxing and joined a club in Donore Avenue. He built a reputation for himself as someone not to be messed with.
“I was in the middle in the family. I was the only one that would end up getting into difficulty. I was the only one who would go to jail,” he says.
“I loved fighting and I was always involved in something. If I wasn’t fighting I was getting arrested. I got myself into the boxing. I went by myself because I liked it,” he says.
“When you are brought up in the flats you do what you have to do to survive. When you are young and you look around you, you see things – you see the addicts or the dealers. The dealers are the ones making the money, aren’t they?”
Joey turned 16 at the beginning of the Noughties when the Celtic Tiger was in full swing and just as the Kinahans were rising up the ranks of the drug dealing network in Spain. While things didn’t change in Fatima during those boom years, they were about to change dramatically for Joey.
“There was one dealer – who is now a major player with the Kinahans – and he was always around the flats. He was selling drugs himself and he had been making a lot of money, so he was supplying the dealers at that stage. I was 16 and he was about 19. I knew him to talk to and we hit it off. I started selling for him,” he recalls.
“Back then I never really had a big plan. It was never about making my way up the ladder. For most people that just happens because the money you make is phenomenal.
“When I started I was selling in Fatima and maybe earning about €500 a day. So that was clear profit. I suppose you could call that a starting salary. I would buy the gear and go out and sell it. Very quickly I was turning anything up to €1,300 or €1,500 a day. You could earn any amount of money you wanted. The longer you stayed the more customers you would catch.
“I was good at it and wasn’t afraid of working the flats. I would be up early and out to catch the prostitutes coming back in the morning.
“Sometimes I worked from 9am until 5am. I would go to bed and sleep for four or five hours and then I would be out again. You could literally earn thousands and thousands. The customers never stopped coming.
“Myself and another lad were running the flats. We had this thing called ‘twist’ – meaning that we would take turns to sell to each customer that came along. If you got lucky and it was your twist when it was one of the prostitutes they could buy anything up to 20 bags [of heroin] off you,” says Joey.
“I knew a lot of the customers. I had grown up with a lot of them. The girls, the prostitutes, were only a few years older than me. They would buy before they went out to work and the minute they came home in the morning. There were kids waiting, sometimes babies, waiting all night for their mother to come home. But they came to me first.
“I can see how awful it is that I was making this money from their addiction, but at the time I didn’t care. I only cared about one thing – money.”
To control Fatima – which was one of the most lucrative drug turfs in the city – Joey had to make sure that every debt was paid up and that nobody thought he was a pushover.
“It was part of surviving. If someone thinks they can rip you off then you can be sure that the next person thinks they can as well. Then I don’t get paid and I can’t pay what I owe so that puts my life in danger.
“I was a boxer and I always carried a blade. Everyone knew if they wanted stuff off me they had better pay up. I had no problem slicing someone up for a debt.
“In less than two years I was making tens of thousands every week. I had gone from buying bags to buying at least a nine-ounce bar of heroin once a week. I was no longer selling on my feet. I was a distributor.
“I was buying the 9oz for €9,000 and then I could sell it on for whatever I wanted. Drugs are like gold. It is like a licence to print money.
“I was in and out of jail for drug dealing, assaults, for tax and insurance. I got three years here, six months there. I just continued buying and selling. It was absolutely no problem.
“I had the contacts, I was part of the network. It just ran like clockwork even when I was in prison. The dealer who started me off moved to Spain – so as he moved up so did the rest of us.
At one point Joey and his best friend, suspected hitman James Quinn, moved to Birmingham, where they lived with the boxer Matthew Macklin – a close friend of Daniel Kinahan – who is not involved in crime.
“I went on a mad bender over there. I was just sniffing all the time at that stage. It was a nightmare,” he says.
Joey returned to Dublin while Quinn moved out to Spain, where he became Daniel Kinahan’s driver and was nicknamed ‘the Caddy’.
“James never drank or sniffed anything. He wound up working for them out there and he lived a really nice life. Someone doing a hit or two a year is getting €100k a job. You can live a really good life on that kind of money.”
Quinn was arrested last September as part of a joint Garda and Spanish police investigation into the murder of Gary Hutch. Since he has been in custody it has emerged that he is also a suspect in the murder of Gerard ‘Hatchet’ Kavanagh, which was carried out on the orders of the Kinahan Cartel.
In a strange twist, his DNA was also linked to an attempt to shoot Daniel Kinahan at his luxury villa near Estepona, during which the boxer Jamie Moore was shot in the legs.
“Its easy money, so it is no wonder so many people consider doing it. You do the hit and you get your money. That is how it works,” says Joey.
While Joey counted top Kinahan lieutenants as his close friends he never knew Daniel Kinahan personally.
“He was like God wasn’t he? He was like a celebrity in that world. He was the one that was making the millions, not the tens of thousands.
“I was on holiday a few times in Spain and once he was in the pub, but he was aloof. He kept himself apart from a lot of us,” Joey recalls.
“I knew Christopher Jnr better as I knew his wife Georgina. Christopher Jnr was more normal, I suppose. He was a bit more down to earth than Daniel. I think Daniel is like his father, he keeps a lot of it at arm’s length. He is clever, though. He built that business up along with his dad. He worked hard to make it what it is.”
In the years he has been off the scene Joey has watched from afar as his friends have become major players in the cartel.
“They all made it big didn’t they? What happened to David Byrne was dreadful. Murder is never good. But they should never have killed Gary Hutch. And now look what is happening.
“I’m glad I’m out of it all now. If I had stayed in I would probably be dead by now. I won’t say I don’t miss the money, I do. I miss it every day. But when you get out you start to understand how the real world works and how you have to work hard to earn an honest living.”