Hitman Imre Arakas was trailed by Irish police for two days, and was arrested with an encrypted burner smartphone that gave details of his contract killing in an ongoing gangland feud that has claimed 18 lives so far. Image Credit: Supplied

Steely cold blue eyes. A Russian prison record. Silencers and telescopic sights. Encrypted mobile phones. Disguises. And an underworld contract to guarantee a kill with a shot to the head.

These are elements straight from the pages of a crime novel but they’re the real story behind Imre Arakas, a cold-blooded Estonian hitman with long greying blond hair who has made a living out of doing dirty deeds for criminal gangs across Europe.

Today, the 60-year old sits in an Irish prison cell, serving six years for planning a hit on a Dublin man, James ‘Mago’ Gately — a target who survived an earlier assassination attempt and fled to Belfast. But powerful Dublin gangster elements wanted him dead — and hired Arakas to finish the job.

The Dublin illegal drug trade is lucrative, worth €400 million. What’s more, whoever controls it, controls the supply of narcotics moving from South America into Britain and Europe. And for the past three years, two rival Dublin gangs have been shooting it out on the city’s streets, a vicious vendetta where the body count stands at 18 so far.

Truth is often stranger than fiction and the Hutch-Kinahan feud has it all – snitches and rats, double-crosses, colourful gangsters and killers who’d shoot for their next fix or for debts due.

It all began in September 2015, with the killing of Gary Hutch.

Hutch plotted to hit a villa in disguise and stage an armed robbery to steal €1 million. Trouble was, that villa was owned by his crime boss, Christy Kinahan, who controls most of the Dublin drug trade. The robbery’s foiled and Gary’s in deep trouble.

He’s ordered to pay €200,000 in retribution. He manages to scrape it together but then Kinahan wants the same again to spare his life. Days later, despite desperate pleadings from the Hutchs back in Dublin to spare his life, Gary is gunned down in a Marbella apartment complex in September 2015.

Since then, there have been 17 further killings to the middle of December.

The leaders of both gangs are wanted — Kinahan lives in a villa in the Middle East while Gerard ‘The Monk’ Hutch fled Ireland to Lanzarote first and is now believed to be hiding somewhere in Cyprus.

But the feud has brought a lot of heat on gang members, with parts of Dublin virtually sealed off by teams of armed Irish police. Targets are getting smarter too, knowing that a knock on a door can bring a bullet at any time.

‘Mago’ knows what that feels like. The 29-year-old hung out with Gary Hutch when he did the Kinahans business, before that murder. Now Mago knows he’s a target — never leaving his house without a bulletproof vest. On May 10, 2017, Mago was in his car when a man began blasting away with a handgun. He was shot in the jaw, chin and three times in the chest.

He survived — and fled to Belfast.

“If you fire five bullets at someone from close range, like with Gately, it’s an amateur job,” one Irish police source observed at the time. “A professional wouldn’t leave them alive.”

As far as the Kinahans see it, Mago had gone rogue. The first murder attempt was botched and, given the heat in Dublin where foot soldiers in the gang were being rounded up, it was time for a professional — after all, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Imre Arakas has been a wrestler, an actor and a freedom fighter. Mostly, he’s a ruthless career criminal — known in Estonia as ‘The Butcher’ for his part in the bloodletting of gang feuds following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Christy Kinahan had carefully cultivated Russian mafia links, clearing the way for his drug exports into Europe and the UK — and Arakas came highly recommended, and would do the deed for €100,000.

Arakas’s criminal record blends political beliefs and sheer cruelty to suit his ends. Muscular, tough and wrestling to make ends meet, he joined the Estonian Defence League, a group that wanted to overthrow Soviet rule in the Baltic state. In Tallinn in April 1979, he was sentenced to three years for causing deliberate bodily harm, but escaped, spending 85 days on the run. He was then sent down by the Supreme Court of the USSR for a range of crimes including escape, theft, destroying documents, hooliganism, stealing a car and unlawfully possessing firearms.

Those 15 years transformed Arakas into a dangerous criminal and gunman with all the skills he needed to ply his criminal trade. He was back behind bars again in 1997 and again in 2011, all for firearms offences — a gunman for hire who could get things done.

In 1998, his enemies tracked him down in Marbella where he was shot several times in a failed assassination attempt.

Living in Spain since his release, Arakas’s presence didn’t go unnoticed to Spanish police, who were working with their Irish counterparts to contain the Kinahan’s operations on the swank sun-soaked Costa Del Sol. And on April 2, Arakas was on the move.

Dublin Airport is small, but surprisingly busy: Some 30 million passengers passed through it in 2018. But Arakas could not get lost in the crowd that Monday afternoon. Within 20 minutes of landing, Irish police — the Gardai Siochana — had a surveillance team on him, watching as he took a bus into the city centre, bought a wig and a mirror at a discount store, made contact on his BlackBerry and waited until he was picked up in a van driven by a known associate of the Kinahan cartel. That driver has been stopped two months’ earlier with a tracking device, which had been previously placed on a car belonging to one of Mago’s family.

Gardai watched as Arakas was driven to a safe house in the west Dublin suburbs for the night. They had little time to act — they obtained a search warrant and around 11am on Tuesday morning, they moved in, breaking down the back door.

Arakas was arrested in a small bedroom. The wig and mirror were in a bag on the bed along with €835 and £416 — and a piece of paper with ‘James Gately’ and his Belfast address written in Estonian. There was also a reference to a Google search for Mago’s picture — “8th Row, 2nd Picture, Visible.”

Before Arakas could get to his BlackBerry, Gardai seized it and began to read a conversation on a secure chat that required a 15-digit passcode. At any time, the group administrator could delete the messages — and it would take mere minutes before the Kinahan’s know their safe house was raided and their hit man in police custody.

Garda Sean O’Neill realised the potential. Using his own mobile, he began to scroll through the messages, photographing each page. As he reached the last page, the BlackBerry chat was remotely erased.

There were four names on the chat group, with Arakas referred to as ‘Bon 4’, along with a detailed description of Mago, his car, his Belfast home — and his daily routine. (Northern Irish police would later recover a tracker from his car.)

The chat, however, also details Arakas’s methodology

“My plan was actually to go there tomorrow and for a day or two see the situation in real,” he texted. “Then perhaps I get a better plan. So far, in case I’m totally alone it seems it’s possible to take him down when he comes out of car. It’s based on Google maps pictures…”

He’s also cautious about potential pitfalls.

“There were huge advertisements on the way and looks like it’s possible to hide behind. The whole problem there is that there is nowhere to hide. Especially you wait for the moment he comes out of the door.”

And he outlines what tools he’ll need for the hit.

“Also silencer would be good. But especially it is good if the dog [the gun] is really accurate because if the picture in Google is the same that in real life it could be one shot to the head from the distance and that’s it.”

In mid-December, that was it indeed for Arakas. He pled guilty to conspiracy to kill in court, and was sentenced to six years. He’s now facing extradition to Lithuania, where he’s wanted for his role in killing a businessman who dated a local pop star. There, police say, he sourced optic sights for a gun and chemicals to eliminate traces of firearms and clothes used in the hit.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.