July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

IRELAND’S BEST-KNOWN INVESTIGATIVE reporter was in high spirits the afternoon of June 26. Celebrated for her exposés of Dublin’s increasingly powerful crime lords, Veronica Guerin had feared she might lose her driver’s license over yet another speeding ticket. Instead, a judge at Naas district court in County Kildare let her off with a small fine and a fatherly warning. “She was in wonderful form, over the moon,” says Lise Hand, a Sunday Independent colleague and friend who talked to Guerin on the phone after the hearing. “For Veronica, losing her license for three months or six months would have been like losing a body part, because her car and her two [mobile] phones were basically her office.”

En route back to work in Dublin, 19 miles away, Guerin, 36, stopped for a traffic light and made another call. She didn’t see the motorcycle pull up alongside her. Nor did she see one of the two riders leap off the bike, draw a gun and take aim. He fired five shots in all, striking Guerin in the neck and chest, killing her instantly. Later, when a police-officer friend of hers arrived home and played his phone messages, he heard Guerin’s last words. “Ha ha,” she teased, crowing about her court victory, “you didn’t get me!” Then came the chilling sound of gunfire. Then silence.

Guerin’s death stunned her countrymen as soundly as the killing of Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein would have rocked the U.S. during the days of Watergate. Hers was Dublin’s 12th execution-style murder in the past two years. Other victims had been crime figures; Guerin, however, was the mother of a 7-year-old boy, Cathal, and was a journalist who refused to abandon her crusade against the nation’s drug kings despite an earlier beating and shooting. “The country is anguished, as not in living memory, over the murder of Veronica Guerin,” wrote The Irish Times.

Sixty detectives were assigned to the case, and Guerin’s paper offered a $159,000 reward for the killers’ conviction. Irish Prime Minister John Bruton denounced the assassination as “sinister in the extreme” and ordered Members of Parliament to interrupt their summer holidays and. reconvene for a special July 25 session on organized crime. Well-wishers left bouquets at the place where Guerin was shot and flocked to Leinster House, Ireland’s Parliament building, transforming the railings in front into a shrine of flowers and mementos.

Guerin’s husband, builder Graham Turley, refused to believe his wife of 11 years had been killed until he identified the body and gave her a last kiss. “Then I got the thump in the heart that said, ‘This is Ronnie,’ ” he told national radio days later. Using Lego blocks to represent the car and motorcycle, he and the family’s priest from their Cloghran suburb tried to explain Guerin’s death to Cathal, but the boy did not understand. “He said, ‘Is Mom coming home?’ And I said, ‘No, she’s not, but she’s going to be here minding us.’ Then Cathal replied, ‘Oh, I got it. She’s with God, and she’ll be looking down on me and everything I do from now on.’ ”

Though police have yet to name a suspect, there is little doubt that Guerin was killed in retribution for her articles about Irish crime lords. One of the first appeared in September 1994, after Martin Cahill—a Dublin godfather known as the General—had been shot dead in his car. Guerin’s account of Cahill’s criminality and love life must have infuriated his associates; four weeks later someone fired a bullet into a room of her house where she was playing with her son.

The next January, Guerin profiled a con man known as the Coach, following it up a week later with a story about the Monk, whom she had implicated in Cahill’s murder. (In keeping with Ireland’s strict libel laws, she concealed the identities of the accused with colorful pseudonyms.) The night after the Monk story appeared, Guerin answered a knock at the door. “The first thing my eyes were drawn to was a handgun,” she told The Guardian. “I looked up to his eyes to appeal to him—don’t, don’t shoot me.” She curled up in the fetal position, and the man ran the gun along her body, then shot her in the thigh.

When she left the hospital, Guerin, still on crutches, had Turley drive her to visit every crime lord she knew. “I said, ‘This is it, I’m going to let those bastards see they didn’t get to me,’ ” she said. “I went to them all, just to let them know I wasn’t intimidated.”

After the shooting, Guerin’s publisher installed a $40,000 security system in her home, and police provided round-the-clock protection. But she quickly tired of her constant security escort, complaining that it was difficult to work her sources with police nearby. Besides, she told friends, even if she “wore a bulletproof vest, I’d still have to take it off at night.”

Last September, still undaunted, Guerin showed up at the County Kildare horse farm where ex-convict John Gilligan lived and asked him how he could afford such sumptuous quarters with no discernible means of support. He ripped her shirt looking for hidden microphones, beat her black-and-blue and, later on the phone, threatened to rape her son and kill her if she wrote about him. For the first time, the usually fierce Guerin was truly shaken, says Hand: “I think it was because he made direct threats to Cathal.”

Few who knew young Ronnie Guerin would have predicted that the same girl who then dutifully joined her father’s Dublin accounting firm would one day do battle with Ireland’s underworld. One of five children, she was educated by nuns on the gritty North Side of Dublin. Guerin later played camogie (similar to lacrosse) and represented Ireland in women’s soccer and basketball. Her friends included the children of former Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey. When her father died in 1983, she formed her own public-relations firm and turned to journalism in 1990, first as a business writer for the Sunday Business Post, then as a news reporter for the Sunday Tribune and, finally, as an investigative reporter for the Sunday Independent—earning international acclaim.

Her greatest journalistic gift, perhaps, was the determination she brought to all aspects of her life. Hand recalls going to a Manchester United soccer match with Guerin two seasons ago. One of the team’s stars, Ryan Giggs, had autographed a £5 note for Hand, but in the airport departure lounge she inadvertently spent it. “Veronica goes, ‘It’s got to be here somewhere,’ ” recalls Hand. “And she went around to every table. She was canny enough to say, ‘I’ve got a phone number on this bill. Would you empty your pockets please?’ Within half an hour she came back, waving it and going, ‘I told you I’d find it. Nothing is impossible.’ ”

“She was a brilliant, brilliant reporter,” says Alan Byrne, who had been her news editor at the Tribune. “I’ve never met anybody with a greater ability to get people to talk.” Or to find those who didn’t want to. In 1993 she tracked down Eamonn Casey, the Bishop of Galway who had fathered a child and fled Ireland in disgrace. She found him in the mountains of Ecuador. In her crime investigations she would sometimes camp on a source’s front stoop for days until he spoke with her. When Liam Collins, one of her editors at the Sunday Independent, cautioned her about taking unnecessary risks, “she’d say, ‘Ah, come on.’ She believed she was protected by the code that [criminals] don’t kill journalists.”

Despite her professional zeal, Guerin’s husband and son “were the center of her universe,” says Hand. “I don’t know how she did it, but she always found time for Cathal. She ferried him to school, a considerable drive, and somehow managed to look after him and do her work, and get up at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning to drive 70 miles to check out a sniff of a lead.” As for Turley, “that was the safe haven Veronica came home to—Graham’s complete love and support.”

Turley recalls asking his wife—after she’d been shot in the leg—if she should continue with her work. Her answer? ” ‘I love this, I love this.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to interfere with you, if that’s what you want to do. But if it gets to the stage where it’s too heavy, just pull the reins and look at something else.’ ”

She never did. “I thought, what was the point in giving in to them?” she told The Guardian. “That’s what they want. Then they’ll think that they can just continue doing it to everybody else. So I carried on.”

MARJORIE ROSEN

JEFFREY KLINKE and ELLIN STEIN in Dublin and LYDIA DENWORTH in London

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