A body in the woods... almost the perfect crime
When Magali Vergnet came across scattered bones in lonely Cruagh Wood, she wasn't to know her discovery would lead to the trial of the decade and the conviction of Graham Dwyer for the brutal killing of Elaine O'Hara. In an exclusive extract from his gripping new book, Paul Williams tells the real story behind the murder mystery that transfixed the nation
Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30
By September 2013, Elaine O'Hara had been missing for over a year and it was suspected she had taken her own life. The real reason for her disappearance would soon be known, however, and it was thanks to a gruesome discovery made by professional dog walker Magali Vergnet. She had been walking in the dense forestry and gorse moorland at Cruagh Wood in Killakee, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, when one of her animals started acting strangely…
Around 3.30pm on Friday, September 13, Magali Vergnet was following her daily routine. She had finished the loop of the forest with the dogs and was in the process of loading them into the jeep to go home. Just as she had done the previous three weeks, Millie had disappeared into the forest behind the pile of blocks. But this time, she didn't return when called. Ms Vergnet heard her scratching deep among the trees and decided to go in and fetch her. Millie's noises brought her along a muddy animal track through dense conifer. She pushed aside the prickly branches that were enmeshed across the path. Her boots sank into the boggy ground, which was flooded in places. The path meandered left and then right until it opened on to a small clearing between the trees. Bones were scattered around the uneven carpet of heather and grass. She saw a ribcage and vertebrae and thought they belonged to a big animal, possibly a deer. The grass was flattened and covered in a white greasy substance that she assumed was the spot where the animal had come to die, well hidden from human eyes. She could hear Millie gnawing on a bone further away in the undergrowth but still couldn't see her. She struggled to make her way through the trees that surrounded her. On the ground she noticed a pair of blue tracksuit bottoms. She pushed it with her boot and realised a shoe was trapped inside one of the legs. An uneasy sensation washed over her and suddenly it felt like the trees were crowding in on her, making her feel claustrophobic. She no longer wanted to be there.
Ms Vergnet pushed another five metres through the wall of branches, turning left and then right, before finally spotting Millie. The dog was chewing on bones that were too big for her to carry back to the clearing. Ms Vergnet thought they looked like leg bones. The tracksuit and now the bones aroused an overwhelming suspicion that she had come upon human remains. She scooped Millie up into her arms and scrambled through the trees and undergrowth to the safety of her jeep.
When she got home she phoned [the owner of the land] Frank Doyle to tell him about the puzzling discovery. Later on, Mr Doyle and a friend, Mick Tierney, accompanied her back to the spot where she had found Millie. At first the men also thought that the bones belonged to an animal. There was a large amount of hair matted among the white substance on the ground. They took it to be fur. Then, as the three scanned the ground beneath the trees, their eyes rested simultaneously on a lower jawbone with several teeth still intact. There was no way it belonged to an animal; it was obviously human.
That Sunday, the newspapers carried reports of the discovery of a body in the Dublin mountains that was likely to be female.
Inevitably, the news sparked speculation that it could be one of three women who had vanished without trace during the 1990s. Jo Jo Dollard, Annie McCarrick and Deirdre Jacob had been the subject of an investigation by a specialist Garda team called Operation Trace which lasted several years without a breakthrough. The team's conclusion was that the women had been abducted and murdered, possibly by a serial killer. The media speculation was further fuelled by the fact that Annie McCarrick, who vanished in 1993, was last seen alive at Johnnie Fox's pub, a short distance from Killakee. As part of the process of elimination, the investigation team sought the DNA profiles of the women. In the city morgue, Dr Michael Curtis began his post-mortem examination with the assistance of [forensic anthropologist] Laureen Buckley. He was unable to ascertain the cause of death from the skeletal remains, so he recorded it as 'undetermined'. An examination of the tracksuit bottoms found beside the remains showed they were size 18 and had been bought in Dunnes Stores.
Ms Buckley then examined the remains to determine gender and approximate time of death. To her trained eye, the structure, texture and density of the various bones confirmed her earlier belief that this was a female. Ms Buckley then applied a standard technique for estimating the age of skeletal remains, the Suchey-Brooks method. The method looks at changes in the texture and shape of bones consistent with specific stages of human development. Fusion of the first and second sacral vertebrae was complete, suggesting that the individual was over 27 years old but under 40. She then focused on how long the woman had been dead. Bone marrow was still present, and allowing for the partial preservation by adipocere, she estimated that the woman had died about one year earlier and no more than two. Meanwhile, Dr Buckley found evidence of stress on the spine with slight compression and degeneration of the vertebrae. This finding was consistent with the person being overweight or obese, and it was corroborated by the size of the tracksuit bottoms found at the scene.
The Gardaí had been standing by for a preliminary report that would provide a starting point for the investigation. They now knew that the body was that of an overweight female, aged between 27 and 40, who had been dead for between one and two years. This immediately ruled out the possibility that it was one of the three missing women from the 1990s. The files on all females reported missing since 2012 were scrutinised. The details of one woman in particular stood out as a likely match for the findings of the post-mortem. Her name was Elaine O'Hara, and she had disappeared just over a year earlier and was presumed to have drowned herself in the sea.
The Gardaí decided to compare Elaine O'Hara's dental records with the recovered human jaw. On Monday morning, oral surgeon Dr Mary Clarke attended the city morgue to examine the mandible found in the woods. Earlier, Gardaí had collected Elaine O'Hara's records from the Dublin Dental University Hospital. She had undergone extensive dental treatment there between 2006 and 2012, attending on 47 occasions. The initial examination indicated that the jawbone matched the dental records. The O'Hara family, who had been in limbo for 13 months, was now informed that the body was Elaine's.
Gardaí painstakingly combed through 219 days of CCTV footage of Elaine O'Hara's apartment block in Dublin, before making a key discovery.
The next day, Garda Lynch logged a man who had caught his attention. On June 23, 2012, Elaine had arrived home at 6.54pm and taken the lift to her apartment on the top floor. Ten minutes later, at 7.04pm, a man entered the lobby of her apartment block, a small bare space with cream walls and grey floor tiles. There was a row of postboxes facing the camera, and the lift was to the left of the footage. The man drew the Garda's attention when he covered his hand as he pressed the call button for the lift. He then kept his back to the camera and looked towards the postboxes. It seemed that he was trying to avoid the camera overhead as he waited for the lift to arrive. There were no cameras upstairs to record which apartment or floor he was visiting. He could be seen leaving again at 8.18pm. The officer decided to keep an eye out for the mystery man as he continued sifting through the acres of security footage.
On the same day, September 21, the Gardaí conducted a search at a second site in Killakee about 500 yards from where Elaine's remains had been discovered. Frank Doyle had alerted officers to the spot, which seemed to have been the venue for some strange activity. There the officers found a large number of objects, including hacksaw blades, insulating tape, various lengths of twine, fishing line, cable ties with bulldog clips and some with screws, denim shorts, grey trousers and harness equipment. The detectives suspected that this spot had been used for bondage sessions and that Elaine O'Hara might have been brought here first by her killer. A shovel was also located in the undergrowth. They suspected Elaine's killer might have intended to bury her body. However, the mesh of tree roots under the surface would have made the job extremely difficult and he had obviously abandoned the idea.
Almost The Perfect Murder by Paul Williams is published by Penguin Ireland