Saturday 24 June 2017

French to ask key witness to testify in Sophie probe

Woman who retracted her evidence in Irish case 'afraid' to go to France

WILLING TO TESTIFY: Marie Farrell, at home in Roscommon, says she would have no problem giving evidence by video link but is worried about any consequences of
going to France where a magistrate is investigating the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: Gerry Mooney
WILLING TO TESTIFY: Marie Farrell, at home in Roscommon, says she would have no problem giving evidence by video link but is worried about any consequences of going to France where a magistrate is investigating the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A KEY witness whose evidence implicated Ian Bailey in the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and who then retracted that evidence will be asked to testify before a French magistrate investigating Ms du Plantier's death.

Marie Farrell, a former shopkeeper, claimed she saw Mr Bailey near the French film producer's remote holiday home on the night she was beaten to death in December 1996. She sensationally retracted her evidence nine years later, claiming she identified him under duress from gardai.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) found gardai had no case to answer. Ms Toscan du Plantier's family have asked the French investigating magistrate to investigate whether it was Mr Bailey who pressured her to retract her damaging testimony.

With Mr Bailey facing extradition to France, where he is wanted for questioning about the murder, Marie Farrell could again find herself occupying a central role in the notorious case.

Mr Bailey, an English journalist, 53, who lives in Schull, became the prime suspect but was never charged. The High Court last month ordered his extradition to France in connection with the murder. The court will rule on April 13 whether he can appeal.

Legal sources close to the French judicial investigation said that Ms Farrell will be asked to testify before the French magistrate, Judge Patrick Gachon, even though her garda statements have been discredited.

Ms Farrell said this weekend she has not been contacted by French authorities, and is standing by her retraction. Contrary to her sworn testimony, she said the man she saw on the night of the murder was not Ian Bailey, he never threatened her as she claimed, and she regretted what she had done.

Sitting in her kitchen in Roscommon, where she now lives, Marie Farrell recounts her story nervously but without drama, appearing as plausible as she did in 2003 when she took the stand in Ian Bailey's libel action against eight newspapers which he unsuccessfully sued for branding him a murderer. He was successful, however, against two newspapers that claimed he beat his first wife, even though he admitted beating his current partner.

Then, she testified under oath that she saw Ian Bailey between 2am and 3am at Kealfadda Bridge, a mile from Ms Toscan du Plantier's house, on the morning of the murder and that he later threatened her. Judge Patrick Moran found her evidence "compelling".

Ms Farrell acknowledges that she is a discredited witness, having lied, she now claims, under oath to the Circuit Court judge. She had signed statements which she later said were false, for which she blames gardai. She left herself open to charges of perjury -- for which she has never been prosecuted.

Why should anyone believe her now? "I'm not asking people to believe anything. What people think anymore doesn't bother me because everyone has an opinion. I know what happened with us. I know that it destroyed our lives," she said. "Why would I put myself through that . . . my children, the life we've had, why would we do that if it was not true?"

Ms Farrell, her husband, Chris, and their children moved to Schull in the mid-1990s after long spells in Australia and in London. Her husband worked as a door fitter and they had a clothes shop in Schull and a market stall in Cork.

On the weekend of Ms Toscan du Plantier's murder, Ms Farrell claims she saw a man in a long coat on three occasions. The first occasion was on Saturday, December 21, two days before Ms Toscan du Plantier's body was found. Ms Farrell said that Ms Toscan du Plantier came into her shop, although she only recognised her afterwards from the television coverage. She noticed a man in a long coat and cap across the road. Next day, she went to Cork early that morning, where she had a market stall. "I saw the same man on the road at about 6am," she said.

She claimed she saw him a third time in the early hours of Sunday morning. "That night at 2am I saw the same man again out at Kealfadda Bridge," she said. "He was just walking along." But that sighting was complicated by the fact that, unbeknownst to her husband, she was in a car with a man -- an old friend.

Ms Toscan du Plantier's badly beaten body was discovered outside her home in Toormore that Monday morning. On Christmas Day, Ms Farrell said she rang gardai to report the man she saw outside her shop, but did not tell them about the sighting at the bridge. "They came to see me on December 27 and they took a statement. A few weeks later they gave me a video to watch, and they asked me if that was the man I had seen. The video was of Ian Bailey. He was at the Christmas Day swim, I think. I bought the video back to the station in Schull and I told them that it wasn't the man I had seen."

In response to the huge publicity the murder case attracted, she rang the gardai anonymously to tell them about the third sighting of the man on the bridge. When Crimeline appealed for the anonymous caller to come forward, she contacted gardai again. This time her call was traced.

After that, Ms Farrell alleges that the pressure began to identify Mr Bailey as the man she saw. She has made serious allegations about gardai to explain why she gave into that alleged pressure -- allegations which they deny. She also explained that her husband didn't know she had been in the company of another man.

She claimed that as the years passed, things got "out of control". She claimed she made numerous false statements -- allegedly encouraged by gardai -- that Mr Bailey had intimidated her, which were not true. She was caught out in 2004, when she complained that Mr Bailey had threatened her as he went to an appointment in Schull garda station. At the time of the supposed threat, Mr Bailey was in his solicitor's office.

When she was summoned to testify at Mr Bailey's libel action in 2003, she reluctantly testified. "I was sitting in the (witness) box and I thought will I go through with this or not?" she said. "And then I thought if I tell them what really happened, I'm going to be arrested before I leave."

She claimed she thought about coming clean but she "lost the bottle", fearing the consequences. The impetus came in January 2005 when she learnt from a garda that Ms Toscan du Plantier's family were planning to take a civil case against Mr Bailey. She would be called to testify. "I couldn't go through with it," she said.

She contacted Mr Bailey's solicitor, Frank Buttimer, in April of 2005 to "come clean". She and her husband have since relocated from Schull to her native country where they built a house near the Longford/Roscommon border.

Garda sources have vehemently disputed Ms Farrell's account. She had convictions for driving without insurance. She was stopped by gardai in April 2005, in the same month that she retracted her statement to Mr Buttimer. Her son was also disqualified for driving without insurance.

Her claims were investigated by an assistant commissioner, Ray McAndrew, for an internal garda inquiry. Ms Farrell was interviewed at length. Noel Conroy, then garda commissioner, sent the internal report to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP has directed that there should be no prosecutions.

Mr Bailey is applying through the courts for a copy of the McAndrew report.

With Ms Farrell now expected to be called as a witness in France, her allegations are likely to get another airing.

She cannot be compelled to appear, and says she is willing to testify, but she is afraid of going to France in case there are any consequences. "I have a difficulty in going to France because I don't know where that leaves me," she said. "I would just be afraid to go to France. I would have no problem giving evidence by video link."

"I'm sorry that I ever said anything in 1996. That's all I can say. I do regret that I said anything," she said. "It caused huge difficulty. I don't want to cause any more trouble."

Sunday Independent

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