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Monday 5 December 2016

The complex and secret private life of fragile Sophie

Sophie Toscan Du Plantier's private life was complex but held few clues to her murder, writes Maeve Sheehan

Published 25/12/2011 | 05:00

SOPHIE Toscan du Plantier was a woman of many facets, according to her former lover, a French artist called Bruno Carbonnet. She was tough but fragile, secretive and discreet.

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She was born into a well-connected French family and married an influential Parisien film producer, Daniel du Plantier. Carbonnet suspected that her husband knew about their affair. But he claimed that Ms Toscan Du Plantier had a contract of sorts with her husband which involved agreeing to attend certain events together. The farmhouse in West Cork was her retreat, where she went to write, in isolation from what the artist called the mundane world.

This famous French artist's account of his lover of more than a year was disclosed in excerpts from his police statement published last week, the latest leak in the increasingly curious case of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Her lover gives the impression of an enigmatic and sophisticated woman with a complicated private life. Her personal life became an early hunting ground for gardai in search of clues, but nothing emerged.

Carbonnet was amongst a list of at least 10 suspects identified in the original investigation but who were subsequently eliminated: they had alibis and their stories stacked up, according to sources.

Then there was Ian Bailey, the local freelance journalist who arrived at the crime scene to report on a big story breaking on his own doorstep but who gardai suspected was her killer. For years Bailey was a lone voice, claiming he was set up. But then there was the unexpected and unprecedented intervention of a retired state prosecutor suggested that Bailey may not have been far off the mark.

Last October, Eamon Barnes claimed a garda tried to put pressure on his office in 1998 to bring a charge against Bailey. He didn't act on his concerns at the time. In an email, published here for the first time, he wrote: "I considered that any follow- up action by the office was unlikely to achieve anything useful. . . Recent reports in the media regarding the French investigation of Ms Du Plantier have caused me concern concerning it. There is now a real possibility that Bailey may be charged in France and perhaps receive a lengthy prison sentence presumably, inter alia, on evidence and conclusions provided by what I regarded at the time as having been a thoroughly flawed and prejudiced investigation, culminating in a grossly improper attempt to achieve or even force a prosecutorial decision which accorded with that prejudice."

He concluded: "I felt accordingly that as a matter of ordinary justice I was obliged to bring the matter to appropriate attention."

The document was released to Bailey last month, along with a damning review of evidence by the DPP's office in 2001. The review found no evidence against Bailey, and alleged that drugs were offered to a potential witness to implicate him.

The disclosures are a godsend to Bailey, who has always protested his innocence. They do little to advance the unsolved murder of Ms Toscan Du Plantier 15 years after her death. She flew into Cork Airport on December 20, 1996 intending to work on a film project and leaving her husband behind. She picked up a hire car and drove to her farmhouse up a laneway in Toormore, a few miles from Schull. She intended to return to spend Christmas Day with her husband, Daniel, in Paris. She spent the evening of December 22 at home. She spoke to Josephine Hellen, a local woman who looked after her house, at 10pm and an hour later had phoned her husband, by which time she was already in bed.

Gardai have always suspected that some time during the night she opened the door to her killer. Her body was discovered after 10am the following morning. She was dressed in nightclothes, lace-up boots and a blue dressing gown. Her bludgeoned body was found at the bottom of a path near the gates of her home, suggesting she may have tried to flee.

An autopsy -- the results of which were released only last year -- revealed she was bludgeoned to death at that spot, with a heavy block. Some of her fingers were broken and her face was smashed. Lacerations covering her arms, and strips of her torn pyjamas on barbed wire, indicated her ferocious struggle to protect herself. Hair and skin beneath her nails proved to be her own and not the killer's. Blood on the door stoop wasn't identified.

Her body was not examined by the state pathologist until the following day, which crucially meant that her time of death was never established. By then a trail of journalists -- one of whom was Bailey -- and investigators had helped to pollute the crime scene.

Detectives took Ms Hellen into Ms Du Plantier's house to see whether anything was missing or disturbed. She later told French magazine Paris Match that she noticed that a poker was missing, there were two glasses on the draining board and that two chairs were pulled in front of the radiator. This didn't necessarily mean she had company, according to one detective. Ms Du Plantier often let used glasses mount up and she could have used the second chair to put her feet up by the radiator.

It was interesting that, months after the murder, a bottle of wine was found in bushes near a laneway close to Ms Du Plantier house. It was an expensive bottle of French wine, unopened, that had lain there for some time. According to one detective, it would have cost £60 or £70 at the time. None of the local off-licences stocked it but it was for sale in airport duty-free shops.

Was it Ms Du Plantier's? Did her killer bring the wine with them when they called? And why would they abandon it unopened? Forensic analysis of the bottle provided no leads and its significance or otherwise was never established. One source close to the investigation recalled that, at the time, alcohol was often stolen from the drinks cabinets of empty holiday homes.

In the early days of the investigation, detectives delved into Ms Toscan Du Plantier's personal life. They learnt that Carbonnet had stayed with Ms Du Plantier on a couple of occasions in West Cork. They tracked him down through the French authorities who interviewed him in the presence of gardai in January 1997. His alibi was watertight: at the time Ms Toscan Du Plantier was murdered he was at an art auction in the south of France. Gardai spent a week in France verifying his story.

Carbonnet told police, according to statements quoted last week: "Madam Toscan du Plantier was for me an intimate friend during the years 1992 and 1993."

They met in Paris when they were introduced after an art workshop and afterwards became lovers. "We went to Goolen (in West Cork) in Ireland together, to the small house where I stayed and helped her to set herself up," he said.

He stayed for a fortnight in Easter 1993 and returned with her on two or three occasions afterwards. "The last time that I went to this house in Ireland was during the summer of 1993. My affair with Sophie finished

in Christmas 1993, a date on which she finished it without any warning. This end was very difficult for me."

They last spoke a month before she died, in November 1996. She had bought one of his paintings and he wanted to include it in an exhibition the following January.

"She was a writer herself. She was secretive. The motivation for the acquisition of this house in Ireland was linked with her writing. She was someone who was tough but fragile at the same time. She sought to isolate herself from the world of the mundane because of [the] personality of her husband," he said in his statement. "Sophie was a woman of many facets."

He learnt of her death on Christmas Day, 1996 from a mutual friend.

In its withering review of the evidence against Bailey in 2001, the DPP's office named Carbonnet as a suspect in the murder inquiry, and someone who had had a relationship with Ms Du Plantier. But by that time, he had long been crossed off the garda's suspect list.

Other suspects were being rapidly crossed off the list too. Locals reported a man seen in Toormore around 5.30pm on December 22. Gardai tracked him down to Cork and he told them he got a bus from Schull to the city that evening. Detectives verified his story, according to sources.

A man known as something of a peeping Tom also came into the frame. Gardai arrested him for theft not long after Ms Du Plantier's death. He accounted for his movements on the night she died and his alibi checked out.

Another man living in the area at the time was the target of much suspicion initially. He had mental health issues and had been accused of stalking a woman previously.

Like Bailey, he was drinking in a pub on the night of December 22. He left at 1.30am when he took a lift home. The man who gave him a lift verified the construction worker's movements to gardai.

Gardai also looked at a man who died some time after Ms Du Plantier was murdered. He was French too, and he knew Ms Du Plantier as a compatriot. Detectives ruled him out after checking out his movements on the night of the murder.

By late January, Bailey was their prime suspect. There were scratches on his hands and face; the statement from Marie Farrell, the local shopkeeper, putting him at the scene of the crime at 3am on the night of the murder (a statement she later retracted); he didn't have an alibi as he was writing poetry alone in his studio during the hours she was killed; reports of a fire at his house on St Stephen's Day; and his supposed confession to certain people, including a 14-year-old boy.

The DPP review of 2001 dismissed virtually all of the circumstantial evidence, from the credibility of witnesses, to the scratches, and highlighting his willingness to give finger print and blood samples as indications of his innocence.

The DPP's report angered the garda team that investigated Ms Du Plantier's murder. On the strength of it, the Garda Commissioner dispatched two chief superintendents to review the murder inquiry, Austin McNally and Joe McGarty.

They took a team to West Cork and reviewed the evidence. Suspects were revisited, statements analysed, and witnesses re-interviewed. Their inquiry revealed similar shortcomings as the DPP's review but produced no fresh suspects.

Despite the disclosures of the past month, the French insist they are not looking for anyone, although they admit they don't have much in the way of evidence: "We are still focussed on Ian Bailey," said a source close to the French investigation. "Unfortunately we do not have huge evidence against him. We just want to bring him before a criminal court and the justice and the jury will decide."

It's up to the Irish courts to decide whether the disclosures of recent months are enough to halt Bailey's extradition to France.

Sunday Independent

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