Ten years ago, three disappearances rocked the the north Cork town of Fermoy. This week, gardai renewed appeals for information that might explain how three locals and their two cars could vanish into thin air. MICHAEL MULQUEEN reports
It was market day in Fermoy, and the traffic was slow. A mile away from the bustle and tailbacks, William Fennessy squeezed in behind the plastic steering wheel of his Daihatsu Charade, his clothes squeaking against the vinyl seat. He headed down the driveway of his bungalow in the townland of Glenbo and was never seen again. The date, etched in the memories of his family, was March 30, 1990.
Just over a year later, on May 19, 1991, Maisie Sweeney stood outside her sister Sheila's two-storey terraced house in Fermoy town as the gardai broke the door down. Maisie hadn't heard from Sheila or her husband Conor Dwyer for 18 days. People in Fermoy still remembered Billy Fennessy's disappearance, so after consulting with her brother and sister, Maisie decided to call the gardai.
Inside, they found nothing unusual. the blinds in the kitchen and another room were down, and all electrical appliances were switched off. Upstairs, the beds were neatly made. The couple's passports, along with about £1,000 in cash, were stashed in a tin.
Sheila's reading glasses and Conor's brown-rimmed specs were on the settee in the living room. Some clothes were missing, but not many.
Outside, the Dwyers' pristine white Toyota Cressida, registration 5797 ZT, was gone from its usual spot on the street. As in the case of Billy Fennessy, there was no sign of the couple.
Garda checks got underway to establish that they had definitely disappeared, but it didn't take long for all sorts of rumours to spread. Three townspeople had vanished without trace in 13 months.
The town talked of little else. Billy Fennessy (54), publican, undertaker and former Crok County Councillor, a man of measured habits who rarely drove further than the golf club or the mile into Fermoy town. Sheila Dwyer (60), quiet and reserved. Conor Dwyer (62), well-known and liked in the town. All disappeared as if into thin air. No notes. No piles of clothing by the banks of the river Blackwater. No evidence whatsoever.
The newspapers were full of missing people but not like these three; all of a settled nature, close to or enjoying retirement and certainly not the sorts to just vanish off the face of the earth.With some urgency, as they had done for Billy Fennessy, gardai combed all ports and airports for the Dwyers and their missing Toyota, a large four-door saloon popular among executives.
Interpol was alerted, amid speculation that the couple were visiting England, where at least one of their sons had emigrated. Locally, gardai found plenty of people remembered Conor Dwyer. Many had been glad of his services as a hackney driver in the town while others had employed him as a handyman for odd jobs over his 20 years at No 4 Chapel Lane.
More again knew him as the chauffeur who drove a Rolls Royce and a fleet of other prestige motors for millionaire businessman Fritz Wolf while the German holidayed at his mansion at Castlelyons, three miles away. Wolf was himself interviewed by detectives but had been out of the country when the couple went missing.
"Every lead was followed up. Every place where a car could have gone into the water, a ditch or a cliff was checked but there was nothing. They and their car had vanished into thin air," said a Cork detective.
By 1993, officers had turned to RTE's Crimeline for assistance. Conor's brother Dick was interviewed and a reconstruction of the couple's last movements leading up to a final sighting outside nearby St Patrick's Church was filmed. The production crew even managed to borrow a Rolls Royce to use as a prop. Over 100 calls were received claiming sightings from Waterford to Munich but nothing firmed up.
Sporadic but unsuccessful searches were carried out for Billy Fennessy and the Dwyers at various times since then. Only last year, detectives acting on intelligence information about the Dwyers swept the Mid Cork Lime Quarry at Aherla, but found nothing.
Most recently, their descriptions have been posted on the Garda website (www.irlgov.ie/garda/) and on the website of The Doe Network, an on-line US missing persons group (www.angelfire.com/wy/doe/update.html).
Detectives say Billy's family reckoned he would have been found in a radius of less than 20 miles from his house, "but now we don't know where in the name of God he is," said an investigation officer.
One local woman admitted that the disappearances still play on the community. "There was an awful sadness and disbelief that these people and their cars could disappear. I suppose there's a feeling that this is unfinished business."
If she were still there, Sheila Dwyer would be celebrating her 71st birthday at Chapel Lane next Monday. Time, though, has not stood still and Fermoy has moved on in absence of the Dwyers and Billy Fennessy. Billy's pub is now a shop, while a half-acre site once owned by the Dwyers near the old vocational school has been earmarked for apartments.
At the Detective Office of Fermoy Garda Station, the files on all three remain open. As one officer put it: "Everyone knows that three people and two cars can't simply disappear forever."