Thursday 27 June 2019

Paris courtroom to open latest chapter in 22-year mystery of Sophie murder

Ian Bailey. Photo: Collins Courts
Ian Bailey. Photo: Collins Courts
Sophie Toscan du Plantier

Ralph Riegel

Shortly before 10am on Monday in a Paris courtroom close to the scorched hulk of Notre Dame Cathedral, three judges of the French Criminal High Court will hear a case unique in Franco-Irish history.

The three judges of the Cour d'Assize will hear the prosecution case against Manchester-born journalist Ian Bailey (60), who is charged with the murder of French film executive Sophie Toscan du Plantier (39) in west Cork in 1996.

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For 22 years, the savage killing has haunted west Cork, Ireland and France - and left the Bouniol/du Plantier family frustrated in their lengthy search for justice. The prosecution follows a painstaking investigation over 10 years by two French magistrates, Patrick Gachon and Nathalie Turquey, which was launched when the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) confirmed that no charge was likely in Ireland.

Mr Bailey has consistently protested his innocence and claimed that "sinister" attempts were made to frame him for the brutal crime.

The journalist, law graduate and poet - who denied ever meeting Ms du Plantier - warned that being wrongly associated with the crime has effectively destroyed his life.

"It is a nightmare. It has been a nightmare for the past 22 years. As far as I can tell, it is a nightmare that will only end with my death," he said.

Ms du Plantier, a mother of one, was found battered to death on a lane way leading to her isolated holiday home at Toormore outside Schull shortly after 10am on December 23, 1996. She was subjected to horrific violence in an assault triggered by her trying to flee from an intruder.

The woman who made the grim discovery that morning, Shirley Foster, was heading from her nearby home along the lonely lane way to town for some last-minute Christmas shopping. She initially thought the object lying by a barbed wire fence and gate was a bundle of clothes.

To her horror, she realised it was a blood-soaked body.

For the past 22 years, the murder has both baffled and fascinated. Ms du Plantier's husband, Daniel, was a high-profile figure within the French film industry and a friend of then president Jacques Chirac - all of which gave the case an international profile and increased pressure on gardaí to find the killer.

Unfortunately, almost from the very beginning, there were problems which would hamper the investigation.

State pathologist Dr John Harbison was unable to get to the scene until the following day, meaning Ms du Plantier's body was left outside under a covering in freezing weather for more than 26 hours.

A precise time of death was impossible to determine.

Access issues for neighbours caused problems for gardaí in preserving the scene.

It transpired years later that key exhibits seized at the scene were subsequently lost - including a metal gate near where the body was found.

To add insult to injury, liaison problems between the Irish and French authorities meant that Ms du Plantier's parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, first learned of their daughter's death via a television report.

Detectives initially whittled a large number of suspects down to about a dozen names.

Mr Bailey was not the primary suspect in the initial investigation but when that man was ruled out due to his alibi, gardaí turned their attention to Mr Bailey who at the time was attempting to resurrect his journalistic career by freelancing in west Cork. He filed stories on the murder to the 'Sunday Tribune', the 'Star' and even the French publication 'Paris Match'.

Heightened Garda interest in Mr Bailey resulted in him being arrested for questioning on February 10, 1997. Following questioning, Mr Bailey was released without charge.

There were several factors in the Garda decision to arrest Mr Bailey. He was spotted with scratches on his hands in the days after the murder - a fact he explained as due to his cutting a shrub to use as a Christmas tree and then killing three turkeys for Christmas sale.

Another key development was a phone call received from a woman, Marie Farrell, who informed gardaí she had seen a man at Kealfadda Bridge, less than 2km from the murder scene, at 3am on the night of the crime. Detectives would later say Ms Farrell identified the man she had seen at Kealfadda Bridge as Mr Bailey.

Subsequently, Ms Farrell would recant her evidence.

Mr Bailey remained adamant he had never left the home of his partner, Welsh artist Jules Thomas, on the evening of December 22/23.

In 1998, Mr Bailey was arrested a second time and again released without charge after being questioned at Bandon garda station.

Gardaí were convinced that forensic evidence would play a crucial role in solving the case, particularly since the level of violence used against Ms du Plantier gave rise to a belief that fingerprint and DNA samples from the killer would inevitably be found.

It transpired there was absolutely no forensic evidence, let alone DNA, to link Mr Bailey to the scene. DNA described as "alien" was found at the scene but has never been identified.

In December 2003, Mr Bailey sued eight Irish and UK newspapers for libel arising from their coverage after his arrests.

He lost six of the eight actions - with the hearing proving sensational and generating worldwide headlines due to its dramatic revelations, in particular about Mr Bailey's history of violence towards his partner, Ms Thomas.

A High Court appeal by Mr Bailey was settled without the payment of damages.

A detailed Garda case file had by now been submitted to the DPP who ruled, in 2001, that no action be taken. Despite numerous case reviews in subsequent years, the DPP said no evidence of significance had come to light.

Eventually, by 2007, the DPP had said it was highly unlikely that any prosecution over Ms du Plantier's death would be mounted in Ireland unless significant evidence emerged.

Ms du Plantier's family, particularly her brother Bertrand Bouniol, her uncle Jean Pierre Gazeau, and her son Pierre Louis Baudey Vignaud, were astonished by the revelations of the libel trial. They pressed for action and, when the DPP ruled out court proceedings in Ireland, they launched the campaign group ASSOPH to seek a French response.

Under the Code Napoleon, a prosecution can be taken in France even if the alleged crime occurred overseas. The individual can be tried in absentia if they refuse to attend the French hearing.

A detailed French investigation under Magistrate Gachon was sanctioned and Paris secured Ireland's full co-operation, with an elite team of Paris detectives given full access to the Garda murder file.

The investigation was painstaking and resulted in Ms du Plantier's body being exhumed for a fresh post-mortem, a battery of new forensic tests and the re-interviewing of all original murder case witnesses.

When the file was eventually completed, it was sent to French prosecutors and they secured court approval to launch a charge against Mr Bailey. In 2012, the Supreme Court rejected a French extradition request for Mr Bailey. A second European Arrest Warrant (EAW) was then issued but also denied. In 2015, Mr Bailey lost a marathon High Court action against the State where he claimed damages for wrongful arrest. Even though he lost his action, a full Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) review was launched on the basis of Mr Bailey's claims.

The journalist has now predicted he will be convicted of murder in absentia at the Paris trial - and the French will launch a third extradition attempt and demand that Ireland adheres to international judicial co-operation protocols.

If a conviction is secured at the Paris trial, the presiding magistrate has the power to impose a sentence of up to 30 years.

"It is a tragedy for the truth," Mr Bailey said. He claimed there were people in authority in Ireland who know he is innocent but are prepared to stay silent while he is convicted in France based on evidence already rejected or discredited in Ireland.

Ms du Plantier's son, Pierre Louis Baudey Vignaud, pointedly made a personal trip to Goleen in west Cork last Sunday to urge west Cork locals to support the impending Paris prosecution and attend if requested to do so.

"Sophie fought like a lioness against the most atrocious violence there is," he said.

Irish Independent

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