Parallel Sky and Netflix series have brought fresh clamour for answers about Sophie Toscan du Plantier killing, writes Senan Molony
It will soon be 25 years since the body of a human being, not immediately recognisable as a woman, was found at the bottom of a country lane in Cork, not far from her holiday cottage.
Her head had been disfigured by an estimated 50 blows with a heavy rock and concrete cavity block – not just murdered but brutally so.
Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s death remains a stain on the national consciousness, the savage who slew her having remained free for a quarter-century (unless dead himself). Ireland’s criminal justice embarrassment currently has the attention of the world, amid parallel TV documentaries on Sky and Netflix and a growing demand for answers.
Here we examine 10 unanswered questions in arguably the most notorious unsolved crime in Irish history:
Sophie’s house was untouched, no money had been taken. It thus seems to have been about Sophie herself, a glamorous blonde filmmaker who was alone in her holiday home days before Christmas. In such a remote spot, few will have known she was there.
It is a long way from anywhere for a burglar. If an intruder, why did Sophie not ring gardaí, having been chatting from bed with her husband in Toulouse by cordless phone at midnight?
The bedclothes were rumpled and she wore night attire twinned with boots.
To crime-scene investigators it looked as if a knock to awaken her had been joined by a name in response to her answering cry: “Who is it?”
She fatally descended to the back door, where a smear of her blood was later found close to the handle. She would flee downhill, likely blocked from ascending the slope to her nearest neighbours, Alfie Lyons and Shirley Foster, who heard nothing.
Who would want Sophie dead? The gardaí drew up an initial list of 54 persons of interest. But the scene indicated no prior intent – a rock and block, lifted from a nearby pump fixture, had been used. At least 40 blows were further inflicted after she drew her last breath.
From these facts, trained investigators made the obvious deduction: an enraged slaughter, not a premeditated assassination.
Could it perhaps be what the French call a crime passionel? Spurned lovers would have to be checked out – and Sophie had one liaison, with artist Bruno Carbonnet, in a finished relationship that her husband Daniel had known about while the infidelity was in train.
Carbonnet had a watertight alibi proving he was in France at the time. More likely, the context of late December and a late hour pointed to local responsibility, and certainly a man. It suggested a motive of wanting sex. He approached, Sophie fled in terror from at least an acquaintance, and a man turned into a monster.
Covering this case as a journalist before any arrest had been made, the most sensational twist came with the discovery that a witness had seen a man washing his boots at the nearby Kealfadda bridge.
News crews rushed to a low bridge that hardly changed the camber of the road linking Goleen village to the town of Schull. Here a ribbon of road joins at right angles, leading to Sophie’s house.
Journalists stood in the shallow water to the right (when coming from Goleen) and photographers snapped.
A person bathing their boots would be unseen to the left; yet a driver heading to Schull in a right-hand drive car would immediately spot anyone splashing to the right, where the water wandered to the sea. The names involved were unknown: Gardaí would not discuss the matter.
Gardaí later identified Marie Farrell. She drove with a unidentified passenger and recalled seeing a man at the bridge. Why a person stumbling along a road at Christmas should stick in the mind was anyone’s guess.
Gardaí quickly eliminated scores of suspects. But one officer nominated a journalist who approached the murder scene, the first of many reporters, Irish and French. His was name was Ian Bailey.
His behaviour was unusual in many ways, with locals reporting him out walking late at night, seemingly obsessed with the moon. No-one saw him with any cuts when playing bodhrán in a pub hours before the killing.
But his own partner noticed them the next morning, Jules Thomas also described a ‘nick’ in his hairline. A scratch from killing turkeys, Bailey said later. His hands had scratches, locals said.
These arose from cutting down a Christmas tree only a day or two before the big day, Bailey now says. Gardaí replicated such a felling, in the same place, with the same trees, but without injury.
Documentary maker Jim Sheridan suggests video of a Christmas day swim at Schull, in which Bailey’s hands are briefly seen, does not indicate anything obvious. Garda-commissioned independent tree-cuttings in Scandinavia by workers also told nothing.
Bailey said initially he stayed home all night. His partner was also arrested and separately revealed he left the bed and got up. The journalist now remembered rising to work in the kitchen for a while. He then left the house to write a story for a Sunday newspaper (it was a Sunday night) in a building known as the Studio, 100 yards down the road. Bailey insists he never met Sophie and never spoke to her in his life.
Contradictions abound about the following morning. Bailey and Thomas say they stayed home. But there were two sightings of Thomas in her car, including a claim she told a stallholder in Goleen that Bailey was investigating a murder. Thomas’s own daughter Fenella told of her mother and Bailey driving away that morning. A photographic editor with the Irish Independent testified to being rung by Bailey to indicate he had morning pictures of the scene. All the above claims are denied, and Bailey says he only learned of a fatality by telephone at 1.40pm. He went straight to the scene, although the newspaper tipster only knew of a suspicious death, possibly a hit and run, involving a ‘foreign’ national, female.
A number of locals described a fire at the back of the Studio on St Stephen’s Day, 1996. Gardaí sifted the ashes – finding mattress remains, and the unburnt eyelets of footwear laces. Bailey and Thomas say the bonfire of rubbish took place the previous month. He wore trainers at the Christmas swim.
Bailey made a series of ‘confessions,’ witnesses claim. Bailey denies some happened at all, while others, he says were misunderstandings of sarcasm or black humour. No other alleged confession has been attributed to anyone else in statements to gardaí.
There was graphic detail in some, including “I bashed her brains in with a rock.” Why would anyone in that traumatised townland make distasteful references of this sort, if said? And why a conspiracy of claims by people in West Cork?
Arianna Boarina, a 20-year-old Italian, joined the Bailey household the day the body was found. “I immediately noticed heavy marks from scratches, on both of his hands,” she told gardaí much later.
“They were numerous on both hands, up as far as his forearms, and fresh.”
There were “dark clothes” soaking in the tub in the bathroom, she told gardaí. In the Netflix series, Arianna, now living in the US, refers instead to a coat in a bucket. Which is right, if either?
Farrell testified to seeing Bailey at the bridge and being outside her shop when Sophie browsed inside. Her initial garda statements suggested a shorter man across the road in Schull. She later retracted all.
Yet she made anonymous tip-offs to gardaí initially, followed by 17 complaints to them about alleged Bailey harassment and threats thereafter, even sending him a solicitor’s cease-and-desist letter. Facts.
Now she says gardaí bullied her into statements made against Bailey given to a libel trial in 2003, when she also alleged “cut-throat” gestures and said she was “terrified” of him. What could cause her to change her story?
Geraldine O’Brien, her shop assistant, gave back-up statements to gardaí about Bailey’s alleged intimidation.
But she crossed her boss in evidence when he sued the State in 2015, telling of a Farrell prediction that Bailey would get millions and she would “probably get something from that”.
Farrell flatly denies any money motive, despite now admitting an overpayment to her of £27,000 by British social services.
She insists today she is motivated only by the truth, and to clear her conscience.
Bailey repeatedly filed newspaper stories suggesting the Toormore horror had a French origin, in apparent contradiction to the known facts. Why would he do such a thing? He insists he has his sources and that the gardaí have not investigated properly. After a Paris trial in May 2019, conducted without Bailey or any defence, he was convicted of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and sentenced to 25 years.
Ireland has refused to extradite him and Bailey strenuously maintains his innocence.
The above is merely an outline of some of the more salient aspects of the investigation.
Documentary series, no matter how many their episodes, can only scratch the surface. They do not tell much of flesh-and-blood Sophie and how she fought for her life, having it bludgeoned from her at the age of only 39.
As to what they know, the gardaí cannot publicly talk. And neither, unfortunately, can Sophie.