Gardai and HSE were all taken in by Walter Mitty-like con artist
The tale of the 'trafficked teen' who is actually a 25-year-old Australian is as bizarre as it is disturbing, write Shane Phelan and Tom Brady
WHEN two gardai patrolling O'Connell Street on October 10 came across a waif-like figure in a distressed state outside the GPO they could not possibly have conceived the bizarre series of events which would follow.
The young female weighed barely 40kg, leading officers to believe they were dealing with a teenage girl, possibly aged between 14 and 16. They immediately sought the assistance of the HSE.
The 'girl' would not speak to them, but was clearly emotionally disturbed. She would only communicate by writing short notes in English and drawing pictures.
Some depicted a young woman being brought on a plane. Others showed a young woman being laid upon in bed by a man.
Leading childcare experts were drafted in to assess the girl. Even though her co-operation with them was extremely limited, they formed the opinion that she had endured some deep form of trauma and had possibly been trafficked into Ireland.
The theory triggered a major garda operation, codenamed Shepard, and over the following month, in tandem with inquiries made all over the country, contact was made with police forces across Europe in a bid to identify the girl.
Initially, the case received some media attention, but interest then began to wane.
That was until gardai admitted that, despite their efforts, they had drawn a complete blank.
They took the unprecedented step of securing a High Court order, against the wishes of the HSE, to allow them publish a photo of the girl.
The order was needed as identification of a minor in care is prohibited, unless this is approved by a judge.
A press conference was convened at Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park on Tuesday, where the girl's photo was published and an international appeal for help was issued.
Within minutes, the case had become an international news story, both in traditional and social media. The question on everyone's lips was: just who is this mystery girl?
Within hours, the question would be answered.
A phone call that evening to the special incident room at Store Street garda station informed officers that she was Samantha Azzopardi, from Campbellstown in New South Wales, Australia.
She is the daughter of Bruce Azzopardi and Joanne Marie Campbell and has a brother called Gregory.
The call came from Joe Brennan, a man living in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, who at one time had been in a relationship with the girl's mother.
To their astonishment, gardai also learned that the girl was not a teenager at all and was in fact 25.
Ms Azzopardi had been to visit Mr Brennan for a few weeks before, travelling by bus to Dublin on the day she was encountered by gardai.
Contact was quickly made with the authorities in Australia and the information provided by Mr Brennan about her identity was verified.
But stranger twists in the story were about to emerge.
Officers were informed by their counterparts in Australia that Ms Azzopardi had a criminal history, which included the use of up to 40 aliases and a conviction for deception.
She was known to a number of police forces there for telling false stories, adopting false identities and spinning yarns, claiming at one point to have been born in France and at another stage to have been a gymnast.
The picture painted of her in briefings was one of a fantasist, a liar and a Walter Mitty-type character.
She had made allegations to New South Wales police that she had been sexually abused in the past, but none of those claims turned out to be true.
Police files said she was skilled at creating false identities and turning up with false documentation to back up her identity claims. It was also claimed that she "easily assumes" the persona of an adolescent teenager and is very "believable".
She had a number of convictions for criminal offences, including one when she was convicted of defrauding by deceit in attempting to obtain benefits payments.
She was given a six-month prison term but it was suspended for 12 months.Other convictions were for offences including the forging of documents.
Needless to say, this information has led investigators to be deeply sceptical of Ms Azzopardi.
However, they do accept she is a highly vulnerable individual.
An expert medical witness testified yesterday that she had displayed the signs of someone with a difficult past.
However, now that they know who she is, the task of treating her will be made somewhat easier as they can examine her previous medical history.
While the High Court is expected to decide today whether she will remain in HSE care, gardai are believed to be considering bringing charges for wasting police time.
It is safe to say we haven't heard the last of Samantha Azzopardi.