Monday 18 November 2019

Lost: five files, 139 statements and one gate

Last week's Gsoc report on the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder inquiry simply defies belief

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Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

How do you lose a garden gate? We all know how easy it can be to walk away and leave a pen or a wallet behind. We might come back from a holiday without a phone charger or a pair of sunglasses.

But a garden gate? It's not something you carry with you. You don't leave it behind in a restaurant.

So, a garden gate, evidence in a murder, went missing from a police station.

Did no one notice someone leaving the police station with a garden gate spattered with the blood of a murdered woman?

Apparently not.

The missing garden gate is just one of the mysteries in the report published last week on the inquiry into the investigation of the brutal killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 1996.

That killing still convulses Ms Du Plantier's family. The investigation destroyed the lives of two innocent people - Ian Bailey and Jules Thomas - and it left the reputation of the Garda force in flitters.

Gsoc spent six years on this matter. The resulting report reveals far more about Gsoc than it does about police conduct. It glosses over matters that demand explanation and it reaches conclusions without outlining why.

The report is unwittingly damning of the alleged "Garda watchdog" itself. It's hard to see what purpose Gsoc serves, other than to provide a fig leaf of regulation for a very damaged Garda Siochana.

Take a deep breath. Some of this is very hard to credit as the actions of a modern police force.

We won't bother rehashing the killing of the unfortunate woman or the hounding of Bailey. We will deal mostly with the "mysteries" arising from the Gsoc inquiry. And the watchdog's blase response.

Bailey, Thomas and a woman named Marie Farrell made allegations against the police that amounted to corruption. Gsoc began inquiries into this, in 2012, by asking the gardai for documentation.

In November 2012, after eight months waiting for documents, GSOC was given 32 witness statements. After two more months, the police delivered the rest of the required documentation.

In the meantime, before the gardai coughed up a single document, Ian Bailey had provided Gsoc with 623 witness statements he had acquired in litigation.

Here's a tip: when you ask for documentation and one party immediately responds, while the other drags its heels - someone's not in a hurry to help.

In September 2013, Gsoc asked the Garda Siochana for files on suspects in the killing. It was told five such files are missing. These include files on Bailey, Thomas and three other suspects.

Let us spell that out - the files on five suspects disappeared. Five official police files, held in secure custody, with only the police having access, disappeared. They contained confidential information on five innocent people - and Lord knows what detail, gossip, rumour and speculation on their private lives and the lives of neighbours, relatives and friends.

Not to mention information on a brutal killing.

Gsoc asked the police if anything else was missing.

Three months later, the police produced a list of exhibits they couldn't find - 22 of them. Including Ian Bailey's diary and his overcoat.

And, of course, the blood-spattered garden gate.

Oh, yes, and let's not forget the 139 missing witness statements. "These included witness statements from Garda members, forensic scientists and members of the public."

Then there were the Jobs Books.

Investigators keep A4-sized hard-backed books in which they note a list of "jobs" assigned to individual gardai. These are handwritten, with official forms glued into the pages.

The Jobs Books constitute a record of the investigation - crucial evidence, a central tool in solving and prosecuting a crime. There were seven Jobs Books in the Du Plantier investigation, and 1,103 jobs assigned.

It was not an exemplary investigation. There appears to have been a fixation on getting Ian Bailey. We will say no more than that. What happened some time later was even more disturbing. This was after the case had become controversial and questions were raised about the hounding of Bailey.

In Jobs Book No 2, on page nine, Bailey was mentioned as a suspect.

Pages one to seven, just before this, are missing.

The two pages following the mention of Bailey, pages 10 and 11, are also missing.

Jobs Books are bound, the pages could not fall out.

Gsoc sent the book to an experienced forensic scientist in Northern Ireland. He found that the pages had been cut from the book, probably using scissors.

Nine pages deleted.

Let us put this in context.

There was no credible evidence against Ian Bailey.

While in the custody of the police, significant exhibits vanished. The official record of the investigation was tampered with.

Gsoc says it was "gravely concerned", but doesn't find this behaviour corrupt. It says there was "difficulty in the administration and management in the incident room".

Yes, there was clearly poor management. But it wasn't a management failure that led someone to take scissors to crudely alter the official record. It was corrupt behaviour. Gsoc turns its face from this.

Imagine if Ian Bailey had sole access to the Jobs Books, and they were tampered with - would Gsoc not assign responsibility?

Here's what former DPP Eamonn Barnes wrote some years ago: the Garda investigation was "thoroughly flawed and prejudiced" against Bailey. The DPP's office again and again considered the evidence and refused to charge Bailey.

Here's what Judge Nial Fennelly wrote, after reviewing secret recordings in which gardai discussed the case: "Members of An Garda Siochana involved in the investigation, including the officer responsible for preparing the report for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, were prepared to contemplate altering, modifying or suppressing evidence that did not assist them in furthering their belief that Mr Bailey murdered Madame Toscan du Plantier."

The tape did not find them doing more than contemplating. If it went any further, we don't know.

Two gardai, unaware they were on tape, discussed "pre-dating" a statement.

Now, we have the missing materials and witness statements, significant evidence that just disappeared.

Strangely, Gsoc says "a number of Garda members were less than cooperative", preventing Gsoc fully establishing details on the arrests of Bailey and Thomas.

"Less than cooperative."

This revives memories of the Kerry Babies report, in which Judge Lynch found civilians told "barefaced lies" and gardai "gilded the lily".

Gsoc was impeded in its work. By gardai. Who were uncooperative. One could say they hampered the Gsoc inquiry.

Or, one could minimise their actions and say they were "less than cooperative".

To be fair, it can be difficult to know where Garda incompetence ends and corruption begins. So, documents might have just been lost.

Hard to see how a garden gate could vanish innocently. Maybe someone needed a garden gate, and thought it was just an old gate lying around.

I know, hard to believe.

Another way of looking at it is someone might have thought that with improving technology there might be something found on that gate we shouldn't know.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier deserved better from the gardai. She deserved better from Gsoc. Bailey and Thomas deserve better. We deserve better.

Sunday Independent

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