Friday 22 November 2019

Murder and suspicion linger in West Cork despite garda victory

The investigation of Sophie Toscan du Plantier's murder started with 54 suspects and ended with one, Ian Bailey, writes Maeve Sheehan

Sophie Toscan du Plantier
Sophie Toscan du Plantier
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The murder was so long ago that the now retired garda, Denis Harrington, was at first confused as to whether he'd actually seen the body of Sophie Toscan du Plantier or photographs of it. Either way, his recall was graphic: "The body was dressed in a towel dressing gown. It would appear she had tried to get away from her assailant as best she could. The dressing gown was (entangled) in briars. She had actually tried to climb in through the briars," he said. The briars were "the kind that would cut you with spikes, as thick as your finger, anyway".

She was a beautiful, freckled, French woman, aged 39, who had been coming to West Cork from her home in Paris for several years. She had bought the holiday home on a laneway she shared with neighbours, Alfie Lyons and Shirley Foster. She had a famous husband, Daniel du Plantier, a film producer who has since died, and in the past, she had a lover called Bruno Carbonnet, an artist. But on Friday, December 20, 1996, she came to Ireland alone for a pre-Christmas break, landing in Cork Airport at 2.30pm and collecting a hire car.

Shirley Foster found her shortly after 10am on Monday morning as she passed by the laneway. The murder weapon was a brick by her battered body, but the time she died was never established and a forensic link to her killer was never found.

News of the murder seeped out into the community of around 2,000 people that live between Schull and Crookhaven on the Mizen peninsula.

Saffron Thomas said she heard about it at "around 11am". She had stayed the night in Schull with friends. When she got up, she went to the village, bumped into some friends, and they decided to go to Adele's for a coffee. There a woman told her: "Did you hear, there's been a murder?

"No, where?"

"Out my way."

"Goodness, is it someone we know?"

"No, it was somebody foreign."

Tom Brosnan, owner of the Spar supermarket on Schull's Main Street, said he heard about the murder on the radio when he went home to get his breakfast. He knew Sophie Toscan du Plantier. "She'd get a French newspaper from us and do her shopping," he said.

It was a great shock to everybody, he said. "When it first happened you'd be selling twice as many newspapers but as time went on then, you know people tend not to talk about it, to get on with their everyday life."

Caroline Leftwick, who lived in Skibbereen, said she was expecting Ian Bailey to collect seed garlic from her on the day Ms Du Plantier's body was found. He rang her shortly before 1pm to say he wouldn't be coming, she said. There had been a murder and he "had the story". She asked who it was, and he told her no one she knew, that it was a French woman.

Martin Malone, a local garda who was dispatched to the crime scene, "got a fright" when Ian Bailey, sometime freelance journalist, turned up at 2.20pm. The last time he'd seen Mr Bailey was when his partner, Jules Thomas, had come to the station to withdraw an earlier complaint that he had assaulted her. That day, he observed that Ian Bailey was "very well dressed" in a long coat. He said he didn't ask any questions about the murder victim and "seemed to be acting the part of a journalist". "He departed too quickly and I was suspicious of him," he said in a statement some weeks later.

Four days later, Martin Malone heard that Ian Bailey was back at the crime scene. He had gone up the lane, past the garda cordon, to Alfie Lyons' house. According to Mr Malone, he had told the garda he had a message for Mr Lyons and mentioned "briquettes". Mr Malone said he was "furious" and "suspicious". He wondered was Ian Bailey trying to compromise the scene? But when he was cross-examined, he agreed that Mr Bailey could have been trying to get information out of Mr Lyons as a journalist.

That day, he nominated Ian Bailey as a "good suspect" to the incident room that was set up at Bantry Garda Station in the wake of the murder.

That same day gardas Bart O'Leary and Kevin Kelleher went into Tom Brosnan's supermarket and noticed a man with scratches on his hands. Bart O'Leary asked his colleague who he was. Mr Kelleher, who was attached to the local station, told him that was Ian Bailey.

Mr Bailey noticed he was being scrutinised. "When I look back in retrospect, I believe that was the moment Bart O'Leary, who described himself as 'Cracker', thought he'd found the killer," he said.

The son of a craft butcher in Manchester, Mr Bailey moved to Ireland in 1991 in search of a different life, walking away from his career as a freelance agency journalist and from a failed marriage. He met the artist Jules Thomas, also a refugee from the London rat race, while he was working in a fish factory in Schull.

Ms Thomas was raising three girls from her two previous relationships, Saffron, Virginia and Fenella, who were respectively 17, 14 and 10 or 11 when he came into their lives. Life was no bed of roses, Jules Thomas agreed. The court heard how he seriously assaulted her on three occasions, once causing her to be admitted to hospital. Virginia didn't like him, as she later made clear in a statement to gardai, largely because of his violence towards her mother. Saffron, who testified in court, said he "got on grand" with them.

Saffron said that her family usually killed three or four turkeys at Christmas, to pay for their own turkey, before Ian Bailey moved in to their home, called The Prairie. "Myself and my mum would have done a two-person job. I would have sat on the turkey... my mother would have stretched out the head and cut it off," she said. "The turkey would usually throw me off and go for a spin without its head."

When Ian Bailey moved in, he took over this "unpleasant" task, while Saffron usually did the "plucking". Saffron said that on the Sunday before Ms du Plantier's body was found, Mr Bailey killed three turkeys and then cut the top off a 20-foot spruce tree. She had helped him.

On New Year's Eve, gardai John Paul Culligan and Denis Harrington, sent down from Cork city for the investigation, were dispatched to question Ian Bailey about his movements. They were assigned Mr Bailey as a "suspect".

Mr Harrington asked him about the scratches on his hands: "With that, he pulled up the sleeves on both hands and there were scratches on his arms," he said. Mr Bailey explained he had been killing turkeys and cutting trees with Saffron. But Mr Harrington still believed the marks were "briar cuts". Mr Culligan was also suspicious, but they didn't photograph them. They didn't take a statement from Saffron Thomas at that time - which Mr Culligan said was an "oversight" - although she did provide one some weeks later.

John Dukelow, a neighbour, gave Mr Bailey a lift around that time. "Well when we were driving, he said to me, you won't believe this, he says, but they think I'm after murdering this woman... 'Ah, no,' I says. That was my reply: 'Ah,no'. I couldn't believe it really, myself, personally," said Mr Dukelow.

Mr Bailey told other people too, including journalists. Later in the witness box, Mr Bailey came across as a person who talked a lot and unselfconsciously, even under the State's sharp scrutiny.

Mr Bailey wasn't the only suspect initially. Chief Superintendent Tom Hayes said there were 54 suspects and persons of interest. Michael Kelleher, a retired garda inspector who ran the incident room, said there were 40.

Ms du Plantier's former lover, Bruno Carbonnet, whom she had brought with her on holidays to West Cork, was nominated as an early suspect. But the artist, who lives in France, had an alibi and was ruled out. A German man who later committed suicide was also considered.

A bachelor farmer who lived alone in the area also came into the frame. Local people suspected he was taking things such as gas canisters from their yards when they were at Mass. He was also ruled out. "He wasn't a murder suspect, he was just a poor farmer who had taken stuff," said Garda John Paul Culligan, who interviewed him. In his evidence Mr Bailey claimed a French connection, alleging that Sophie had been involved in a cat fight with her husband's mistress before she came to Ireland.

Michael Kelleher said that by the time he left the investigating team, in early 1997, Ian Bailey was the garda's only "genuine" suspect.

Ian Bailey has long claimed that garda tried to frame him for murder in a case that remains one of the most contentious and puzzling of the country's unsolved crimes.

He launched a legal action against gardai and the State, to show "once and for all" that he had "nothing to do with" the murder and that he was the "victim of a conspiracy". He sued for conspiracy, wrongful arrest, assault, false imprisonment; claiming he was harassed, hounded and intimidated, that gardai spread fear about him in the small rural community and that his life was destroyed.

He drew on a cast of characters that included a local shopkeeper, Marie Farrell, and a burnt-out former soldier, Martin Graham, to support his claims of a conspiracy. Ms Farrell claimed she was pressured by gardai into identifying him as the "weird" man she'd seen on the road on the night of the murder, while Mr Graham claimed gardai offered him cash and hash to get close to Mr Bailey.

The State denied all of Bailey's claims, insisting that there were reasonable grounds to arrest him, not least his violence towards Jules Thomas, and the scratches on his arms. He told people he was the murder suspect, and made "alleged admissions" to several people including a newspaper editor, a 14-year-old boy and a tourist. Mr Bailey explained these as "black humour" or what other people had been saying about him. But the State argued that investigators could not ignore them.

Having called more than 70 witnesses, the State applied to have his case thrown out on day 60 of the 64-day case, invoking the statute of limitations that sets a six-year time limit for such cases. Legal experts said it would not have been possible for the State to have successfully raised the statute point without having heard all of the evidence first. The State also argued that gardai had a right to deny Mr Bailey's "grave" allegations in public.

Mr Justice John Hedigan largely allowed the State's application, agreeing that most of it was out of time, including his arrests. Even if they were not, Mr Justice Hedigan said, it appeared gardai had reasonable grounds to arrest Ian Bailey and had they not done so, they would have been in dereliction of their duty.

However, he referred what he called the "central plank" of Mr Bailey's claim to the jury - that four named gardai had conspired to implicate him in the murder by knowingly taking false statements from the shopkeeper, Marie Farrell, that she had seen him at Kealfadda Bridge and that he had intimidated her. If the conspiracy were true, he said, then it was still "live" because Marie Farrell's statements were still on the active garda file.

The jury found there was no conspiracy.

Mr Bailey now faces a legal bill that he can never hope to pay - it will likely run to millions and he is on the dole. Gardai told the court he remains a "person of interest" for Ms du Plantier's murder in what is a "live" investigation. Marie Farrell's disputed statements putting him at the crime scene are still on file, and a European arrest warrant hangs over him as the French continue their own investigation.

But the case did provide important new insights into the garda investigation of the case. Mr Bailey was twice arrested but the Director of Public Prosecutions never charged him.

Robert Sheehan, a senior advisor who handled the garda file at the DPP's office, testified that Marie Farrell's evidence was "absolutely unreliable" and perverse long before she withdrew it as being false.

She first made a statement saying she saw a man of "average height and thin build," he said. "Lo and behold, when gardai wanted Mr Bailey as a suspect, she changed her statement to very big man, so big he was Mr Bailey," he said in evidence.

The jury also heard evidence from the state solicitor for West Cork, Malachy Boohig, who claimed that in 1998, a now deceased garda asked him to use his college connection with the Minister for Justice to make an approach to the DPP to charge Ian Bailey. "I told him absolutely no way was I going to do that, it was completely inappropriate," Mr Boohig said, adding that he told Eamonn Barnes, who was then the DPP. A now retired garda, Dermot Dwyer, who was present, said he never heard anybody say that to Mr Boohig.

Eamonn Barnes told the High Court that he knew gardai were anxious to charge Ian Bailey but he took exception to what he called this "extra step". When he read that Mr Bailey faced extradition to France, he raised it with his successor, James Hamilton. "I felt that perhaps not the whole story of the Bailey case was being made known to the French authorities," he said. "And it was important that it should be."

The Bandon Tapes - recordings of conversations between various gardai and with witnesses unearthed last year in Bandon Garda Station - were "cringe making", full of profanities and pejorative references to Ian Bailey and Jules Thomas.

They confirmed garda's interaction with Marie Farrell and Martin Graham. In one recording between Martin Graham and Jim Fitzgerald, the ex-soldier asks for hash. The garda replies that he has "cash".

In another recording with Mr Fitzgerald, a now deceased garda talks of "chopping" a statement, which Mr Bailey claimed was a reference to changing a statement - claims the State denied.

These matters were found to be statute-barred.

The jury did consider a recorded conversation of Ms Farrell, telling Garda Jim Fitzgerald: "You are a pervert." And his reply: "I f***ing am not... if I am, I'm talking to another one."

Mr Justice Hedigan, in his charge to the jury, said this was "strange" but he also highlighted state's counsel point that nowhere on the tape did she say that she had been put up to making statements.

Mr Justice Hedigan said the case was one of the most serious to come before the court. ."There are huge issues at stake here. If one side is correct, they have suffered a terrible injustice. If the other side is correct, they have suffered a terrible injustice, and in the middle of it all is the interests of the State, you, I and everyone else in the rule of law in our country."

Notwithstanding the garda's victory, the story of Ms du Plantier's murder and the investigation into who killed her is far from over. Mr Bailey is contemplating an appeal. His partner, Jules, is proceeding with her own case. The Garda Ombudsman is investigating a complaint from Mr Bailey, while the Fennelly commission is examining the garda tape recording. But finding Sophie's killer seems as elusive as ever.

Sunday Independent

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