Wednesday 14 November 2018

Clues that point to the prime suspect in a 20-year mystery

Fresh evidence has reignited the inquiry into Deirdre Jacob's disappearance. But there is still much work to do, writes Maeve Sheehan

RAPIST: Larry Murphy, the ‘Beast of Baltinglass’, is understood to be in the United Kingdom following his release from prison
RAPIST: Larry Murphy, the ‘Beast of Baltinglass’, is understood to be in the United Kingdom following his release from prison
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Garda's 'cold case' team works slowly and methodically. It took more than 12 months to complete a review of Deirdre Jacob's disappearance.

Two months ago, the team finished its work on the case of the 18-year-old student who vanished without a trace close to her home in Newbridge in July 1998.

A jobs book had first been drawn up of witnesses whom the serious crime review team felt local gardai should go back and interview. A victimology report, completed in June, assessed the probability of various grim scenarios - the possibility of suicide, that she had chosen to disappear, the likelihood that she had lost her life accidentally by another's hand. A proof of life analysis - which examines systems and data banks - assessed the likelihood of whether she could still be alive.

Although sources are tight-lipped on what the reports found, none gave gardai cause for hope. But despite the bleak outlook, no one expected the case to go from a missing persons inquiry to a full-scale murder investigation as quickly as did.

Then five weeks ago - a fortnight before the 20th anniversary of Deirdre's disappearance - a witness came forward with compelling new evidence about her disappearance. Gardai have not disclosed why the witness did not come forward sooner, or what they were told. But gardai now believe Deirdre Jacob was murdered, on the day she disappeared or soon afterwards. The missing persons inquiry was immediately escalated into a murder investigation.

The development is traumatic for her parents, Michael and Bernie, who have long clung to hope that their daughter is alive.

Deirdre has not been seen since July 28, 1998. She was training to be a primary school teacher at St Mary's University in Twickenham, London. Home for the holidays, she stayed at her parents' house on the main road just outside the town.

She left at 12.50pm and walked into Newbridge. She called into her grandmother's sweet shop, visited AIB bank to get a draft to pay her rent in the UK, and then went to the post office. Deirdre called to her grandmother's shop once again before starting the 25-minute walk home. She left after 2.30pm. Several local peop­­le saw her at various points, for the final time at around 3pm on the grass verge almost directly across the road from her parents' home.

On February 11, 2000, 19 months after Deirdre vanished and less than 50km away, a woman who worked in Carlow town walked to the car park of an apartment complex where she parked every day.

She had opened the driver's door, when she heard a man approach her. As she turned around, he punched her in the face, pushed her into her car and forced her into the well of the passenger seat, then to the boot of his car before transporting her first to Kilkea, Co Kildare, and then to Spinans Cross in the Wicklow mountains, raping her repeatedly at each location.

Gardai suspect she would have been killed were it not for two hunters who chanced upon the horrifying scene.

The rapist fled but the hunters knew who he was. They drove the woman to Baltinglass Garda Station and told gardai her attacker was a local called Larry Murphy, a carpenter who was married with children.

Murphy was arrested the following morning and taken into custody - he would eventually plead guilty to rape and attempted murder, such was the weight of evidence against him.

Gardai suspected him of more. Six women vanished between 1993 and 1998, all within the greater Leinster hinterland and the subject of a dedicated investigation unit, Operation Trace.

Murphy had admitted to a horrific rape and attempted murder, a crime that was frighteningly calculated and practised in its execution, a crime that bore the hallmarks of a serial sexual predator. He was a jobbing carpenter who traversed Leinster and hunted in its hills and mountains.

Detectives removed boxes of records from Murphy's family home, hoping that his invoices and work dockets would pinpoint his movements on key dates in Operation Trace.

One invoice showed that Murphy had been hired to do some carpentry work for a disco bar in the town that was being renovated when Deirdre disappeared in July 1998.

On making further inquiries, gardai were told that Murphy didn't start his work at the site until late August or September. Although Murphy had visited the bar some time before he started the job, to give a quote for his work, gardai could not pinpoint the date.

Some witnesses said Murphy was one of several men working on a building in Newbridge on the day Deirdre disappeared. But gardai accounted for all of the workmen present and Murphy was not among them. To this day, gardai have never established where Murphy was or where he was working the day Deirdre disappeared.

There was a suggestion Murphy may have been in Deirdre Jacob's grandmother's shop at some point.

Deirdre's grandmother died in December 1999, more than a year after Deirdre disappeared. When clearing out the sweetshop, in among the various documents, her family found a leaflet from a carpenter advertising his availability for work.

It bore the name Larry Murphy and a telephone number. But it has never been established how the leaflet came to be in Deirdre's granny's sweetshop, or whether Murphy had handed it in himself.

Years passed with no significant developments in the case. Then in 2011, the year after Murphy was released from prison, Alan Bailey, then a detective working with Operation Trace, learned that a man serving a life sentence for a violent crime had information he wanted to share.

Since gardai announced last week that they are now investigating Deirdre Jacob's murder, Bailey has been careful to make no public comment on any potential suspects or persons of interest in the case. He told the Sunday Independent it was important to keep an open mind.

In his book Missing Presumed, published four years ago, he recounted the chilling story which the prisoner told him and a garda colleague, over several visits.

His informant told him about a conversation with Murphy, when both were in Arbour Hill. During one vodka-fuelled night, drinking illicitly brewed prison spirits, Murphy allegedly talked about a woman he claimed to have abducted from the side of the road in Newbridge.

The prisoner claimed Murphy told him he had been driving around in a saloon car searching for a victim, toys reassuringly scattered across the back seat and a child seat in place.

He had spread a road map on the front passenger seat and rolled down the window on the passenger side.

In his book, Bailey wrote: "The source had claimed that during their conversation, Murphy said he had pulled in alongside a young girl on the road just outside of Newbridge, waved the map in her direction, and asked for instructions on getting to a particular place.

"When the youngster leaned in through the open passenger window to try to see where he was pointing to, he is alleged to have grabbed her by her hair, and roughly dragged her down into the car, forcing her down into the 'well' of the front passenger seat. It was then suggested that he had driven away at speed."

Although hardly a reliable witness, Alan Bailey noted that the prisoner had nothing to gain from coming forward with his allegations and risked becoming the target of fellow inmates as a "rat". Nevertheless, the prisoner swore a witness statement and on foot of his information, Bailey wrote, gardai searched an area of land in Wicklow and traced cars that Murphy may have had access to in 1998. The inquiries proved fruitless and the prisoner's account was never corroborated.

Sources say the allegations were never put to Larry Murphy. His only interaction with gardai since his release from prison has related to issues around his own safety and his obligation to report his address so it can be recorded on the sex offenders' register.

He has been ostracised from Baltinglass. He reportedly lives a peripatetic life, moving from Amsterdam to Manchester and, most recently, London.

The information provided five weeks ago is the most significant and substantial to date and is key to the reclassification of Deirdre's disappearance as murder.

But the case is a "slow burner". There is much work to do. A team of gardai are following up on the recommendations of the serious crime review team, re-interviewing witnesses and seeking new ones, enhancing CCTV and video evidence from the day Deirdre disappeared, and preparing for fresh searches of land in the Wicklow and greater Leinster area. A key priority for now is to try to corroborate the new information.

Chief Superintendent Brian Sutton appealed for people who did not come forward in the past to do so now: "In the passage of time, people might change their opinion or beliefs or the moral compass they had back then, and we wish for them to come forward now."

Sunday Independent

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