Saturday 16 February 2019

Killer unknown: The long wait for a breakthrough

In the second instalment of our Unsolved series, John Meagher revisits the case of Antoinette Smith, a young Dublin woman found murdered in 1988

Desolate landscape: John Meagher in the Dublin Mountains, near to where the remains of Antoinette Smith were found. Photo by Mark Condren
Desolate landscape: John Meagher in the Dublin Mountains, near to where the remains of Antoinette Smith were found. Photo by Mark Condren
More victims: Rachel Smith, Antoinette's daughter, believes the killer may have murdered others. Photo by Damien Eagers
Antoinette Smith
John Meagher

John Meagher

Springtime may have arrived in Dublin city, but just half an hour away by car - at the Captain Noel Lemass Memorial in the Dublin Mountains - it feels decidedly wintry. Snowdrifts remain from last week, a strong wind blows along the side of the mountain and the steady rain exacerbates the sense of cold.

There is nobody about on this midweek day and if you find yourself at this simple stone monument - in honour of the older brother of Taoiseach Seán Lemass, kidnapped and killed two months after the Civil War - you will feel as though you have the whole of your surrounds to yourself. The odd car winds its way along Killakee Road but it does little to break up the sense of desolation. You have to remind yourself that O'Connell Street is just 15km away as the crow flies.

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But being alone is not the only reason there is such a sense of disquiet here. This place - where the counties of Dublin and Wicklow meet - has been the last resting place for several Irish women robbed of life in the most violent manner.

Elaine O'Hara's remains were found a few kilometres from here in 2013. Her killer Graham Dwyer was caught and is now incarcerated in the Midlands Prison. But for the families of other murdered women, the knowledge that their loved one's killer has never been brought to justice is a constant sorrow.

More victims: Rachel Smith, Antoinette's daughter, believes the killer may have murdered others. Photo by Damien Eagers
More victims: Rachel Smith, Antoinette's daughter, believes the killer may have murdered others. Photo by Damien Eagers

Rachel Smith was just three years old when her mother Antoinette vanished in the summer of 1987. Nine months later, her body was found close to a bog road near this spot. Despite one of the largest garda manhunts of the 1980s, nobody was apprehended. "Whoever killed my mam and buried her in the Dublin Mountains like she was an animal is still out there," she says. "I will never give up the hope that he will be caught."

 

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For music fans, July 1987 was all about David Bowie and his headline appearance at Slane Castle. Despite his prodigious output in the 1970s and 1980s, he had never played a show in Ireland before.

But this was an Ireland with high unemployment, especially among young people, and it was a decade that saw many young men and women in their twenties leave in search of a better life abroad. There were tickets to be had right up to the day of the concert, and it was on the day before that Antoinette Smith decided she would go.

Antoinette Smith
Antoinette Smith

The 27-year-old mother-of-two from Clondalkin, Dublin was separated from her daughters' father, Karl, so nights out were comparatively few and far between. She got a bus to Slane with a friend, having purchased a pair of matching Bowie T-shirts in Dublin before making the journey.

The pair made it back to the city by 11.30pm and decided to make the most of their freedom by going to a now long-defunct nightclub, La Mirage, on Parnell Street in the north inner city. They met friends there and Antoinette must have enjoyed letting her hair down, knowing that her girls, Lisa (7) and Rachel (3), were safely tucked up in bed.

When the club drew to a close, Antoinette was keen for fast food, but her friend wanted to get home. She gave Antoinette a spare key to let herself in later and she went off, secure in the knowledge that Antoinette would be safe walking down O'Connell Street because there were two male friends with her.

But when the friend awoke the next morning, Antoinette was nowhere to be seen. She had not gone home either - and as the day wore on, panic set in for all those who knew her. She was never seen alive again.

 

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"My sister and myself were told that Mam had gone to heaven," Rachel says today. "I was only three then. It was much later, years and years, that I found out what really happened."

The child - then not yet at school - was shielded from the news that her mother's body had been found months later, in April 1988, in a shallow bogland grave in the Dublin Mountains.

She was identified by the Bowie T-shirt, and the key that her friend had given her was still on her person. Forensic tests revealed she had been raped and strangled. The discovery attracted enormous media attention. A potential witness came forward. It was a taxi driver who told gardaí he had picked up a woman who looked a lot like Antoinette from outside the Abrakebabra on Westmoreland Street. She was with two men, whom she seemed to know, according to the driver, and they asked to be taken to close to the Yellow House pub in Rathfarnham on Dublin's southside.

Another man came forward to tell police that he had been walking his dog on Glendoo Mountain, just south of Enniskerry, when he noticed two men hurrying down the hillside. They looked agitated and offered no greeting as they passed him. The spot was close to where Antoinette's body was found.

In the 32 years that have elapsed, there have been no new leads. Gardaí are no closer to identifying the killer - or killers - of Antoinette Smith now than they were in the weeks immediately after the discovery of her corpse.

Rachel Smith is 35 now. She works in the catering industry and lives in Swords, Co Dublin. She is determined to keep her mother's memory alive and she hopes that any media coverage will provoke someone, somewhere to come forward.

"All we want is anybody with any kind of information to come forward, no matter how small it might be," she says. "Just the slightest thing at all - it might give a breakthrough.

"That's the only bit of hope we hang on to and when you look at cold cases all over the world, it has happened. It's what's kept us during this long investigation."

 

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The investigation remains live and is under the command of Bray Garda Station. Gardaí are appealing to anyone who knows anything to speak to them in confidence.

The RTÉ Prime Time reporter Barry Cummins has covered the Antoinette Smith case extensively. He says the investigation was hamstrung by the fact that CCTV barely existed in the 1980s - anyone hailing a taxi on Westmoreland Street today would be spotted by dozens of surveillance cameras - but he believes Rathfarnham holds the key.

"The killer or killers either had left a car in Rathfarnham or were living there and had access to a vehicle," he tells Review. "They would have needed a car to bring Antoinette's body to where they buried her on the Dublin Mountains.

"I believe gardaí should conduct door-to-door enquires in Rathfarnham once more," he says, citing the case of Ann 'Nancy' Smith.

"That was a cold-case murder solved in Kilkenny 30 years after she was killed, and it was partly solved by guards going out unannounced and knocking on doors again. 'Here we are - is there anything you haven't told us 30 years ago? I think the man or men responsible had some link to property in Rathfarnham at the time." Cummins also believes that Antoinette may have been killed by a serial killer.

"Antoinette disappeared in 1987. And then Patricia Doherty disappeared in much the same way a few years later at Christmas time in 1991. She also had been raped and strangled and buried in the same bog as Antoinette. I see those as the first two of these type of cases in the Dublin area.

"And then you have Annie McCarrick, who disappeared in March 1993. Operation Trace [An Garda's long-running investigation] looked at the six cases beginning with Annie McCarrick, but my argument was maybe Annie wasn't the first and maybe whoever killed Antoinette Smith struck again afterwards."

It's a view shared by Rachel Smith. "I think whoever killed my Mam could have killed others. It was so cold and calculating, and the fact that her body was buried near where other female victims have been found…"

Rachel has visited the burial spot a handful of times. "The first time I went up there, it made me feel so sad and upset. It's so isolated.

"You're on your own up there. There's no-one around."

She has been in close contact with the investigation team at Bray and she says officers there have told her that the notorious criminal, Larry Murphy, has been ruled out as a suspect.

"They haven't told me why exactly, but they seem confident that it's not him. I have my doubts, but they're the ones who have the expertise."

Murphy has long been suspected of being responsible for the disappearances of several women, including Annie McCarrick, JoJo Dullard and Fiona Pender. He denies any involvement. The so-called Beast of Baltinglass served 10 years of a 15-year sentence for rape and attempted murder.

 

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For many years, Rachel Smith tortured herself with 'what-ifs'. What if her mother had gone straight home after the nightclub on Parnell Street? What if she had decided not to make the trek to Slane? What if her father had been unable to look after Lisa and her that night, and Antoinette would have had to stay at home? She knows her life would have been entirely different.

"Those kind of things used to go through my head all the time," she says. "But you have to stop beating yourself up with it. None of that will bring Mam back, and she wouldn't have wanted us to mope like that. She'd want us to live our lives."

Today, her most precious possessions are the small number of photographs she has of Antoinette, eternally in her 20s. "People ask if what happened to her has made me fearful? I try not to let it be. We [Lisa and her] still go to concerts, we love nights out. We're just extra careful - no short cuts."

 

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For some, both the disappearance of Dublin schoolboy Philip Cairns in 1986 and the discovery of Antoinette Smiths's body two years later marked the end of innocence. Perhaps it's a simplistic way of looking at things, especially as the country had been no stranger to violent crime before, but as the 1980s drew to a close, parents worried about the safety of their children on the streets and others panicked about 'stranger danger' when it came to crime against women. Something had changed.

"When Antoinette first went missing, there wasn't much media coverage and I don't know if alarm bells were ringing with the guards as early as they should have been," Barry Cummins says.

"Police officers look at things differently now - sadly, they learn by experience.

"You would hope against hope for a breakthrough. That some little part of the puzzle will present itself and whoever's responsible for this will be brought to justice. It's the very least that Rachel and Lisa deserve."

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