Friday 16 November 2018

Paul Williams: Silence around murder leaves shocked public searching for answers

Candles and flowers surround a photograph of Jastine Valdez at a vigil in Enniskerry. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Candles and flowers surround a photograph of Jastine Valdez at a vigil in Enniskerry. Picture: Gerry Mooney

Paul Williams

The aftermath of the horrific abduction and murder of Jastine Valdez and the shooting dead of her killer Mark Hennessy by gardaí has highlighted deficiencies in the Garda organisation’s ability to communicate effectively with the public it serves.

The abduction of the young student from the side of a quiet country road has left people shocked to the core.

The spectre of a predatory male driving around looking for a random female victim chills every woman to the bone and invokes the memory of Ireland’s seven missing women who vanished without trace, presumed murdered, over a five-year period in the 1990s.

This is the type of monstrous crime that would come out on top if there was a sliding rule for offences capable of shocking a modern society already inured to violent crime. And that is why the public is entitled to be given at least an outline of the events that unfolded immediately following the incident from the time the gardaí were first called.

There is no question that gardaí mounted a massive search operation that involved all the human and technological resources available to them.

The Garda press office also issued very clear and unambiguous public appeals for help in locating Ms Valdez and her abductor which prompted a huge public response.

Later on Sunday the situation took a dramatic twist when Hennessy was confronted by an armed garda who opened fire believing the killer had his victim in the car and was about to stab her.

A second version of the incident is that the killer was lunging towards an unarmed colleague.

The officer has been understandably left distraught but either scenario points to a legitimate shooting.

Initially, it is understood, the garda was deeply concerned that Ms Valdez’s whereabouts died with Hennessy and might prevent his colleagues staging a rescue operation.

Alas there was nothing anyone could have done.

On Monday afternoon, when the student’s remains were located by gardaí, it was learned Ms Valdez had been strangled on Saturday, reportedly shortly after the abduction.

When the alarm was first raised, every available garda resource was deployed in the search operation: CCTV footage was analysed and phone and GPS systems monitored. But apart from the initial public appeals for help, there has been a marked paucity of official information released by the Garda top brass.

The murder of Ms Valdez and the death of Hennessy means there are no longer sensitive operational issues that should be kept under wraps, as in other cases where the perpetrator is alive.

In that scenario, the detectives must gather the evidence for a prosecution away from the glare of the public spotlight so as not to contaminate the trial process.

However, there is nothing stopping the gardaí holding a press conference in the wake of the incident to outline the actions that were taken between when the first call was received to the time the body was located.

The shooting incident is a different matter as it is subject to a Gsoc investigation although in other jurisdictions, including the United States and the UK, police chiefs would issue an outline of what they believed happened.

In the meantime, the information vacuum has been filled on social media by crackpots, conspiracy theorists and critics.

While at the same time, ordinary decent citizens have earnestly been seeking an explanation for what happened.

The failure to address the issues has generated a mountain of speculation and fake news around this incident alleging the worst offence a police force can be found guilty of – that they failed to do their jobs.

It would refute the allegation that gardaí had not acted on reports of the abduction until Saturday night at the earliest which, I understand from sources, is not true.

What is the problem with officially clarifying these aspects of the case?

It would stifle the flood of vitriol and allegations and, more importantly, reassure the public that their police force had done its duty by them.

And it would vindicate the men and women in blue who are not allowed to speak and who have to bear the brunt of unwarranted criticism from the public while their bosses languish in the comfort of the Phoenix Park (which they have dubbed the Kremlin).

There is a traditional unwritten precept that has been observed by the top brass since the foundation of the State: stay wrapped in secrecy and cover one’s backside by saying ‘nothing to no one’ outside the organisation.

This attitude was exposed at a conference of the force’s middle-ranking supervisors, sergeants and inspectors, with one delegate declaring the media was to be treated like mushrooms: “Kept in the dark and fed bulls***.”

It is also important to acknowledge that the Garda’s primary function is the investigation of crime and their record is on a par with the best police organisations in the world.

But by failing to be more transparent and up-front in confronting false or inaccurate narratives, they are inadvertently diminishing their legitimacy in the eyes of the people they need most – the ordinary, decent citizen.

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