With little fresh evidence to go on, gardaí face a battle to solve a murder case that has dogged them since 1996
On the day Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s body was found at the end of the lane at her holiday home near Schull in 1996, a group of old school friends who were home for Christmas prepared to meet for drinks in the local pub. It was Monday, December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. Ronan Collins, an engineering student, had dinner at his friend Dillon Fairbairn’s house. Both were at Schull Community School with Jules Thomas’s children, Saffy, Ginny and Fenella.
They met in the Courtyard pub later for drinks. They were a group of 10 or 15 including Arianna, “the Italian girl”. She had heard the news of the murder earlier that day on the radio news as she travelled on the bus from Cork. Ronan first heard about it in the pub that night.
Later Ronan, Dillon and Arianna went back to the Prairie with Jules Thomas’ daughters. Arianna, Ginny’s flatmate in Dublin, had been invited to stay for Christmas. Dillon and Ronan intended to bunk down there for the night.
The Prairie was the name of the home of Jules and her partner Ian Bailey — the man who would later be arrested twice over Ms Toscan du Plantier’s murder but never charged.
Later Dillon would tell gardaí he remembered turning in at 2am or 3am, sleeping on the sofa, downstairs. He woke the next morning at 10am, he had a coffee and chatted with Jules and Ian.
When he went to the bathroom, he noticed turkeys on the bathroom floor, plucked with the heads sliced off.
Ronan Collins meanwhile slept upstairs. He got up the next morning around 11am, went to bathroom and “almost fell over two dead turkeys which were on tea towels on the floor”.
“They were nearly in the centre of the bathroom floor and had been there the night before when we arrived. They had been plucked and beheaded,” he told gardaí. Downstairs, Mr Bailey was “talking away” and making coffee, they said. Ronan made a policy of not speaking to him after hearing how he had assaulted Jules. Neither Dillon nor Ronan noticed scratches on his arms, although Ronan thought he might have broken skin near his nose.
In contrast, Arianna Boarina said she had “immediately” noticed the “heavy scratches” on his arms, and that Bailey seemed “agitated” and “drinking a lot” during her stay. Her statement, which she gave to gardaí in 1999, does not mention headless plucked turkeys in the bathroom or on the floor.
She saw clothes soaking in the bath. “These were dark clothes, but I can’t say what type of clothes these were except they were dark,” she told An Garda Síochána when they interviewed her in 1999.
More than two decades later, when she was interviewed for the Netflix documentary, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, first broadcast last year, she gave a different account. She specifically described seeing a dark coat soaking in a bucket, not in the bath.
The conflicting statements from three young witnesses who were bunking down in the home of the future prime suspect within 24 hours of Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder is just one minor example of how the investigation into the murder has been plagued by conflicting evidence, clashing recollections, perceptions and interpretations of events that took place 25 years ago.
Last week An Garda Síochána announced they are launching a cold-case review of the murder, a significant last act by the retiring assistant commissioner in charge of serious crime, John O’Driscoll.
In a case that has been almost devoid of forensic evidence, what else has the garda cold case team got to go on?
One seasoned investigator who is familiar with the Sophie Toscan du Plantier file said there was clearly merit in reviewing it. “Just because there is little or no forensic evidence doesn’t mean a case can’t be solved,” he said.
The details of Ms Toscan du Plantier’s murder are now widely known, thanks to the two documentaries aired last year that raked over the crime for an international audience; the Netflix documentary, and a second, Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage, on Sky.
In late 1996 Sophie came to her beloved West Cork refuge, near Toormore, Schull, for a pre-Christmas break, intending to return to her son and her husband, the French film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, for Christmas.
Her body was found on the morning of December 23, 1996, at the bottom of the laneway by her neighbour, Shirley Foster. The French woman had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, which killed her, her hands were scratched, her pyjamas were caught up in barbed wire.
Gardaí speculated this was a “frenzied” death, yet there was no forensic evidence to indicate the presence of her killer.
Ian Bailey, a freelance journalist who lived with Jules, his then partner, became the garda’s prime suspect. Bailey and Jules claimed he was framed by gardaí, who were desperate to solve the case — a claim that has been rejected by the Garda Ombudsman.
The only information the force has released about the new inquiry is the Serious Crime Review Team, under Chief Superintendent Des McTiernan, will review files in the case and recommend leads to the local investigation team.
The senior investigator familiar with the files said that after setting up a roadmap for the review, spanning witnesses to forensics to the media, one of the most important initial steps the team will take is to delve into the suspects.
“Were all of the suspects traced and properly eliminated from that category? Were they interviewed?” the source said. “This will be a vital part of their work.”
There were at one point 54 persons of interest in the Sophie Toscan du Plantier investigation. But Mr Bailey was the forerunner from the earliest of the investigation but gardaí did not gather sufficient evidence to persuade the DPP that he should be charged.
When the initial garda investigation ran into the ground, two subsequent garda internal inquiries revisited the evidence in the case but in at least one of those reviews, Bailey was still considered the main suspect. He has always vehemently protested his innocence.
The cold-case review team will be expected to come to the case with an open mind. “Otherwise there’s no point in doing this,” the source said. “This is a set of completely fresh eyes on the case. You are also looking at what gardaí did or did not do at the time. You have to go back to those investigators as well. “
One significant piece of new evidence is a witness statement from Marie Farrell. She was a shopkeeper in Schull and said she saw a man in a long black coat outside her shop watching Sophie Toscan du Plantier the day before she died.
She saw the same man at a remote bridge near Sophie’s home close to the time she was murdered. Ms Farrell identified the man as Mr Bailey, and stuck by this account for years until she retracted her testimony, claiming that gardaí coerced her to identify him — a claim the Garda Ombudsman rejected.
Last year, she told gardaí she had identified the person who she says really was the man standing outside her shop that day. She saw his photograph online while looking up the case ahead of taking part in Jim Sheridan’s documentary. The man she identified was an associate of Sophie’s husband Daniel Toscan du Plantier, and lives in France.
Once the garda’s star witness in the case they tried to build against Ian Bailey, Ms Farrell is now a seriously discredited one. She was investigated for perjury at the request of a High Court judge in 2014.
Detectives with the National Garda Bureau of Criminal Investigations took a decision not to interview Marie Farrell as part of that investigation, essentially because they could not be sure she was telling the truth. Instead, the investigation painstakingly revisited her statements on the case over two days, and concluded by recommending she be prosecuted for perjury. However, the DPP decided she should not be prosecuted.
Unreliable witnesses can be bypassed, the senior investigator familiar with the case said. Her statement identifying a new suspect in the investigation is effectively useless. Even before the cold-case review was announced, gardaí were investigating other ways to find another way of corroborating whether the man she identified was in Ireland at the time of Sophie’s murder.
Veteran film-maker Jim Sheridan encouraged gardaí to take Ms Farrell’s new statement seriously. He is now offering to share a second, disturbing, lead with the garda cold-case team.
As part of his research for his documentary, Sheridan, who had access to large parts of the murder file, gave the pathology reports and photographs to a forensic expert in the UK for analysis.
In an interview that was recorded but never aired in the Sheridan documentary, Professor James Payne-James, a specialist in forensic and legal medicine, discussed his disturbing conclusions with the film-maker. The expert said Ms Toscan du Plantier may have been stabbed and possibly strangled.
“If I review, uh, Jack Harbison’s pathology report, what I see is a number of features that he describes, and then I’ve tried to match those up with what I see on the postmortem, the autopsy photographs,” the professor told Sheridan.
“There’s one main standout feature that I think I can identify. And that is on the left side of, uh, Sophie’s face are two marks, which I believe represent stab wounds from a knife or knives.”
In the interview, Professor Payne-James said he thought the wounds were not particularly deep and were caused by “some form of bladed implement, probably a knife”.
“There are two wounds that I think have been caused by a knife. Now that’s not referred to in Jack Harbison’s report. I don’t know why, and I can’t explain why not,” he said.
He interpreted bruising on the neck muscles, and other areas, as suggesting that “somebody has been subjected to some form of strangulation, for example by hand”.
Sheridan said this weekend he was willing to share the interview.
The senior garda investigator said it was common practice in cold-case reviews to give the historic pathology records to independent forensic scientists and pathologists, but without the conclusions.
Gardaí sent more than 134 exhibits for analysis at the Forensic Science Laboratory in the first weeks of the investigation. The only DNA identified belonged to Sophie: the strands of hairs were hers as was the DNA matter under her fingernails.
The blood-covered stone and a large concrete block will be revisited. The bloodstained gate tested at the time failed to produce anything of evidential value.
There are outstanding fingerprints at the property that have never been identified, according to garda statements. There is also a single sample of unidentified DNA taken from a speck of blood on Sophie’s boot 15 years after her death. Scientists identified it as a male’s but that person has never been identified.
Mr Bailey’s coat was seized in 1997 and subjected to rigorous forensic testing that failed to yield evidence.
According to a Garda Ombudsman report, the coat is missing, along with 22 other exhibits, including an unopened bottle of wine found in a field beside the crime scene; files on five suspects; and several pages that were apparently “deliberately” cut out of a “jobs book” recording each step of the investigation.
According to the senior investigator, cold-case detectives are likely to talk to the gardaí who were involved in the original murder inquiry, along with original witnesses.
“It is still very important to go back on house-to-house searches in the area. It is important to speak to the garda on the case. It is amazing the information that can come after the passage of time — even after 25 years,” he said.
Anyone with information about the murder is asked to contact the garda investigation team at Bantry garda station 027-20860 or the Garda Confidential Line on 1800 666 111.