Serial killer probe on cards as cold case evidence links missing women
Declining skills are preventing detectives from catching depraved psycho-sexual murderers, writes Jim Cusack
Circumstantial evidence emerging in a court case abroad has thrown disturbing new light on the disappearance and murder of Co Offaly woman Fiona Pender but gardai fear there is still little prospect of finding her remains.
The 25-year-old part-time model was seven months pregnant when she was believed to have been strangled, her body wrapped in a carpet and driven in the dead of night into the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
In December last year gardai began a search of a wooded area near the Glenbarrow Waterfall where a witness told gardai she had been informed by the main suspect in the case he had buried Fiona's body.
Gardai believed the man wanted the woman to know, or fear, he had killed and buried Fiona in the spot. However, the location did not tally with earlier information, which other gardai believe is reliable, indicating that Fiona was taken to another location in Slieve Bloom and buried there, possibly with the assistance of one or two other men related to the prime suspect.
They believe his indication of the site near the waterfall was a ruse, possibly to put gardai off the real location of Fiona's secret grave.
Evidence is now emerging - not strong enough to warrant an arrest but described as 'significant' and strongly circumstantial - that the man responsible for Fiona's murder and disappearance is deeply disturbed and quite capable of killing again.
The evidence heard abroad, which cannot be repeated in detail for legal reasons, suggests the suspect derives sexual pleasure from necrophilia fantasies.
The whole area of dangerous psycho-sexual fantasy was highlighted in the deeply disturbing evidence put forth in the Graham Dwyer trial earlier this year and threw light on a dark underside of society in which quite normal-seeming people harbour depraved and murderous compulsions.
While Dwyer's victim, 36-year-old Elaine O'Hara was personally interested in the dark fantasy world of bondage and sado-masochism, there is no indication that Fiona Pender or any of the other women who disappeared in Ireland over the past three decades were engaged in any way in such activities.
The convicted killer Michael Bambrick (63) was caught almost by accident after gardai were directed to carry out a review of 'missing women' cases in the aftermath of the disappearance of the American student Annie McCarrick, who disappeared during a day out in the Dublin mountains in March, 1993.
A garda seconded to the missing women review came across the fact that Patricia McGauley (42), reported missing in September 1991, and Mary Cummins (36) who disappeared in July, 1992, were both reported to have been in relationships with Bambrick.
A double murder case that had gone completely unnoticed was opened and Bambrick was arrested and later convicted of manslaughter.
Gardai now routinely issue details of almost all missing persons via the Garda Press Office website but in the past 'missing persons' was a category that often merited relatively little attention - which explained why Patricia McGauley and Mary Cummins could disappear off the face of the earth with almost no investigation until the McCarrick review was launched.
The disturbing evidence in the Bambrick case happened alongside the unsolved disappearances of Annie McCarrick; Eva Brennan (40) who also disappeared in the summer of 1993; Imelda Keenan (22) who disappeared in Waterford in January, 1994; Josephine (JoJo) Dullard (21) who disappeared in Kilkenny in December, 1995; Ciara Breen (18) who disappeared in Dundalk in February, 1997; Fiona Sinnott (19) who disappeared in Wexford in February, 1998; Deirdre Jacob (19) who disappeared from near her home in Newbridge, Co Kildare in July, 1998; and Patricia O'Doherty (34) who disappeared in south Dublin near the mountains in December 1991.
The Dublin-Wicklow mountains became a place of singular morbid curiosity during the 1990s with the re-examination of other murders in the light of the disappearances of following the publicity surrounding Annie McCarrick's case.
Patricia O'Doherty's remains were found six months after she disappeared in a bog near Kilakee.
Not far away in June, 1988, the body of another woman, Antoinette Smith (27) was found six months after she was murdered and disappeared. A few miles east of these murder scenes, Patricia Furlong (20) was found strangled in a field at Glencullen in July, 1982. Ms Furlong's murder is unsolved. She may or may not have been the first in a series of related killings. Gardai don't know.
In his book, Missing, Presumed, on these murders, former detective Alan Bailey pointed to failings in initial missing person investigations that could have brought killers to justice early on - and possibly prevented further murders. Mr Bailey, who was attached to the Garda Cold Case unit examining the murders, was critical of the search last year in the Slieve Bloom Mountains for Fiona Pender. A similar search was carried out, again with considerable publicity but no results, for Ciara Breen in Dundalk last month. Sources in the gardai say that there may need to be a fundamental reappraisal and even the recruitment of assistance from outside police to help try and solve some of the remaining murder/disappearance cases.
Some retired detectives feel that failure to keep up with advanced detection work being used in other jurisdictions is leading to a situation where more cases are likely to remain unsolved.
They point to the successful conviction of former soldier John Crerar in 2002 for the December 1979 abduction, murder and disappearance of Phyllis Murphy (20) in Kildare.
Her body was found a month later but no suspect emerged until nearly two decades later with the advent of DNA evidence. Detectives involved in the original investigation, aware the file and samples taken from the body were still in tact, prompted a reinvestigation and the mass screening of men in the area at the time Phyllis disappeared - and Crerar's arrest.
Similarly, crucial and potentially vital evidence was missed in the early stages of Fiona Pender's case which pointed firmly in direction of the man now subject of the disturbing court evidence abroad. By the time gardai came to focus on the suspect the case against him was already beginning to 'go cold' and his confidence in not being caught was increasing.
Sometimes the only ways detectives can go about solving murder/disappearances is by 'turning' people close to the perpetrator who have knowledge of the crime and this has been shown by some gardai to be successful.
An accomplice helped Dublin detectives find and recover the body of Marioara Rostas, the 18-year-old Roma gypsy girl abducted and murdered in Dublin in January 2008.
Similar strong detective work produced the bodies of Gerry Daly (43) the Dublin man murdered in June, 2011, whose body was recovered from Oristown Bog, Co Meath in September last year; and in the case of James Kenny McDonagh (28) murdered and secretly buried in October, 2010 and recovered in January, 2012. But seasoned detectives now say that a culmination of back-peddling on 'admissibility' of certain types of evidence and over-strict rules governing the taking of statements has caused many senior gardai to give up on the prospect of successfully closing cases that should and could be solved.
The conviction in the Graham Dwyer case, where detectives did use what appeared to be 'unorthodox' methods to considerable success, showed that old-fashioned and tested ways of cracking cases still works, if gardai have the direction, training, resources and determination to succeed.