Two TV documentaries into the murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier have revived calls for a new garda inquiry. Maeve Sheehan reports
Detectives at Bandon garda station have been kept busy with a stream of callers phoning in their tuppence worth on a brutal crime that has haunted all those touched by it for nearly 25 years.
Most are armchair sleuths offering theories about how the killer got away with it.
A garda source said detectives will sift through the information, separating the wheat from the chaff, before deciding on the next steps.
Residents of West Cork, meanwhile, complain of “murder tourism” as visitors flock to Schull and its remote hinterland, seeking out the local landmarks that were the backdrop to the crime.
Nothing has drawn attention to the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier quite like two new documentaries that have gripped international audiences since their launch last month.
Sophie was a beautiful 39-year-old French film producer who was bludgeoned to death at her remote holiday home in December 1996.
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, directed by John Dower and aired on Netflix, was made with the close and exclusive cooperation of her family.
Murder at the Cottage: Finding Justice for Sophie, by multi-Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan, includes extensive footage of Ian Bailey, the English journalist who was once the garda’s prime suspect for the crime.
Long before these parallel documentaries catapulted the case on to an international stage, the case was already one of the most scrutinised investigations of recent times.
There was an internal garda review in 2002; an investigation into the garda handling of the case in 2005; Ian Bailey’s two failed outings in Ireland’s civil courts in an attempt to clear his name; another inquiry into garda conduct by the Garda Ombudsman, which raised concerns but found no evidence of garda corruption. Then, in 2019, there was a French trial that found Bailey guilty in absentia of Sophie’s murder.
Now Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is considering sending in the force’s cold case experts, the Serious Crime Review Team.
But can a cold case review of the original murder investigation, with its paltry forensic evidence and reliance on witnesses recalling conversations now a quarter-of-a-century old, add anything to an investigation that has already been closely scrutinised?
According to one retired cold case detective of 13 years, it is in the public interest to try.
“I think it is a case that should be reviewed,” said Alan Bailey, a former detective sergeant with the Serious Crime Review Team. “I think the case would benefit from a review and I think it is in the public interest that it is reviewed.”
The Serious Crime Review Team cuts root and branch through old and current unsolved cases to find “new investigative opportunities”, deploying new tools such as the latest forensic science technologies and computer analysis of witness statements, along with old-fashioned distance and objective scrutiny to help solve decades old crimes.
Its motto is “To the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe the truth”.
Where to begin with the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a mystery that has eluded several garda investigation teams?
“The first thing you have to do is track down all the garda investigation files, all of the exhibits and forensic samples,” said Alan Bailey. “You read your way in and then you start, right at the very beginning.”
The scene Sophie Toscan du Plantier (39) travelled frequently to her remote holiday home in Toormore, near Schull, often with friends and family. Shortly before Christmas 1996, she travelled there alone. On Monday morning, December 23, her body was discovered by neighbour Shirley Foster at the bottom of her driveway.
The brutality of her death is brought home in Jim Sheridan’s documentary, which – against the wishes of the family – includes partially redacted photos of her body. Her white leggings are blood spattered and she wears brown lace-up boots. A piece of her white pyjamas top is stretched taut, caught on barbed wire.
Her injuries suggested she put up a considerable fight with her killer. Her hands are scarred with some deep cuts and scratches. She died of multiple blunt force injuries to the head.
Gardaí speculated that this was a “frenzied” death, yet there was no forensic evidence to indicate the presence of her killer.
Gardaí sent more than 134 exhibits for analysis at the Forensic Science Laboratory in the first weeks of the investigation, including blood, hair and print samples provided voluntarily by Ian Bailey, who had become a suspect by Christmas Day.
The exhibits included the suspected murder weapons — a blood-covered stone and a larger-concrete block; Sophie’s clothes; scrapings from nails; strands of hair; bloodstained vegetation and briars; a navy blue dressing gown; blood flakes from the back door of Sophie’s house and the door handle; a table in Sophie’s kitchen and the yard gate at the entrance to her laneway, daubed with blood.
Test after test pointed only to Sophie’s DNA. Her killer left no trace.
“I grouped blood on the stones and found that it was consistent with Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s blood sample. I was unable to group the blood on the concrete block,” wrote Geraldine O’Donnell in her forensic report.
The bloodstained gate failed to produce anything of evidential value either.
“The only blood group detected AK1 was present in Toscan du Plantier’s blood sample and Ian Bailey’s blood sample and occurs in approximately ninety three people in one hundred of the population,” the report said.
The strands of hair were Sophie’s. The blood under her fingernails were also attributed to Sophie. The blood on the weapons that killed her was also believed to be hers.
Human bloodstaining on briars that Dr O’Donnell could not identify was sent to England in 2002 for further testing. The scientists concluded: “The blood/cellular material tested from the vegetation (EG7) can be attributed to Sophie du Plantier. It could not have originated from Ian Bailey.”
There were no obvious fingerprints at the scene. Many of the “many fingerprints” in the house were identified as belonging to the housekeeper and members of her family, a garda statement of 1997 said, but “a few” fingerprints remained unidentified. It is not clear whether they have ever been identified.
“Forensics are vital to a cold case investigation,” Alan Bailey said. Extracting DNA from samples that were deemed too minuscule to test has solved many famous crimes, he said. In 2009, DNA extracted from an inside seam of a velvet jacket worn by serial killer Mark Nash linked him to two women he was later convicted of murdering.
In October 2011, a French team of police investigators and forensic scientists came to Ireland to examine evidence and interview witnesses. They had launched their own investigation, with Ian Bailey as the prime suspect, at a time when the Irish investigation appeared to be going nowhere.
The scientists travelled to Bantry garda station, where they took samples from some exhibits. They noted that the exhibits bags, usually sealed, had been opened. The items they tested included the concrete block and stones, Sophie’s blood-stained clothes and her lace up boots. A tiny speck on the left shoe that 15 years earlier scientists could not profile was now discernible, thanks to more advanced testing.
The French forensic report identifies an “unknown male genetic profile, noted Ml, from the sample taken at the base of the tab (P3) on the top of the left shoe of the seal PJ 1O”.
The DNA profile remains unidentified to this day.
Ian Bailey’s long dark coat is a recurring image in the investigation into Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder.
The coat first came to attention through Marie Farrell, a shopkeeper in Schull, who became the key witness in the early days of the investigation. Her description of a tall man in a long dark coat and beret, standing outside her shop — apparently watching Sophie, who was inside — became Ian Bailey.
Ms Farrell later claimed gardaí pressured her into identifying Ian Bailey, rendering her an unreliable witness who was later threatened with perjury.
Ariana Boarina, who stayed with Ian Bailey and his partner Jules Thomas at the time of Sophie’s murder, told the Netflix documentary she saw a dark coat soaking in a bucket at the house on the day Sophie’s body was found. At his in absentia trial in Paris, she testified she saw dark clothes soaking in the bath.
Ian Bailey was filmed wearing a long dark overcoat and hat at the local Christmas swim two days later.
Dermot Dwyer, the retired chief superintendent who led the murder investigation, told Jim Sheridan’s documentary they never got the long dark coat; Ian Bailey had burnt it.
A forensic report said Ian Bailey’s dark overcoat was seized as evidence on the day he was arrested on suspicion of murder on February 10, 1997. There were some “light bloodstains” and it was sent to Northern Ireland for analysis. Some of the tests were inconclusive, but there was no link to Sophie.
Ian Bailey’s coat is one of 22 exhibits that are now missing. These include the bloodstained gate at the entrance to Sophie’s house and an unopened bottle of wine found in a field beside the crime scene. The wine was not sold in Ireland at the time, only in airport duty free.
Files on five suspects were also ‘missing’, including files on Ian Bailey and Jules Thomas, according to a 2018 report by the Garda Ombudsman inquiry into allegations of garda misconduct in the investigation.
The inquiry found no evidence to support Ian Bailey’s claims he was framed.
But it found concerns. Most “grave” of these was that someone interfered with the Jobs Book.
The Jobs Book is considered the “Bible” of the investigation, a record of every single step taken in the investigation. It lists leads, witnesses to speak to, questions to be asked, cars to be checked, tips and potential suspects.
Several pages were “deliberately” cut out some time after 2002, when the case was last reviewed.
The missing pages were “potentially significant” as they related to the early part of the investigation when Ian Bailey was first formally identified as a suspect on page nine in Book 2.
If there is a reasonable explanation for the removal of the records, the Garda Ombudsman has yet to hear it.
A cold case team is also likely to look for answers, as hunting down missing evidence is also in their remit.
“A cold case review is a complete root and branch review of what is there. It is important to speak to everyone who was involved in the original investigation. Were all the leads followed up? Were all of the jobs completed? What was their opinion of the investigation?” a garda source said.
Before the cold case team delves into the past, the current investigation team is following up a new and unexpected lead from the unreliable witness, Ms Farrell, passed to them by Jim Sheridan, who interviewed her for his documentary. In 1997, she identified Ian Bailey to gardaí as the man in the long dark coat she saw close to the crime scene. She retracted her evidence in 2005.
She had seen a man wearing a dark coat outside her shop and at Kealfadda Bridge, but she lied that it was Ian Bailey. She claimed gardaí pressured her to identify him, which gardaí have denied. Her credibility was further undermined at Ian Bailey’s failed legal action against the State for wrongful arrest. After the case, she was investigated for perjury, but the Director of Public Prosecutions decided against charges.
She now claims she can identify the mystery man in the long coat from a photo she saw online. The man matches the original description she gave gardaí as being of “Middle Eastern” appearance and was known to Sophie’s late husband, Daniel. She has given his name to gardaí.
Her claims have been dismissed in France, as has Bailey’s theory that Sophie was murdered by a French hitman. Gardaí will have to secure permission from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the French authorities if they are to pursue Ms Farrell’s new line of inquiry in France.
“She has flipped so many times, there is no value in obtaining a statement from her,” a detective said. Her testimony will be investigated, but it will have to be corroborated elsewhere.
Gardaí familiar with the case are not convinced a cold case review of Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder will achieve anything.
“It’s 24 years ago, the original investigation is tainted. In my experience, there is nothing to be gained from a cold case review,” one experienced detective said.
When Ms Farrell was taken out of the picture, the evidence against Ian Bailey included scratches on his arms, his alleged ‘confessions’ to 11 witnesses, his alleged knowledge of the murder scene, his accounts of his movements on the night of the murder, first saying he was in bed, then that he went to the shed alone to write, and his physical assaults on his former partner Jules Thomas.
The Director of Public Prosecutions said this evidence was not enough to convict him in Ireland and his extradition to France was refused.
Public debate about his guilt or innocence rages on.
Sophie’s tortured family still wait for the man they believe killed her to be brought for justice.
In the midst of this turmoil, perhaps it is time for a detached and diligent review of the evidence of a crime that continues to haunt West Cork.