Sunday 21 April 2019

The Vanishing Triangle that still holds its darkest secrets

In the 1990s, six young women disappeared in the Leinster area and their bodies were never found. A new book written by one of the gardaí who headed the investigation looks back at that period of fear and loathing. John Meagher reports

Tragedy: The recent search for Fiona Pender near Rosenallis.
Tragedy: The recent search for Fiona Pender near Rosenallis.
Fiona Pender, pictured shortly before her disapperance.
Annie McCarrick
Deirdre Jacob

Annie McCarrick. Jo Jo Dollard. Fiona Pender. Ciara Breen. Fiona Sinnott. Deirdre Jacob. Some, if not all, of these names still resonate today, 20-odd years after they disappeared, presumed murdered. Like Philip Cairns, the Dublin schoolboy who vanished, never to be found, in 1986, the likely fate of these six women - aged between 18 and 28 - taps into our darkest fears.

"People remember their names to this day because they went missing over a short time period [1993 to 1998], in a certain part of the country and because they were normal people going about their everyday routine," says Alan Bailey, who headed the Garda taskforce charged with finding a connection between the missing women.

"The Deirdre Jacob case was particularly troubling because she disappeared in broad daylight during the afternoon and close to her home in Newbridge. There was a sense in the minds of the public and the media that a serial killer could have been responsible for at least some of these cases." That feeling was exacerbated by the 'Vanishing Triangle' sobriquet that was applied to an area that stretched from Wexford in the south to Louth in the north and to Offaly in the west.

That the women seemingly vanished into thin air was compounded by the lack of surveillance cameras at the time. "In the case of Annie McCarrick," Bailey says, "the only CCTV footage we have of her on the day she disappeared was in her local bank. Now, more than 20 years on, there are CCTV cameras virtually everywhere in urban areas, so had she gone missing today we would be far better placed to trace her movements."

Bailey, who retired from An Garda Síochána in 2011 after 39 years' service, has written an exhaustive book, Missing, Presumed, on these notorious disappearances and on other gruesome murders of Irish women, some like Marie Kilmartin and Layla Brennan, whose bodies were found in shallow graves.

He spent 13 years as the national coordinator of the Operation Trace taskforce alongside his role as detective sergeant in charge of the Garda Serious Crime Review Team. Now the human resources manager at the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin, he says he thinks about the victims and their families every day without fail. "Devastating as it is for a loved one to be killed, those left behind can find it very hard to cope when there are no remains for them to bury," he says. "It's the 'not knowing' that can eat away at them."

As the book makes clear, fate played a cruel part in each case. "Annie McCarrick was last seen in Johnny Fox's pub in the Dublin Mountains, but she would have been alive today if she had delayed by even a few seconds when she left her home in Dublin. The bus was pulling out of the stop but stalled when it saw her running for it.

"And we wouldn't be talking about Jo Jo Dollard today if she had made her bus from Busáras and not had to hitch-hike to her home in Kilkenny that night."

The arrest of Larry Murphy in 2000 for the abduction, rape and attempted murder of a young Carlow woman has led to many speculating that he may have been responsible for some of these missing person cases, especially as it subsequently emerged that the so-called Beast of Baltinglass, a carpenter, had done work in a sweet shop owned by Deirdre Jacob's grandmother. The chapter on Murphy is especially chilling, not least when one considers that he was on the verge of strangling his victim in the woods of the Wicklow Mountains when a pair of hunters came on the scene.

"It is a possibility, of course," Bailey says, "but we have to keep an open mind." In a number of cases - especially those of Fiona Pender, who was heavily pregnant, and Fiona Sinnott, Bailey insists that the respective prime suspects were known to both victims. As yet, there just isn't enough evidence to convict them.

Discovering the whereabouts of the bodies would have been of enormous help to the investigations, and before Christmas, it was hoped that Fiona Pender's body would finally be found. Gardaí received a tip-off from a someone who claimed to have been told the whereabouts of her body from the chief suspect, but two weeks of searching proved fruitless. Bailey is critical of the gardaí's willingness to turn the dig into a "media circus" and, throughout the book, he points to both garda ineptitude and brilliance in efforts to bring the killers of women to justice over the last couple of decades.

He cites an example of poor police work in the so-called Grangegorman Killings of 1997 when two mentally-ill women, Sylvia Shields and Mary Callinan, were savagely murdered in their home in the north Dublin suburb: Dean Lyons, a drug addict with a low IQ, confessed to the killings and was imprisoned, only for another man, Mark Nash, to admit to the murders of the two vulnerable women after being arrested for a separate violent crime. Lyons, who died of an overdose in 2000, was posthumously exonerated by the police.

It was a very different story in the case of Phyllis Murphy, and the apprehension of her killer some 20 years after the event. After having gone missing in late 1979, her body was found in the Wicklow Gap on New Year's Day 1980. Vaginal swabs were taken and carefully stored. It wouldn't be until advancements in DNA profiling in the late 1990s, that her killer, ex-army sergeant John Crerar, could be arrested. "It was immensely satisfying to bring him to justice," Bailey says, "and it shows that even though perpetrators may think they have gotten away with a murder, there's always a strong chance they will be apprehended in the future. Sometimes all it takes is for someone who gave them a false alibi to come clean."

Bailey says several people are carrying dark secrets in their hearts when it comes to the women of the Vanishing Triangle and, not just the perpetrators. "People have information that would, at the very least, enable the bodies to be located. I don't know how they can live with themselves by harbouring such knowledge.

"I spoke to Annie McCarrick's mother a week before I retired and she said all she wanted were her daughter's remains to be returned so she could give her a proper burial. That, she told me, was more important to her than the identity of the person who killed Annie."

Missing, Presumed is published by Liberties Press. Price €12.99

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