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Sunday 24 February 2019

What happened to Baby John? How the discovery of an infant's body on a beach shocked the nation

A veil of silence has hung over the Cahersiveen area since the violent killing of the infant who became known as Baby John. But 35 years after the Kerry babies scandal, gardaí believe that the case can still be solved. Kim Bielenberg reports

Tragedy: Kim Bielenberg at the grave of 'Baby John'. An earlier gravestone was destroyed. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Tragedy: Kim Bielenberg at the grave of 'Baby John'. An earlier gravestone was destroyed. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Cllr Norma Moriarty in Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Not forgotten: Farmer Pat O'Driscoll on Valentia Island in County Kerry. Photo by Don MacMonagle

Superintendent Flor Murphy is convinced that there are people in south Kerry who know the identity of the parents of Baby John.

When he was found dead on the rocks at White Strand near Cahersiveen three-and-a-half decades ago, the tiny infant had 28 stab wounds.

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The baby, who would soon lie at the centre of a national scandal that still resonates until this day, had lived for just five days.

And yet for all the attention that the Kerry babies scandal attracted in the 1980s, in the intervening period there was little detailed inquiry into who actually killed the child - once the initial, catastrophically botched investigation into the case was over.

Cllr Norma Moriarty in Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Cllr Norma Moriarty in Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle

That was until Supt Murphy reopened the investigation into the murder a year ago amid no little fanfare and some controversy in the surrounding areas.

While there is some scepticism in the area that the truth will emerge, and a veil of silence still lies over the locality, Murphy is now hopeful that the mystery of what happened to Baby John will be solved.

He says there are eight or nine gardaí working on the case, including two from the Serious Crime Review Team, commonly known as the Cold Case Unit. Murphy, who is based in Killarney, says: "There are people out there who have knowledge of the pregnancy and the birth - these are people close to the mother." Those with knowledge of what happened in the wider community may have felt constrained because of their social circumstances and influences at the time, according to Murphy.

"Maybe, because of their associations and friendships, they may not have been in a position to come forward at the time," adds the superintendent. "But time can change a lot of things."

There are certainly quiet rumours circulating in the county about who the culprit might be - but so far, nobody has come forward with any kind of conclusive proof.

The story of Baby John began on the evening of April 14, 1984, when local farmer Jack Griffin went out for a jog along the beach not far from his home at the top a hill in the area known locally as Over the Water.

Not forgotten: Farmer Pat O'Driscoll on Valentia Island in County Kerry. Photo by Don MacMonagle
Not forgotten: Farmer Pat O'Driscoll on Valentia Island in County Kerry. Photo by Don MacMonagle

Griffin, a keen runner, had just stopped to check on some cattle when he spotted what he initially thought might be a doll, but it became apparent that it was a baby with a mop of dark hair.

The farmer then ran the long distance to the home of his brother-in-law, and returned by car with his wife's nephew, Brendan O'Shea. After confirming that it was a dead baby, they alerted gardaí, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards.

Griffin was still living on his farm at the top of the hill when I tracked him down this week. Like many people in the area, he is reluctant to discuss the case.

"I found it and I did what I did," he told me. "I never talked about it very much to anyone, and that's the way I want it. I don't think at all about it."

Soon after the baby was found, the local undertaker Tom Cournane was called. He christened the baby using water from a local stream, and named him John, apparently after a beloved uncle. Later, after the state pathologist had examined the body, Cournane organised a proper funeral, with local schoolchildren in attendance at the burial, including his own daughter, Catherine.

Now an elderly man in poor health, Cournane is said by local people to have treated the deceased baby as if he was one of his own family, and the plight of the infant and the mystery that surrounds him is said to have affected him deeply.

After the discovery of the body, attention quickly turned to who had actually killed the baby and in what circumstances.

An investigation was launched with gardaí drawing up a list of women in the county who had been pregnant, but did not have a baby to show for it - or who had recently left the area.

Local young women and teenagers were quizzed about their relationships.

Gardaí soon came to believe the baby belonged to 25-year-old Joanne Hayes from Abbeydorney, 80 kilometres away, who became the focus of the investigation.

Joanne, who had been pregnant, and members of her family were questioned - and by some remarkable process that has never been fully explained, statements were signed admitting involvement in the case of the Cahersiveen baby. But the garda case soon seemed to fall apart when the body of Joanne's own baby was discovered on the Abbeydorney farm of the Hayes family.

Then, gardaí theorised that Joanne had given birth to twins, one of whom was Baby John, but it was shown that Baby John's blood group was different to that of Joanne, her lover and to the baby found at the farm.

Detectives persisted with a more outlandish theory of "superfecundation" to show Joanne had given birth to twins by different fathers.

As one local man put it to me, the chances of that happening were like someone winning a lottery jackpot two Saturdays in a row.

The Hayes family withdrew confessions that they had made to gardaí, and with the blood test findings, the murder charge against Joanne was dropped.

The subsequent 82-day Kerry Babies Tribunal, headed by Justice Kevin Lynch, which opened in Tralee on January 7, 1985, was widely seen as unduly harsh on Joanne Hayes while the investigating gardaí got off lightly.

DNA sampling

With all the hullabaloo surrounding the tribunal, and Joanne Hayes categorically not a suspect to any discerning eye, the gardaí then failed to follow up with a full and comprehensive investigation of who actually committed the crime.

Pat O'Driscoll, a farmer on the island of Valentia who is chair of the Kerry IFA, told Review this week: "I don't think people down here ever believed that the two babies were connected. There was not a sign of it in the world."

Then, a year ago, it emerged that investigators were treating the killing of Baby John as a cold case, with all the attention to detail of other high-profile cases such as that of the murdered Dún Laoghaire teenager Raonaid Murray, and the Kildare student Deirdre Jacob.

If a final breakthrough in the Baby John case emerges, it is likely that it could come from DNA sampling, combined with thorough old-fashioned detective work.

With advances in technology, gardaí were able to analyse a card that contained a sample of Baby John's blood from the original investigation. Using this blood, forensic scientists were able to build an accurate DNA profile of the infant.

That DNA profile, a picture of the John's genetic make-up, offered more conclusive scientific proof that the Cahersiveen baby was not in any way linked to Joanne Hayes.

The genetic blueprint offers new potential avenues of enquiry that could be much more fruitful than any previous leads.

Supt Murphy says the collection of DNA in the area is ongoing. Members of the public are approached and asked to give samples on a voluntary basis.

He says the number of samples of DNA taken in the area is in double-digits.

The samples are analysed by Forensic Science Ireland (FSI), which is located next to Garda Headquarters in Dublin.

Dr Geraldine O'Donnell, director of DNA at FSI, told Review that mouth swabs are generally the most common type of sample taken.

These are processed at the laboratories, DNA is extracted and a profile is generated.

Retired detective Alan Bailey, who spent years investigating cold cases, is hopeful that the use of DNA will lead to a breakthrough in the Baby John case.

"They are unlikely to get the father or mother of the baby from a DNA sample, but they could find a distant relative," says Bailey. "That could lead them in the right direction."

DNA from relatives, whether they be siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents, could be used to pinpoint the boy's parentage. In a small community, that could be invaluable.

One option open to the investigators is to instigate a mass screening of DNA in the area, where a large number of samples are taken across the community. This is allowed under legislation.

A spokesman for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties said taking part in such a mass screening is voluntary, and individuals must give their consent in writing.

Until now, the sampling has been selective, according to Supt Murphy, and detectives are also relying on traditional lines of investigation.

In Cahersiveen itself, close to the beach where Baby John was found, few people want to talk about the case.

"People focus on it for a short time and then things go quiet," says the local Fianna Fáil councillor Norma Moriarty, who was in school at the time of the killing.

"Whenever it comes up, it does not stay as a topic of conversation - people don't want to engage with it.

"It's not as if people want to ignore it or forget it - they just want to afford privacy to whoever were the unfortunate people involved."

The councillor says there has never been a sense of anger or outrage about what happened. "There is not a ghoulish interest in the ins and outs of it. That is underpinned by a sense of compassion."

People may be reluctant to talk publicly about what happened, but that does not mean the baby was ever forgotten.

Initially, the grave was marked by a simple cross, but the undertaker Tom Cournane later replaced it with a more elaborate gravestone with the inscription etched in gold lettering: "I am the Kerry baby, Baptised on 14-4-1984, named John. I forgive."

On the present gravestone, the undertaker dropped the words: "I forgive."

In an incident that may point to local involvement in the killing, the gravestone was destroyed in 2004 with a sledgehammer. It was not the first time the grave was vandalised.

The nature of the grave desecration may offer some guidance to who was involved.

"You have to ask if this was the perpetrator, because it was a very personal and vindictive act," says Alan Bailey. "It has to be someone with an interest or connection who would do such a thing."

When I visited this week, with hailstones raining down on the cemetery, the grave looked as though it had been cared for in recent months, and had been decorated with Christmas flowers.

In investigating the case, detectives will look at the nature of the killing. "The fact that the baby was stabbed 28 times points to someone who was very disturbed - or had a fierce hatred of the child. They wanted, at all costs, to destroy the child and erase its memory," says Bailey.

Gardaí will explore the likelihood that the mother may have been a victim in this case, rather than the perpetrator.

It is possible that she was a victim of sexual abuse, rape or incest.

Supt Murphy says: "We don't know the full circumstances of how the baby died four or five days after being delivered.

"We don't know the background context of the pregnancy and how it may have come about."

The man leading the investigation this week renewed his appeal to the mother to talk to gardaí and also sought help from the wider community.

He told Review: "We are asking the mother to come forward and she will be treated with compassion and sensitivity."

There is a strong possibility that those involved may have died or moved away from an area where there is high emigration.

As well as taking DNA samples in the area, investigators have checked Baby John's profile against the UK DNA database, in case there is a match in Britain or Northern Ireland.

In September, the attention switched from Cahersiveen to Valentia Island which lies a short distance offshore from the beach where the baby was found.

Valentia had not been a major focus of investigation in 1984, but as part of the latest probe, a posse of up to 20 gardaí arrived on the island and made door-to-door enquiries.

The island found itself the focus of much publicity, and some locals felt that the community was being unfairly singled out.

Gardaí wanted to explore the possibility that Baby John could have been thrown into the Atlantic from Valentia before being washed ashore on the mainland at White Strand.

Local farmer Pat O'Driscoll said he had little problem with the gardaí carrying out their investigation, but he said he had never heard any rumours linking the island with the killing.

Other islanders were much more critical of the sudden arrival of gardaí on the island accompanied by the media. One local fisherman said: "They arrived here 34 years too late. If they checked 34 years ago, they might have got somewhere.

"I know the tides in this area very well, and I know that a baby would not have been carried in the direction of White Strand from here."

Supt Murphy was unapologetic at the arrival of large contingent of gardaí on the island in September.

"Valentia is off the coast of the mainland and enquiries took us in that direction," says Murphy. "At the end of the day, there was a baby stabbed to death on a beach and if that happened anywhere in the country, there would be huge concern."

The leader of the investigation would not rule out other areas being targeted if the need arose. The previous investigation may have ended disastrously, but 35 years on from the killing, Murphy is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of who killed Baby John.

"This is not going to go away," says the superintendent. "The investigation team is totally committed to establishing the truth of the circumstances surrounding this death."

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