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Monday 21 May 2018

What now in the hunt for baby john's killer?

Baby John was buried with unexpected ceremony - 34 years later, gardai are looking again at a shocking murder, writes Maeve Sheehan

Mystery: White Strand in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, where Baby John was found. Photo: Mark Condren
Mystery: White Strand in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, where Baby John was found. Photo: Mark Condren
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Three days after he was found on rocks at White Strand, after gardai had done their work and the State pathologist had finished with him, Baby John was buried. It should have been a bleak affair. There was no family to mark the tragic baby's passing. The only people expected to turn up to the graveside at Cahersiveen were a few gardai and the local undertaker, Tom Cournane. Cournane decided that the baby deserved better. He asked his then 15-year-old daughter, Catherine, would she organise a couple of her school friends to come to the funeral. It was Monday, April 16, 1984, a day Catherine has never forgotten.

"I went into a few of the classrooms and asked a few of the children and they said they would," she said.

When school finished at 4pm, Catherine and her friends walked up the town to the church to meet the hearse that would take Baby John to the graveyard at the edge of town for burial at 4.30pm.

Catherine didn't realise that by then word had spread to all the schools in the area.

"Everybody walked behind the hearse to the graveyard that is at the other end of the town," she said. "We thought it was just a few of us girls in uniform from St John of Bosco. When I looked back, as we were going into the graveyard, I saw that the CIE [school] buses were actually pulling in behind us. Everyone on the buses came into the funeral. Somebody started singing hymns, and everyone just joined in," she said.

"At our age, in our teenage years, it was a very emotional day."

Ordeal: Joanne Hayes was falsely accused of giving birth to the child and killing it
Ordeal: Joanne Hayes was falsely accused of giving birth to the child and killing it

Thirty-four years later, the community of Cahersiveen in south Kerry is being asked to turn out once again for Baby John, this time to help solve his murder.

The schoolchildren singing at his graveside didn't know it then, but the baby they were sending off had been stabbed 28 times and had a broken neck. The baby had been dead for two days. Gardai now know that he had been alive for five. He was washed up or left on the rocks outside White Strand. He was found by Jack Griffin, a local farmer, out jogging on the night of Saturday, April 14. Tom Cournane was called out to tend to the body. Catherine Cournane said when her father was allowed by gardai to remove the baby from the rocks, he carried him in his arms to a stream and christened him John.

The discovery of his body triggered a shocking and grotesque sequence of events that resonates with questions to this day: how a Garda murder squad secured false confessions from a family about a murder they had nothing to do with, and how a tribunal of inquiry into Garda failures turned into a vitriolic traducing of the wronged woman, Joanne Hayes, falsely accused of giving birth to the child and killing it, sparking public outrage and protest?

Then last week, apparently out of the blue, gardai held a press conference in Cahersiveen to announce that fresh DNA tests proved beyond doubt that Joanne Hayes was not the baby's mother. They had apologised and announced a fresh investigation into the death of the baby she was wrongly accused of murdering. The focus would be on south Kerry, specifically Cahersiveen and the Iveragh peninsula that overlooks White Strand.

Remembered: The grave of the Kerry Baby named John. Photo: INM
Remembered: The grave of the Kerry Baby named John. Photo: INM

Norma Moriarty, a local Fianna Fail councillor, said the whole town was "taken aback" by the news, but the response has been overwhelmingly compassionate. "There is a grieving mother out there," she said, and while no one knows the circumstances, they must have been "very extreme to drive someone to that".

Solving the mystery of Baby John's death entails delving into secrets buried in another era in a rural town where, as one Kerryman put it last week, people still don't like getting involved in one another's business. Cahersiveen is a community of fewer than 1,200 people, smaller now than it was 34 years ago.

There are memories to this day of the alarming probing by gardai of local women of child-bearing age, as though they were all suspects. The first three days of the investigation focused entirely on Cahersiveen. Gardai circulated questionnaires to every household from White Strand to Cahersiveen, looking for women who had been pregnant, but who didn't have a baby. Several young women were nominated as suspects, but were eliminated, including one young girl who had been pregnant but disappeared from sight for eight months or so, according to the Kerry Babies tribunal report. No one knew whether she'd had a baby. When gardai called to her house, they found that she'd given birth to her baby at home, with her mother's help. Mother, daughter and the new baby were living together in extremely poor circumstances, and nobody knew.

The murder squad came down from Dublin and looked further afield. Within two weeks, they had decamped to Abbeydorney in north Kerry on the trail of Joanne Hayes, following a tip-off that she'd been pregnant but had no baby now to show for it.

After the shambles of the tribunal, the murder squad was disbanded and the file on the Cahersiveen baby was left to gather dust. There seemed to be no appetite to find the baby's killer, and he had no family to fight his corner. But from time to time, his murder was briefly thrust again into the public consciousness.

Baby John had a "tremendous effect" on Tom Cournane, who is now 88 and unwell. "We asked him at home, why did you call him John?" said Catherine. "He had an Uncle John who he was very close to, and he said it was the first name that came into his head."

In July 2004, the new black marble slab he had erected five months earlier to mark the grave was smashed to smithereens, probably a sledgehammer had been used. No other headstones were damaged. Baby John would have just turned 20, had he been alive. The slab had been in place only a matter of months, and Tom had inscribed it with the words: "I forgive."

He said to Catherine after the attack: "Why is there such hatred to this little baby?" "He just couldn't understand it," she said. "Why continue this hatred for this little baby that meant no harm to no one?"

The culprit was never found but Tom was convinced it was "someone with local knowledge and local access" who knew where Baby John was. His grave is not easy to find, she said.

The new Garda investigation team plans to examine the attack on Baby John's headstone, along with the deaths of two other infants, whose bodies were discovered in other parts of Kerry in the subsequent years, one of them in Waterville, a few kilometres from Cahersiveen. "We are starting from scratch. Nothing is being ruled out at this stage," said one investigator.

The new team is mindful of the sensitivities. The investigation team has been handpicked for their maturity, experience and sensitivity, and is gender balanced. They are anxious not to force themselves into the private lives of the women of the Iveragh peninsula of child-bearing age in the mid-1980s, said one source.

Gardai want the community to come to them. "Thirty-four years is a long time in people's lives. It's a different social landscape now," said Superintendent Flor Murphy. "He was a five-day old baby, stabbed to death, left on a beach, helpless. He had no voice. People out there who have information can be his voice by coming forward."

Little evidence survives. Three plastic bags - one of them a fertiliser bag that the baby possibly was placed in disappeared, according to the tribunal report. They were forensically tested but never fingerprinted.

Their trump card is a DNA sample, taken from the baby's lung, frozen and stored for 34 years, awaiting scientific advances. The DNA testing is now so precise that it can identify not only the parentage of the baby, but is also capable of identifying his siblings. The DNA database, set up in 2015, has failed to throw up a match.

Gardai will instead seek voluntary DNA samples from the community. The DNA sampling will be targeted, they say. The discovery that Baby John lived for five days increases the likelihood that people other than the baby's mother knew about his brief existence.

Gardai want local people to come forward with any information they have, any suspicions or concerns, no matter how small. Mindful that this is a small community, there is a confidential telephone line, so that people can pass on information anonymously, including names of people they can approach for a voluntary DNA swab.

This weekend, seven lines of inquiry have been generated by calls coming in from the public. But as yet, no breakthrough. Gardai are expected to embark on house-to-house inquiries in the coming weeks.

"It's the community that will solve this crime," said one investigator.

Catherine agrees. "There's no reason why we can't work with gardai and work alongside them and try, as my father would say, to let Baby John rest in peace finally, to solve the mystery and to reach out to whoever is there," she said.

"I know it's been a long, long time, 34 years. That continued upset and fear, whatever that person is feeling, it is obvious that it is still with that person. Because 13 years ago, somebody, somebody in relation to that child damaged that headstone, for whatever reason. They will never find peace either."

Any one with information can contact the Garda Confidential Line on 1800 666 111.

Sunday Independent

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