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At his home in Patch-ogue, Long Island, New Yorker John McCarrick sadly ponders the past 15 years. "It's been a living hell," he tells me. "It never ends. I'm beat up. I was never sick until that day and I'm in a wheelchair now. The doctors tell me it is all to do with stress from what happened back then. I still think of Annie every single day. I wonder did she suffer. I wonder what happened. It kills me that I couldn't protect her."

John is not alone in wondering what happened to his daughter. The 1993 disappearance of the beautiful young American student in Wicklow is one of the biggest unsolved missing-person cases on Garda files. For the past 15 years, many people on both sides of the Atlantic have assumed that Larry Murphy, a notorious rapist who preyed on young women and who is currently serving time for his crimes, was responsible for Annie's disappearance. But Murphy has never confessed and over the summer of this year the case was reignited as two new suspects were identified by the gardai's cold-case review squad. The special unit recommended a reinvestigation and in October two men were interviewed by gardai in Bray. Neither of the men interviewed is a prisoner and neither has a criminal record. Both of them were living in Wicklow at the time Annie McCarrick went missing. Gardai are said to be quietly hopeful of finally securing a conviction.

John McCarrick, a retired New York State Parks Police officer, and Annie's mother, Nancy, were not informed by gardai of this development, and at her home on Long Island, which is decorated with many photos of Annie, Nancy seems somewhat taken aback at the news.

"No, I hadn't heard that at all," she says. "You know, it's one of those things where you always want to know, but then, on the other hand, as long as nothing has actually been proven, there is always the faint hope that she could be found alive. I hope wherever she is that she didn't suffer at all."

Annie's father tells me that he is ambivalent about these reported developments in the investigation. "Would I want to know what happened? Back then, yes. But now," his voice trails off, "I'm not so sure."

It was a freezing day in January 1993 when the McCarricks last saw their only daughter. She was travelling to Ireland to make a new life here. She had told her mother that she wanted to become a teacher in Dublin. With the Irish economy creaking slowly into life, a career in the classroom with its steady wages seemed the most sensible option. "Of course, like any mother, in a way I didn't want her to go," Nancy tells me. "But also I wanted her to do what she felt was best for her. And we always said Ireland wasn't any further from New York than California is, so it didn't seem so far really."

John recounts that he spoke to Annie on the phone and told her that "the plane goes both ways", meaning that both he and his wife would be happy to visit her in her new home.

By the time Annie made that last fateful trip, she had already seen enough of Ireland to make up her mind. Over the previous few years she had been back and forth between Dublin and New York. She had first gone to Dublin in the autumn of 1987 and attended St Patrick's College in Drumcondra. She settled in well and loved Ireland, finding a part-time job working in a cafe in Dublin. According to friends of hers at the time, she had said she wanted to stay in the country permanently, and her mother says she had an affinity with Ireland. "I remember her telling me about students from abroad who only hung around with other foreigners," Nancy recalls. "And she didn't want to be like that. She had lots of Irish friends."

The neighbourhood where Annie grew up on Long Island is a sleepily suburban patchwork of houses and lawns, as far away from the frenetic activity of New York City as it is possible to get without leaving the state. John McCarrick himself describes it as "out in the sticks". Annie had an ordinary, simple childhood there and with her good looks was a popular student in high school, playing on the local basketball team. Those who knew her described her as an outgoing, gentle girl, always willing to help people.

"In a way, I think that might have been part of the problem," her father tells me. "She grew up out here in a kind of sheltered environment. She was a beautiful girl, but also very giving and trusting. It would have been very easy for someone to take advantage of that."

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Nancy McCarrick had booked a flight to Ireland for late March of 1993 -- John had to remain in New York for work reasons -- and she and her daughter were looking forward to seeing each other again. Tragically, it was a reunion that would never take place.

It would later emerge that on March 26 of that year, Annie's flatmates had gone away for the weekend, leaving the young student alone in the flat in Sandymount. She had planned to host a dinner party for more friends a couple of days later. The following day, she rang a female friend and told her that she was going to go to Enniskerry in Co Wicklow to go for a walk. She was then seen getting on the number 18 bus in Sandymount and then standing in the queue in Ranelagh for the number 44 bus to Enniskerry.

When Annie's group of friends arrived the next day for the dinner party at the Sandymount flat, nobody came to the door. They became increasingly alarmed and eventually one of them decided to call Nancy and John McCarrick from a payphone outside. Nancy answered the phone and initially was not too worried. "It was afternoon in New York at that stage," Nancy says, "and I was more in the frame of mind of wondering where she could have got to." Annie's friends also tried contacting the cafe where she had been working, but there was no sign of the young American student there either. By the Sunday night, gardai had been alerted to Annie's disappearance, but by the time her mother arrived in Ireland the following Thursday there had still been no sign of her anywhere. "For whatever reason, I still did not think the worst," Nancy McCarrick tells me. "I thought that she might have fallen or hurt herself while out walking, and I was more concerned that we wouldn't find her because we were looking in the wrong place."

In the following weeks, gardai would begin a massive hunt for Annie. At first, they traced her last movements to a post office in Enniskerry where it was believed she had bought some stamps. They also received witness reports that she had been seen drinking with a man in Johnnie Fox's pub at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. The doorman at the pub had seen her entering the lounge where a band was playing. The identity of this male friend is unknown and she had no apparent boyfriend at the time. This was the last reported sighting of Annie and, as a result, gardai exhaustively combed the rivers and woodland thickets around the area.

Now, John McCarrick had followed his wife to Ireland and taken up residence in a guesthouse in Rathmines. He is full of praise for "the people who took care of us during that time".

"Everyone was aware of why we were there and people went out of their way and were really good to us," he recalls. "There almost seemed to be a type of embarrassment that this could happen to a young girl who had come in from outside."

The McCarricks were highly frustrated with the Garda operation, however. "At the start, it was difficult to even get them to take the idea of Annie as a missing person seriously. They said she was an adult and so on."

In frustration, the McCarricks turned to the American authorities in Ireland and were received with open arms by the then ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith. They were advised by some at the American embassy to take the precaution of launching their own investigation, a move they say caused much resentment among the gardai. Officials at the embassy put the family in touch with seasoned private investigator, Brian McCarthy.

Both investigations -- state run and private -- proceeded side by side and in desperation the gardai eventually turned to some unconventional and controversial methods of searching for Annie. Clairvoyants had come forward saying that Annie's body had been buried near Enniskerry and that they could pinpoint the exact location.

Retired detective Tom Rock later said: "We were prepared to listen to information or help from anyone . . . but nothing came from water, land or lake searches. Nothing came up. There was no trace of any personal belongings or anything like that."

Brian McCarthy's search for Annie was similarly fruitless. "We tried everything," John McCarrick remembers. "We had the retired number-two guy from Scotland Yard working on the case as well. We pulled out all of the stops. It was as though she had disappeared off the face of the Earth."

The McCarricks remained in Ireland for many months after Annie's disappearance but eventually they had to accept that there was no more they could do and returned home to New York. Annie was their only child and her disappearance had a devastating effect on their lives. John describes going back to work as "a tough thing to do, you have to pick up the pieces somehow".

Nancy recounts that she found a lot of strength in her faith. The tragedy also took its toll on their marriage, and within five years they had separated. "Unfortunately, that happens to 95 per cent of couples in circumstances like ours," John McCarrick sadly adds. "The stress on a relationship when you're going through that kind of grief is huge. Nancy is a great person, the best in the world, and very dear to me."

Their daughter's disappearance was the beginning of a tragic period in which other young women would go mysteriously missing in the Leinster area. Just under three months after the American beauty was last seen, Eva Brennan from Terenure, on the south side of Dublin, went missing shortly after attending a family function.

Collette McCann, Eva's sister, had seen Annie McCarrick's family on the television just a few months before. "I remember seeing the sorrow and anguish on their faces," she would later say. "And I remember thinking: 'God bless them.' I couldn't imagine anyone going through that. But then it was a very short 12 weeks later that we were going through the very same thing with Eva."

Over the next few years, other young women would go missing in a region that one American news channel had already dubbed "Ireland's vanishing triangle".

A couple of years after Annie's disappearance, Jo Jo Dullard went missing while hitchhiking between Dublin and her home in Kilkenny. Two years after that, Ciara Breen, a 17-year-old Dundalk woman, went missing after saying goodnight to her mother.

Within 18 months, three more young women -- Fiona Pender in Tullamore, Fiona Sinnott in Wexford and Deirdre Jacob in Newbridge -- would vanish in similarly baffling circumstances. None of these women has ever been found. At the time, some in the press were already beginning to link a serial killer through these cases all the way back to Annie McCarrick's disappearance.

Brian McCarthy would later observe a commonality that most of the cases shared: "You have the same profile; young attractive females, who have all disappeared inside a very close geographical triangle. The common denominator is that there is no evidence left behind, there's no evidence at all. No shoe, no belt, no watch, no purse, nothing."

Over the years, both gardai and many of the families believed that two men were most likely responsible for at least some of these disappearances. The first was Robert Howard, a serial rapist and child killer from Wolfhill, Co Laois known as 'the Wolfman'.

Described by one English detective as "as evil as the Yorkshire Ripper", Howard is currently serving a life sentence in England for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl there. He was convicted on numerous rape charges over the years, and is a suspect in the murder of a number of women in England and Northern Ireland.

Howard is believed to have been in Ireland at the time that Annie McCarrick went missing. One year after Annie disappeared, Howard was the last person to see Tyrone teenager Arlene Arkinson alive.

The other prime suspect up to now has been Larry Murphy, a rapist from Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. Murphy was convicted eight years ago of raping and attempting to murder an attractive young Carlow businesswoman. The woman's life was spared purely by chance -- two men, Ken Jones and Trevor Moody, happened upon Murphy as he was attempting to suffocate his victim with a plastic bag in the remote Glen of Imaal in the western Wicklow mountains, after he had abducted and brutally raped her. These two men covered the distressed and bleeding woman and brought her to Carlow hospital while Murphy fled home and, unbelievably, got back into bed with his sleeping wife.

It is this sadist who has long been widely believed to be responsible for Annie McCarrick's disappearance. In the two decades before Murphy's arrest in 2000, nearly a dozen women vanished in the Leinster area. Since he has been put behind bars, none has disappeared. Under Operation Trace -- a Garda programme that re-examines cold cases -- Murphy has been questioned in relation to a number of disappearances. He was working in Newbridge on the day that Deirdre Jacob disappeared.

When initially interrogated by gardai he was asked if he knew anything about Annie McCarrick and Jo Jo Dullard. He said nothing and the evidence linking him to these cases is still circumstantial. Murphy was so highly organised and stealthy in the attack on the Carlow woman, however, that gardai found it difficult to believe that this was his first time committing such a crime. To the general dismay of families and gardai involved in these cases, Murphy is due to be released in two years time, when he will be just 45.

The McCarricks have always believed that Murphy, who currently resides in the high-security wing of Cloverhill prison, is the man who last saw their daughter. The news that there could finally be a breakthrough in the case, unrelated to this convicted rapist, is not something that surprises John, however.

"We were always told that some day, someone would open their mouth," he remembers.

"As long as someone, other than the person who did this, had any information, sooner or later they would give it up. People don't go to the grave with those secrets."


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