Saturday 18 November 2017

'I will never stop thinking about what that driver saw'

Bairbre Power, who covered the case as a young reporter, is still haunted by the disappearance and believes one lost clue could have unravelled the mystery

Grief: Alice Cairns talks to a reporter on the first anniversary of her son’s disappearance.
Grief: Alice Cairns talks to a reporter on the first anniversary of her son’s disappearance.

Thirty years on, there's one­puzzling, frustrating image that stands out in my mind as I review all the twists and turns in the case of missing Dublin schoolboy Philip Cairns.

October 23, 1986, is a date that will be seared on my memory forever - the day that the 13-year-old Rathfarnham schoolboy disappeared without trace as he made his way back to school after lunch.

Dates linked to other stories I covered are red-inked on my mental diary. September 4, 1999, when Raonaid Murray was found murdered near her Dalkey home and I was the first reporter on the scene that fateful Saturday morning. December 7, 2000, when Trevor Deely disappeared near Baggot Street and the Grand Canal. And then there's the roll call of missing women whose disappearances gripped Ireland in the 1990s: Deirdre Jacob in Kildare; Jo Jo Dullard in Kilkenny; Ciara Breen in Dundalk; Fiona Pender in Tullamore; Fiona Sinnott in Wexford. I'll never forgot the giant shoulders of New York cop John ­McCarrick, crumbling in tears as he searched for his daughter Annie who went missing in Dublin in 1993.

However, it is undoubtedly the case of Philip Cairns which still lives most vividly in my memory after months, and years, ­reporting on every nuance and ­development in the case of the teenager who vanished into thin air.

When the latest developments surrounding DJ 'Captain' Cooke emerged last Friday night, a series of vivid images and footage came flooding into my head. The passage of time has done nothing to dilute the raw emotions associated with this mystifying case.

When it comes to graphic images, it's not the picture of Philip's canvas schoolbag that haunts me most. Discovered in a Rathfarnham laneway six days after he disappeared, it was dry, in spite of the rain, and cryptically minus his religion book.

It's not the photograph of the shy, smiling boy on his Confirmation day, with the big red rosette pinned on his chest. That image featured on the missing poster which was pasted on every lamp post, shop window and message board in the area.

It's not the picture of the Cairns' family kitchen on Ballyroan Road to which I ­returned regularly and where Philip's mum, Alice, would make a pot of tea and we'd talk.

Year after year, I'd return as the ­anniversary approached and she was ­unfailingly polite and never gave up hope that Philip might be found.

There was the press conference held in Philip's school, Coláiste Éanna, where his baffled 13-year-old classmates, giddy by the drama, not fully understanding the seriousness of it all, came back ­voluntarily during the mid-term break, to help gardaí with the investigation. They were outnumbered by reporters, camera crews and detectives. None of us present that day could have suspected that this case of the missing schoolboy would still be unsolved 30 years later.

Now, with the recent developments, the image that I can't get out of my mind is somewhere I've never been. It's the interior of a car and I focus on an ashtray in which a driver places a piece of paper with the registration of a car scribbled on it.

A driver's suspicions were raised when he saw a child speaking to the car driver on Ballyroan Road on the day that Philip went missing.

The vigilant driver wrote the registration number of the car on a piece of paper, put it in the ashtray in his car but, unfortunately, someone in the family cleaned the car, ­unaware of what the scrap of paper meant.

This information emerged as I worked on a story in 1987 to mark the first anniversary of Philip's disappearance. I went to the investigation team's HQ at Tallaght garda station and I spent hours poring over the giant, leather-bound ledgers that logged the hundreds of reports that gardaí had received about Philip's disappearance.

The Garda Superintendent on the case gave me access to them and I went through all the reports of possible sightings and potential clues phoned in and reported to garda stations.

Now, with the most recent reports this week about Captain Cooke, inevitably I'm back thinking about this car registration report, wondering if this could have been the car that transported Philip Cairns if, indeed, he was at the radio station that day, as recently reported.

A relative of Philip has spoken of how interested the teenager was in radio. He was, at 13, just getting into music. Could he have been baited to go to a radio station that afternoon instead of going back to school. Could that have been the car that transported him? Was there another child in the car that day? Endless questions to ponder as the case makes front-page news yet again.

The fact that Philip used to accompany his mum to evening devotions at a nearby church threw up all sorts of theories after he went missing. Had he been abducted by a religious sect?

The analysis in the case was relentless. Every angle was sliced, diced and served up with different observations. Even his parents' quiet, reserved demeanour and the absence of a very public display of emotions - the kind of wailing and tears often seen in missing-person cases on TV - at a press conference in Terenure garda station sparked cruel comment.

They were just about holding it together and I will never forget Alice's sad face as she explained, her voice full of a mother's pain, how that was the one day that she hadn't watched Philip return to school as she was at a medical appointment in town with one of his sisters.

Years later, there was another theory around anniversary time that Philip had been bullied by boys near the river Dodder and that sparked another front-page story.

In 2009, gardaí began a digging operation, acting on information supplied by a Dublin woman who believed the boy was killed and buried at a site near Grange Golf Club on Whitechurch Road.

Sadly his father, Philip Cairns, died two years ago without finding out what happened his son. Now Alice and her four adult children must wait and watch the latest developments unfold.

Could DNA finally solve the mystery of Philip's disappearance three decades later?

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