Monday 23 September 2019

Family of French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier murdered in west Cork press for Paris trial

Twenty years on, it seems the tragedy of Sophie's murder has many years left to run

UNSOLVED MURDER: Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: Handout/PA Wire
UNSOLVED MURDER: Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: Handout/PA Wire
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

On Friday next, Ian Bailey will pitch his stall at the food and vegetable market in Bantry, west Cork. Subject to the weather, Bailey and his long-term partner, Jules Thomas, an artist, will sell their home-baked bread and Jules's watercolours.

The date marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, who was discovered bludgeoned to death outside her holiday home in west Cork on December 23, 1996.

It is also Bailey's 20th anniversary as the Garda's main suspect for the brutal crime. Bailey vehemently maintains his innocence and was never charged - in this country at least. In one of the many bizarre twists in this case, a French judge has decided there is enough evidence to put him on trial in Paris for Sophie's murder and a European arrest warrant for his extradition is, reportedly, with the French authorities awaiting dispatch to the Irish authorities.

Bailey ploughs on. "We live with this thing. We do what we can. The things that are beyond our control or anything we can do, we have to let them go and we focus on what we can do. We live day by day. We do have a life," he told the Sunday Independent last week.

While the man the French want to try for murder plies his trade at Bantry market, Sophie's family will mark the unhappy anniversary at a private family Mass in Paris.

Her elderly parents, George and Marguerite Bouniol, are expected to be there, along with her son Pierre-Louis and relatives and friends who make up the Association for the Truth of the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier (ASSOPH).

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was discovered bludgeoned to death outside her retreat near Schull on December 23, 1996
Sophie Toscan du Plantier was discovered bludgeoned to death outside her retreat near Schull on December 23, 1996

Pierre-Louis and Sophie's brother, Bertrand Bouniol, may host a Mass in Goleen, the village nearest to her holiday home, early next month, but nothing has been organised yet, according to family friend, Jean Antoin Bloc.

Assoph believe the most fitting memorial to Sophie would be a murder trial. Back in 1996, no one could have predicted that her family and friends "would have to wait 20 years for truth and justice for Sophie", ASSOPH said in a statement last week.

The murder of the glamorous and beautiful 39-year-old French film producer at her remote hideaway in west Cork has become one of the most extraordinary unsolved cases in Irish criminal history.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was born into a well-connected family and married a well-connected French film producer, Daniel, who has since died. They were part of Parisian society. Her former lover, Bruno Carbonnet, an artist, later told police that she was discreet, fragile and secretive.

Suspect: Ian Bailey. Photo: Courtpix
Suspect: Ian Bailey. Photo: Courtpix

She bought the house in Toormore, near Schull, as a retreat where she could go to write and to be alone. She and Carbonnet were lovers for a year in 1992. She took him to Toormore on several occasions, the last time in the summer of 1993.

On December 20, 1996, Sophie flew from Paris to Cork to visit the cottage alone. She hired a car at the airport and drove to Toormore. Her body was found three days later at 10 in the morning by her neighbour, Shirley Foster, who shared the laneway with Sophie. She was dressed in her night clothes, a towel dressing gown that was caught in briars, as though she had been trying to get away, according to one of the local gardai, Denis Harrington.

What happened occurred after 11.30pm the previous night. Sophie spoke to her housekeeper, Josephine Hellen, at 10pm. She called her husband, Daniel, before 11.30pm. Hellen, who used to look after Sophie's holiday home, would later tell gardai that she thought Sophie was probably sitting by the open fire, with a glass of wine, when someone walked in.

The case was dogged with difficulty from the start. The State pathologist took 24 hours to arrive, which meant the time of death could not be established. The murder weapon was a brick found by Sophie's body but it provided no forensic link to her killer. In fact, there were no forensics to speak of. Sophie's parents learnt of her death on the television.

According to evidence that later came out during Bailey's civil action for wrongful arrest, gardai started out with 54 suspects and in four weeks whittled them down to one.

Carbonnet was ruled out because he had an alibi. A German man who later committed suicide was followed up amid claims that he had left a confessional suicide note, but gardai ruled him out after these claims proved untrue. A bachelor farmer who stole gas cannisters from people's back yards was also ruled out because, as one garda said, he was "just a poor farmer who had taken stuff".

Ian Bailey was a suspect almost from the start. He was a freelance journalist who had moved from Manchester and ended up in west Cork, living with Jules Thomas, an artist and divorced mother-of-three girls, outside Schull.

On the day that Sophie's body was found, Martin Malone, a now retired garda on duty at the scene, later recalled the "fright" he got when Bailey showed up at 2.20pm to report on the story. Malone last saw Bailey at the garda station, when his partner, Jules, withdrew a complaint of assault against him. He thought Bailey seemed to be "acting the part" of a reporter and considered it "odd" that he didn't ask him any questions.

Malone nominated Bailey as a suspect four days after the murder. By the end of January, gardai had amassed other "reasonable grounds" to suspect him - scratches on his hands; alleged confessions to local people which he said was black humour; his lack of an alibi for part of the night in question.

Bailey was twice arrested but never charged. But over the two decades since, he has never managed to shake off the suspicions of gardai and the French authorities that he was involved.

He unsuccessfully sued six newspapers for identifying him as a suspect.

He managed to fight off an attempt to extradite him to France to be questioned about the murder.

He took a massive legal action against the State for wrongful arrest and alleged a Garda conspiracy, which he hoped would finally vindicate him. But after 64 days of at times jaw-dropping evidence from a cast of characters , the State won.

Much of Bailey's case was thrown out in the closing stages because it was deemed to be outside of the statute of limitations. The jury found that there was no conspiracy. The judge concluded that the Garda would have been in dereliction of their duty if they hadn't arrested him.

Bailey is appealing against the High Court's decision and the case is expected to be heard in March.

In France, Bailey's status has been elevated from suspect to accused. Judge Nathalie Turquey believes that there is sufficient evidence to charge him with murder based on the French investigation and the Garda files.

The European arrest warrant has been issued but Bailey and his legal team have had no notification of it.

Alain Spilleart, a friend of Sophie's family and a lawyer, said they were awaiting news from the French authorities on the next step.

Bailey has asked the Director of Public Prose-cutions to try him here, if the evidence now exists to charge him.

His French lawyer has cast doubt on him being extradited, and has indicated that he could be tried and convicted in absentia. More attempts to extradite him would follow, all of which could take years.

Assoph regards this as an "insult". "The case of Sophie Toscan du Plantier has dragged its heels in the Irish State for 20 years now. Is it not now long overdue for the family of Sophie to obtain the justice they so rightly deserve, and which is demanded in compliance with European law?"

Twenty years on, it seems the tragedy of Sophie's murder has many years left to run.

Sunday Independent

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