'Range of suspects are being watched' as new cold case review raises families' hopes

Their disappearances shocked the nation, now a new garda unit is to look at how six women went missing and never returned home, writes Conor Feehan

Gardai during a 2014 search of woodland for the remains of Fiona Pender

Conor Feehan

Gardai investigating the disappearance of six women in the 1990s are monitoring the movements and habits of a range of suspects in some cold-case reviews.

The names of Annie McCarrick, JoJo Dollard, Fiona Pender, Ciara Breen, Fiona Sinnott and Deirdre Jacob are familiar to us, but for all the wrong reasons.

Although they never knew each other, they are connected to each other in our minds because they all vanished from the Leinster area between 1993 and 1998, never to be seen again.

Gardai have identified suspects in some of the cases, and even more than 20 years later they are still being monitored, often with the help of police forces in other jurisdictions if the suspect is abroad.

This is the job of the Serious Crime Review Team of An Garda Siochana, now headed by Detective Superintendent Desmond McTiernan.

His team has taken over the cold-case investigations from what was initially an investigation called Operation Trace, which was set up by then garda commissioner Pat Byrne in 1998.

Cold case review gives us hope - JoJo's family

The sister of missing Kilkenny woman JoJo Dollard has said the Serious Crime Review Team is actively investigating the disappearance of the 21-year-old back in 1995 as part of a new cold-case review.

A team of investigators is examining all the evidence with fresh eyes, and JoJo's sister Kathleen Bergin has appealed for it to re-interview everyone who was interviewed in an effort to find the body of the young restaurant worker.

"JoJo was in the wrong place at the wrong time and somebody saw an opportunity and acted on it," said Ms Bergin.

"The meetings with the gardai over the last while have been good. There's a whole new team in there now and they're actually working on JoJo's case at the moment.

"Me and my husband met Commissioner Drew Harris last year, and the meetings went well. He told us they were going to start the review. We are trying to keep an open mind on it."

She said gardai were doing an in-depth review, and won't be speaking to anyone who was working on it in the past.

"It will be a new set of eyes. We are hoping they will come across something, but we really need people to come forward," she said.

"Someone has that information, and for whatever reason they've been withholding it and we urge them to come forward now because this is an opportunity for them to do this.

"Maybe their circumstances have changed in 24 years. It has been a long time. It must be an awful burden for them to have to hold information like this, to keep it to themselves over the years.

"We just want our JoJo back, that's all. It would be a gift to us, to be able to put all the pieces together and bring JoJo home. That's all our family wants."

She wants to give the review team a chance and see what comes out of it.

"We are hopeful. This is an in-depth investigation and maybe they will see something that could be done in a different way using today's techniques," she added.

Ms Bergin remembers her last interaction with JoJo. It was a phone conversation on the day before she vanished.

"It was on the Wednesday evening. I was speaking to JoJo on the phone. She had moved down to Callan and she was working in Grainger's restaurant there. She said she was going to Dublin in the morning," she said.

"She wasn't fully sure, and I said, 'If you don't [go] we can meet up for a cup of coffee when my lads are gone to school' and she said, 'If you don't hear from me Kathleen you'll know I'm gone on the early bus'.

"So when I didn't hear from her that Thursday morning I thought, 'OK, she's gone up to Dublin'."

It is known that JoJo missed her last direct bus home on the Thursday evening, and had got as far as Moone in Co Kildare by getting a bus to Naas, and then hitched a lift to Kilcullen and another lift to Moone. While in Moone she phoned her friend Mary Cullinane from a phone box to tell her where she was.

"When she was on the phone to her friend Mary Cullinane a car had passed and she went out and she obviously flagged him down, and she just came back to Mary and said, 'God, I have a lift. I'll phone you again at my next stop'," said Ms Bergin.

"Thank God she made the phone call in Moone, because it was from that phone call we were able to verify she was there.

"We are 100pc [sure] she got to Moone. It's for after Moone that we are trying to put the pieces together."

JoJo and Ms Bergin's other sister Mary spent years campaigning for JoJo, and never gave up her fight up to her own death from cancer two years ago this month.

"Mary always felt that JoJo is near to where she went missing. She had never budged from that. She just felt like she was coming up against a brick wall and felt very let-down and disheartened by everything," said Ms Bergin.

"Mary was determined, God love her. It took a toll on her. She had given so much of herself to try to find out what happened to JoJo, it took everything she had. It wore her down.

"That became her life. She wanted to bring her back home, even up to the very end, in the last moments of her life.

"JoJo's picture was beside her. I know she's with her now but she would still want her brought home.

"I see the two of them together. Mary has her answers now. We need hope. We need something to believe in. Help us fulfil Mary's wishes. There is a confidential helpline if someone just wants to leave a message."

She said finding her would be enough for them.

"Just to bring her back home. We won't judge anyone. We just want to put her with mam and dad, and to be able to sit down beside her knowing she's not out there on her own any more," she said.

"I think JoJo deserves that after all this time. She's out there too long now on her own. We know we'll never be able to hug her again.

"A crime has been committed somewhere, and they are still out there. As time goes on the fear is they will strike again. You just don't know, and that's frightening.

"I often wonder what her life would have been like if this had not happened. She was 21 and her life was just taken from her. She could be married now with her own family.

"All her dreams and hopes were taken. Ireland is such a small country, but to have someone vanish without a trace, it's unbelievable."

The Crime Review Team

The persistence of JoJo's family was the driving force behind the setting up of Operation Trace by then garda commissioner Pat Byrne in 1998.

Its focus was on finding out if there were any common threads to each case, and if it was possible there was a serial killer on the loose.

In the passing years Operation Trace has been subsumed into different garda cold-case investigations, and now it falls under the umbrella of the garda Serious Crime Review Team (SCRT) overseen by Det Supt McTiernan.

As well as looking at the cases of the six missing women from the 1990s, the SCRT is also carrying out work examining the case of Gormanston couple Willie Maughan (43) and his 20-year-old partner Ana Varslavane, who disappeared in April 2015 and were believed to have been murdered.

It is looking into the murder of Kenneth Fetherston (26), whose body was found in the Dublin Mountains in 2010 after he went missing four months earlier.

The Hawe review is looking into the garda investigation into the murder of Clodagh Hawe (39) and her three sons Liam (13), Niall (11) and Ryan (6) by their father and husband Alan Hawe in their home in Co Cavan, in August 2016.

The team is also casting eyes over the Kerry babies controversy in 1984 which began when the body of a baby washed up on a beach with stab wounds.

Det Supt McTiernan said any cold-case team would look at an unsolved case with fresh eyes, and hope that with new technology and advances in forensic science it could help to solve them.

There is one other hope, and it is an important one - that people who may not have come forward with information in the past, or who may have supplied information while under threat or pressure, might come forward now.

"With the passage of time people are in a different place and their consciences bother them. I suppose as human beings, as we get closer to meeting our maker, regardless of our beliefs, we have that anxious sort of nervy feeling in the background," said Det Supt McTiernan.

"You would be hoping that people who might have something to say would see that would be the time they would want to reveal these sort of things.

"You have to accept people at face value, and people have very genuine reasons for not talking at the time. And being an investigator you have to understand that part of it."

He said the reason they did not talk in the past could have been the influence of someone in their lives.

"Ireland back in the past was a different place compared to what it is today, in the sense that people couldn't really talk back then and you were expected to stay quiet, and for genuine fearful reasons," he said.

"But I would say if there are people out there, and I would always be appealing to people, rest assured they won't be judged.

"There can be a very genuine reason why people don't talk at the time."

People shouldn't fear they would be accused of withholding information if they provided a lead now, he added.

"There is a confidence that people can have that they won't be judged. They won't be prosecuted and they won't be charged and they've nothing to fear."

It seems incredible that between 1993 and 1998 Annie, JoJo, Fiona Pender, Ciara, Fiona Sinnott and Deirdre all disappeared. That so many women could be murdered is incredible, but for no trace of them to be found is unimaginable.

"I've often thought about it myself, how these young women could vanish in quick succession," said Det Supt McTiernan.

"In each investigation there was an awful lot of work done by the gardai at the time.

"One thing that does strike me is that the level of investigation was very intense and very deep back in the early 90s

"And right through, there was a lot of great examples of old-fashioned police work in trying to get people to talk and tell the truth, and I have to say in all those cases they were passionately pursued by the gardai at the time.

"And that would be in the absence of the forensics we have today, the mobile phone and CCTV evidence."

Finding a body would obviously help an investigation. But without help and evidence, the team is working in the dark.