Missing women: The minister who says that the garda probe has been a disgrace
In the end, the discovery this week of a makeshift cross bearing the name of missing model Fiona Pender turned out to be nothing more than a sick hoax, an unspeakable act of cruelty against a mother who believed she might at last be given the chance to bury her child and unborn grandchild with dignity.
It was the first time in 12 years that Josephine Pender had been given a glimmer of hope. She braced herself for the news that the remains of her heavily-pregnant daughter, who vanished from her home in Tullamore in 1996, would finally be found and she would have the comfort of a grave.
But the Gardai have abandoned their excavation in Monicnew Forest in the Slieve Bloom mountains and Josephine's heart has been broken all over again.
For the family of Jo Jo Dullard, the 21-year-old beautician who vanished from a lonely Kildare road the winter before Fiona Pender went missing, news of the search brought hope too, that after all these years, fresh information could still come to light.
Thirteen years on, her devoted sister Mary Phelan still clings to the belief that one day her questions will be answered. But in the dead of night, when she puzzles over Jo Jo's disappearance again and again in her mind, she is tortured by the belief that her sister's body and the remains of other Irish women who are missing, presumed murdered, will never be found because of what she calls sheer Garda incompetence.
She sensed it first the night her beloved Jo failed to come home. Her pleas for an immediate search fell on deaf ears. Four days later, they were finally granted but it was too late. Even a junior police cadet would know that is ample time for a killer to cleanly dispose of a body, for a warm trail to go cold.
Mary says she hasn't heard from the Gardai in more than five years. During that time, there hasn't even been a courtesy call or a visit to see if any new details have come the family's way.
Jo Jo was travelling home to Kilkenny from Dublin on the night of November 9, when she made her last telephone call to a friend from a phonebox outside Moone, Co Kildare. She was hitching. Everything was fine. She had just managed to flag down a lift. That same night, a woman matching her description was seen leaning in the back door of a dark-coloured Toyota Carina-type car. The driver of the car or its occupants have never been found.
"Her case is in a dusty file on a shelf and I doubt if we'll ever hear from the Gardai again," she says.
"At the time, we got information that she might be buried under certain farmland but we were told that machinery needed to search the area would cost £40,000. Some time later, we got an anonymous letter with some important information in it but the Guards wouldn't look at it because it hadn't been signed.
"Out of desperation to tell everything we knew about her, we let it be known that Jo Jo had had an abortion some weeks before she went missing. Then it was suggested she might have been depressed. How could someone who committed suicide bury her own body?"
Mary Phelan became the driving force behind Operation Trace, the unit established by former Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne in 1998 to investigate the cases of six young women who vanished from the Leinster area in the previous five years.
Its aim was to establish whether a serial killer could be responsible for the mysterious disappearances of Jo Jo Dullard (21), Fiona Pender (25), Annie McCarrick (26), Deirdre Jacob (19), Ciara Breen (18), and Fiona Sinnott (19).
But it reached a conclusion that there was no common thread linking the cases. Gardai are believed to know who is responsible for the deaths of three of the six women, Fiona Pender, Fiona Sinnott and Ciara Breen, but do not have sufficient evidence to charge their killers. Jo Jo Dullard's death has been linked to a convicted rapist currently serving time -- though her family are not convinced of this theory.
What has frustrated and baffled families of the missing women is the failure by Gardai to produce their bodies despite the dogged belief by loved ones that they are all buried close to where they were last seen. All Jo Jo Dullard's family have been told is that she is wrapped in plastic in a six-foot hole, that may be covered over by a building.
This week, Minister for Trade and Commerce John McGuinness launched a scathing attack on the Gardai and pointed the finger of blame at them for failing to resolve the cases and bring closure to the families involved.
The Fianna Fail TD for Carlow Kilkenny, who has been an advocate for Jo Jo Dullard's family since she went missing, described his Government's police force as "nothing short of a national disgrace".
"If Jo Jo walked into a Garda station today, nobody would even recognise her. They refuse to use simple measures like age progression technology to see what people might look like today if they were still alive.
"My belief is they are not willing to get their feet dirty. They have the money but they blindly refuse to embrace new technology and new systems that are out there for finding people which are standard in other countries.
"When someone goes missing in Ireland today, it isn't the Gardai who visit every lamppost in the land sticking posters up, it's the families. People don't turn to the Gardai, they turn to the nearest ESB pole."
Minister McGuinness travelled to the United States with Mary Phelan to learn about detection techniques used in missing people cases there and came home ashamed by the "backwardness of the Irish system.
"When we were in Washington, they actually found a child of 14 years of age who had been missing since the age of four. Two kids were walking back from school and one said to the other, "that's you on that identikit poster." They went to a police station for sheer craic and it turned out to be the same person.
"In Ireland, the Gardai have their heads stuck in the sand when it comes to missing people. It's their mindset. Other countries are reaching out offering us their talent and expertise but it is rejected. They want to do things their way, shoving paper in an office not getting out on the ground, searching over and over suspected locations using the latest technology.
"If you look at what happened in the Soham case in the UK, when Holly and Jessica went missing, the police reacted immediately. They searched every inch of the place, they put messages out and brought in people with dogs and helicopters. None of that was done in Susan Pender's case, in Jo Jo Dullard's or Annie McCarrick's.
Minister McGuinness is also critical of the Gardai's decision not to set up a dedicated missing person's unit, despite the fact that more than 7,000 people are reported missing in this country every year.
"They have the money to do it and a lot of the new advancements are being offered for free from the likes of the New York Police Department. Rather than sifting through paperwork, they need to go back over every one of these cases and revisit the areas using modern search equipment. There is so much technology out there that is not being applied in this country, it is nothing short of a scandal.
"The continuous profiling of people who have gone missing like Jo Jo Dullard or Annie McCarrick is as much to do with keeping it alive in the public consciousness as it is in pricking the conscience of the guilty party or the person who has knowledge but is hiding it.
"If the pressure is kept on, it might eventually weaken people in those counties to come forward and deliver the information they undoubtedly have and it might just stop the killers that are out there from harming another young woman.
"I watched Fiona Pender's mother this week and she is a picture of devastation. Mary Phelan is the same. The Gardai owe it to those families to go back over all their mistakes and take a thorough look at each of these cases again."
In response to the Minister's criticisms, the Gardai insist that all of the six cases were thoroughly investigated in the initial stages.
"Each one of them has been subject to numerous reviews in the respective intervening periods," says spokesman Kevin Donohoe.
"While investigations continue to be the responsibility of the local Superintendent, all activities have been and continue to be coordinated through Operation Trace.
"All and any new leads arising in these investigations are thoroughly followed up, as evidenced earlier this week in the extensive Garda operation carried out in relation to the disappearance of Fiona Pender.
"But it must be clearly understood that there are people in our community who have knowledge about all of these cases, which if related to the Gardai could resolve the investigations and considerably ease the pain of all families involved."
Mary Phelan is determined as ever to find her younger sister, whose disappearance is the subject of a British documentary due to air on May 28 on Sky Television.
The real-life detective series Private Psychic Eye sent three of Britain's top psychics to Ireland to investigate the mystery. In the documentary, they are seen travelling to the place where they believe Jo Jo is buried and claim they feel strongly that her murderer is still living on the land.
The location is not identifiable on television and only dark countryside can be seen, but Mary Phelan says it is the same private land she has campaigned to have searched since her sister went missing.
In the show, the psychics say that they believe Dullard's killer is a farmer who murdered her after offering her a lift from the phone-box. They believe that he raped her before strangling her to death and burying her on his property. When struggling to defend herself, they said that Dullard scratched her attacker on his face, leaving a scar.
"You cling to any hope when someone you love has gone missing but the things they knew they shouldn't have known," says Mary.
"It was just uncanny. The truth about Jo Jo is going to come out some day. Too many people know what happened to her for it not to."