Missing for 15 years: Deirdre Jacob’s parents wait and hope

Michael and Bernie Jacob, whose daughter disappeared in 1998, say the discovery of Elaine O’Hara’s remains has challenged theories about women who went missing in the 1990s


Last Saturday morning in Michael and Bernie Jacob’s house the map came out, as it has done at regular intervals since the couple’s daughter Deirdre, then 18, vanished without trace, a decade and a half ago.

Last weekend the couple had just heard the news that skeletal remains had been found on Killakee Mountain, in Rathfarnham in south Dublin. They wanted to identify the spot on the map for themselves, to look at the distance between it and their house in Newbridge, Co Kildare, where Deirdre Jacob was last seen by a passing motorist as she reached the gate on a July afternoon in 1998.

They looked at the map and made an unspoken calculation. How likely was it for someone to have abducted their daughter from under their noses, killed her and brought her body to that mountainside?

This time the map, and gardaí, told them quickly that the remains were not those of their daughter. They were identified as those of 37-year-old Elaine O’Hara, from Killiney, in south Co Dublin.

“The spot was more the Dublin side of things from where we live, and the gardaí quickly felt the death was much more recent,” says Bernie.

Michael appears relieved that he has come out of this week still able to hope that his daughter could be alive. “At all times you would always hold out the chance that Deirdre took herself off, took herself out of the way for some reason, and that she may decide to return again or make contact. You always hold out for that,” he says.

If those bones were his daughter’s, his hope would have been dead with her. “There’s hope, there’s fear; it’s all there. At different times your thoughts carry you in all directions. When that news came first you would say, ‘Maybe it’s not her.’ Maybe then you feel it could be. Then the news from the gardaí starts to go in one direction . . . It’s a roller coaster of emotions. You’re up and down.”

Both believe the events of the past week cast their daughter’s disappearance in a new light. They clash with the public perception of Deirdre’s case and those of other women whose disappearances were probed for links by the Garda’s Operation Trace in 1998.

“People assumed this lady Elaine O’Hara maybe was depressed, and that was the main element informing people’s theories on what happened to her, how she may have died. But now it turns out that’s not the case,” says Michael.

He believes it proves people shouldn’t believe that the convicted rapist Larry Murphy killed all, or indeed any, of the missing women. Michael says repeated reports promoting one theory, usually based around Murphy’s being a “serial killer”, harm the chances of his daughter’s case being solved.

He believes that when people who might have useful information read these stories they surrender the possibility of having an open mind, that they no longer believe that someone else might have been involved and that their information might be relevant after all.

Murphy and, to a lesser extent, another convicted rapist are the only two candidates who have been named as credible suspects in the disappearances investigated by Operation Trace. They include those of Deirdre Jacob, Annie McCarrick, Jo Jo Dullard, Fiona Sinnott, Fiona Pender, Eva Brennan and Ciara Breen.

Murphy has been linked time and again to the disappearance of Deirdre Jacob, on Tuesday, July 28th, 1998, as she was walking home from the middle of Newbridge, about 1.5km away, where she had gone to get a bank draft to pay for student accommodation in London. She was studying there to be a primary-school teacher.

A theory has gained hold that Murphy, a carpenter by trade, had worked in Deirdre’s grandmother’s newsagent in the town just weeks before she disappeared and most likely first noticed her there. “But Larry Murphy never worked in my mother’s shop,” says Bernie. “We can’t say he never went in and bought a packet of cigarettes or a bar of chocolate, but he never worked there.”

For the Jacobs, Elaine O’Hara’s killing has forced a new reality to the fore: that she was killed by somebody who is not on the Garda radar as a suspect for the disappearances.

Larry Murphy was not in Ireland last year when Elaine O’Hara was killed, and the other man was, and is, in prison. “The case proves there is someone else out there,” says Bernie.

Recently retired
Michael Jacob recently retired from his agricultural-research post at Teagasc, and Bernie from her job as registrar of civil marriages in Co Kildare. They believe they are probably defined in many people’s eyes as “the parents of the missing woman Deirdre Jacob”.

But they also had full careers that they enjoyed. They say that the publicity around interacting with the media comes at a price but that it is part of trying to find out what happened to their daughter.

“You don’t want that. We’re not that kind of a family,” Bernie says of the newspaper coverage. “But our need for the publicity is greater than our need for privacy.”

Some people “will solve the crime for you”, says Michael. “They will have all the solutions; they mean well.” He says they have met the families of the other missing women, but, without a link between his daughter’s case and the other missing women, he believes his daughter’s interests are best served by him and Bernie continuing to try to raise awareness of their family’s plight alone.

Bernie in particular becomes visibly upset several times when she talks about her missing daughter, one of two children. Deirdre’s sister, now 30, was 14 in 1998. July was the 15th anniversary of Deirdre’s disappearance, and the Garda’s cold-case unit organised a media event to appeal for information. The publicity has not stopped since then, and the discovery of Elaine O’Hara’s remains has been a continuation of that.

Hoax caller
Michael says that the past week has been hard but that the hardest thing they’ve had to contend with was a hoax caller who first contacted the Garda and the media about 10 days after his daughter disappeared.

Based in Co Fermanagh, the man first called the Leinster Leader newspaper, in Kildare, and then several Garda stations. He said he gave a lift to a girl from Clane village, in Co Kildare, to Carrickmacross, in Co Monaghan. In the calls he made elaborate claims about the route he had taken and where they had stopped off. He appeared to know the entire route well.

For the first time in the conversation Michael sounds despairing and angry. “She was only gone 10 days. The significance of this was that she spent the weekend before she went missing in the Carrickmacross area, with Irish friends of hers from college in England. We got our hopes up that time. We got them up high, very, very high.”

The search in Co Kildare was stopped and the operation diverted to Monaghan and Fermanagh. The Jacobs travelled north based on the information from the hoaxer.

“We did up posters with Deirdre’s photo. We asked on it, ‘Are you the Fermanagh man with information to help us?’ We put them up on lamp posts, in businesses. We went to football matches and handed them out. This went on into December and even January – six months.”

The caller never stepped forward. The family finally pressed to have the tape of his calls released, to identify him. “They played it on the midday news on RTÉ. Within half an hour they had so many calls they knew who he was,” says Michael.

“It was impossible to understand,” says Bernie. “They said he had had a tragedy in his own family, and this is why he had done this. I find it impossible to reconcile that, having gone through a tragedy himself, he would impose one on us.”

A file was sent to the director of public prosecutions, but no charge was pressed. That was the least of the Jacobs’ worries, however. The hoaxer had taken the investigation in the wrong direction. Huge resources had been wasted during the key investigative time just after their daughter’s disappearance. “The call it the golden period,” Michael says.

Deirdre Jacob went missing on a Tuesday. That Thursday and Friday a women answering her description walked into a delicatessen near Tara Street Dart station, on the south bank of the Liffey in the middle of Dublin. The two women who worked there remain convinced it was Deirdre. When they were shown CCTV tapes of her last movements around Newbridge, it only strengthened the women’s view. They recognised a branded bag she was carrying and her distinctive thick eyebrows, a characteristic of Michael’s side of the family.

“The young girl had done a beauty course, and she had said to the other one at the time that she’d ‘love to do a job on those eyebrows’. It was significant for her. They are convinced it was Deirdre. They seem responsible people.

“If it was her? I don’t know what that means. I just don’t know. You hear of cases, people taking themselves off out of their lives for a fresh start. But I just couldn’t see why Deirdre would do that.”

After a few months the information coming in to the Garda team dried up, and Michael began doing his own digging. He established that six premises near the delicatessen had CCTV. Would one of those not have recorded her?

“Around four of them were pubs. They all said to me they kept their tapes for only around two weeks and then used them again. So they were gone. Ulster Bank had a big place up the road, and they always kept their tapes. But just a few months earlier they had changed systems, and the tapes were lost.

“I went into the last place. There were TV monitors everywhere. I said to myself, ‘Oh, this is it: they have to have tapes here.’ But they didn’t. There was a dispute over money in the business, and the guys whose job it was to put the tapes in wouldn’t do it because of the dispute.”

Michael finds it it hard when he is at family functions and sees relatives who are the same age as his daughter. “It gives rise to the wonder of what she would be like now,” he says. “You look around through the room, and you’re looking at people of roughly the same age as Deirdre. And you look at the stages they are at in their lives, and Deirdre is not part of that . . . There will be disappointment, frustration, sadness – everything like that.”

“You think of what she might have achieved,” says Bernie. “She was in college, attending St Mary’s in Strawberry Hill in London. She was going to be a primary-school teacher. When she was going to secondary school in Newbridge she was in a choir for three or four years. They would practise and then they would sing at Mass, and they ran a Sunday school for the small children.”

Deirdre played guitar and piano and accompanied the choir on both. They remember her as an organised person who kept everything, especially her clothes, in meticulous condition. She was a bookish young woman and loved to write letters.

Did they ever think there might be a simple explanation – that, having gone missing at the gate of their home, the answer could be local? Very local, perhaps?

“Well, there you are,” says Bernie in a way that suggests she has thought about it a lot. “That’s always with us,” Michael adds. “It may well be. And it’s the reason why we appeal to people to talk and think about it. We just don’t know. The answer could be on our road.”

What do they think happened? “Sure, we don’t know,” they say in unison. “We haven’t a clue.”

Do they think they will ever find out? “Yes. Yes we will,” says Michael. “Most things come to light. In most cases down the years, eventually. Obviously I can’t be certain, but I feel we will.”

“We have faith,” says Bernie. In God or generally? “Both. Our faith in God hasn’t waned. No, no. Not at all.”

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