Subscriber OnlyCrime & Law

Kerry Babies case: The new DNA technology that led to a couple’s arrest

Gardaí used next-generation sequencing in their cold-case review of the killing of ‘Baby John’ in Cahersiveen in 1984

“There is a lot of sadness and grief in south Kerry about this case, which is understandable about anything that remains without a conclusion. Hopefully this breakthrough will bring a conclusion to the case and justice will be served for Baby John.”

The words of local parish priest Fr Larry Kelly last month still echo around Cahersiveen three weeks on from the news that a couple from south Kerry had been arrested for questioning by gardaí about the murder of the baby found on White Strand outside the town almost four decades ago.

The discovery of the body of the infant triggered one of the biggest Garda investigations in the history of the State but one that became a stain on the reputation of An Garda Síochána over the way that the force wrongly accused Abbeydorney woman Joanne Hayes of killing the baby.

It took the State more than three decades to apologise to Ms Hayes, but the shadow of the Kerry Babies scandal still lingers over the case, and it informed a cold-case review of the killing of the Cahersiveen baby begun in 2018, which led last month to the arrest of a couple in south Kerry for questioning.


The cold case review led by Tralee-based Supt Flor Murphy began in January 2018 when, at a press conference hosted by Supt Murphy at Cahersiveen Garda station, Det Chief Supt Walter O’Sullivan revealed he believed that answers to the murder of the infant, named Baby John, lay in the Cahersiveen area.

“Gardaí spoke to experts on currents and, unlike back in 1984 when gardaí were told the baby’s body came across Dingle Bay, what they were now told it was more likely to have entered the water locally, possibly having been thrown into the Fertha river or into sea perhaps from a local pier,” said a source.

As part of the cold case review of the original investigation by the Serious Crime Review Team (SCRT), Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margot Bolster was asked in 2018 to examine then State pathologist Prof John Harbison’s original 1984 postmortem report on Baby John and how he died.

Prof Harbison had concluded Baby John had lived for up to three days and had been dead for up to 48 hours, based on the extent that rigor mortis had set in before his body was found at White Strand sometime after 8.30pm on April 14th, 1984, by local athlete Jack Griffin while out for run.

The infant was found wedged between rocks on the shoreline and, nearby, gardaí found a fertiliser bag with its bottom burst open, leading investigators to believe the bag had torn while being washed against the jagged rocks and the baby’s body had fallen out.

Dr Bolster in her review, which involved cross-checking Prof Harbison’s notes with postmortem photographs of the infant, confirmed Prof Harbison’s finding that the baby had suffered 28 stab wounds including four that pierced his heart, and that he had also suffered a broken neck.

Local officers in both stations were told to take two days off as the investigation team were conscious of the need for tight security and anxious to ensure the arrests were kept secret

Within six months of the launch of the cold-case review, a team of some 20 officers began door-to-door inquiries on Valentia Island and other areas around Cahersiveen, while simultaneously a strategy was drawn up to look at whether advances in science since 1984 could aid the investigation.

Gardaí were particularly hopeful that a newer DNA technology called next-generation sequencing (NGS), which can be used in cases where there is heavily degraded DNA or low-quantity DNA, could assist them in identifying one or both of Baby John’s parents.

Next-generation sequencing involves sequencing hundreds to thousands of genes at one time and allows scientists to obtain DNA matches even if the samples are not from an immediate family member, thus hugely broadening the possibility of getting partial matches with samples.

Gardaí set about taking voluntary DNA samples from about 40 people in the greater Cahersiveen area under Section 11 of the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014 which allows gardaí take a DNA sample for intelligence purposes to assist them in an investigation.

Gardaí were hoping to match the DNA taken from the voluntary donors with a blood sample taken at postmortem from Baby John in 1984 but they found the postmortem sample was not sufficient for NGS matching purposes so they had to obtain a new sample from the infant.

At first light on the morning of September 14th, 2021, a team of gardaí moved into Holy Cross cemetery in Cahersiveen and exhumed the remains of the infant from the plot where he lay buried beneath a headstone bearing the words: “I am the Kerry Baby. Baptised on 14-4-1984. Named John.”

The exhumation, which was carried out by members of the Garda Technical Bureau with assistance from consultant forensic anthropologist Dr Laureen Buckley, saw the baby’s remains brought to the morgue at University Hospital Kerry in Tralee where DNA samples were taken from bone marrow.

It is understood scientists at Forensic Science Ireland began examining the voluntary samples taken from the 40 or so donors and obtained a partial match from one of them with the 2021 sample taken from Baby John.

Gardaí began constructing a family tree for the person who had provided the partial match sample and that led them to a man in his early 60s living in south Kerry. Officers were confident they had located the father of Baby John.

Further inquiries were carried out and gardaí established that the man lived with his partner, who was in her late 50s and was originally from elsewhere in south Kerry, and they had adult children as well as siblings living in the county.

At the same time as the couple were being questioned, a team of up to 30 gardaí visited their siblings to ask them if they wished to make any statement about what they might know about the birth of Baby John

While Supt Murphy remained the public face of the investigation, an experienced team led by Det Supt Des McTiernan of the SCRT from Dublin, Det Supt Seamus Nolan of the regional crime office in Limerick and Det Supt Fergal Pattwell of Kerry division prepared an arrest and interview strategy.

The plan was to arrest both the man and his partner early on the morning of March 23rd and take the man to Listowel Garda station for questioning while the woman would be taken to Castleisland.

Local officers in both stations were told to take two days off as the investigation team were conscious of the need for tight security and anxious to ensure the arrests were kept secret so there would be no repeat of the leaks that led to the identification of Joanne Hayes in 1984.

The plan also involved having local scenes-of-crime officers and members of the Kerry traffic corps on standby to rush DNA samples taken from the couple to Forensic Science Ireland’s laboratory in Dublin where scientists were ready to see if they confirmed a link to Baby John.

However, the plan had to be changed when gardaí arrived at the couple’s home in south Kerry around 7.30am on March 23rd to discover the man had already left for work, while they also believed the woman was not at home, so they withdrew and reassessed the situation.

They returned at 7.30pm and arrested the pair on suspicion of murdering Baby John, with the couple being taken in separate unmarked cars to Listowel and Castleisland Garda stations. Their arrests were confirmed that night in a statement issued by the Garda Press Office.

The couple’s solicitor, Padraig O’Connell, later told media that the first his clients “had learned anything about this was when there was a knock on their door, and they went out to find gardaí there – it was like a bolt out of the blue”.

The man was brought to Listowel Garda station and the woman taken to Castleisland Garda station but when Mr O’Connell arrived at Castleisland and told gardaí he wished to speak to the woman, she made it known she did not want any legal representation and he left.

However, gardaí had appointed officers to liaise with the couple’s children and inform them of the development, and it is understood that on the intervention of one of the children, Mr O’Connell was asked to return to Castleisland Garda station.

Both were detained under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act which allows gardaí to detain suspects for up to 24 hours; while the woman opted not to suspend questioning and went through the night with her interview, the man suspended his questioning overnight, so his detention ran longer.

Gardaí had assembled two separate teams of four detectives for each suspect, with each team supervised by an officer who monitored the interviews remotely from other rooms in the Garda stations.

As soon as the two suspects arrived at the two Garda stations, they were swabbed for DNA samples under Section 13 of the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014, which compels suspects to give DNA samples or face the prospect of having the swabs taken by force.

Unlike Section 11 DNA samples which are given voluntarily and are an intelligence aid in an investigation and not used as evidence, Section 13 samples are taken for evidentiary purposes and can be used in a trial if a suspect is subsequently charged and prosecuted for an offence.

Local Kerry scenes-of-crime officers took oral swabs from both suspects without any objection from them, and they were sent to Dublin where scientists at Forensic Science Ireland were on standby and quickly completed the results, which were back with investigators in Kerry within six hours.

“Thank God, life has changed from those dark days of shame and guilt”

—  Fr Kelly

The tests found both samples matched the sample taken from the Cahersiveen baby in 2021 and that the couple were his parents.

It is understood from informed sources the results of the DNA samples were put to the couple but the couple made no admissions in relation to being the parents of the infant.

Mr O’Connell this week told The Irish Times the results of the samples were not put to his clients and “there has been no contact by either the gardaí or the State with either myself on behalf of my clients or my clients about them.”

At the same time as the couple were being questioned, a team of up to 30 gardaí visited their siblings to ask them if they wished to make any statement about what they might know about the birth of Baby John.

Gardaí also sealed off the couple’s home and declared it a crime scene and seized computers and other electronic equipment to send for analysis by Garda computer experts to see if they contained any material that might assist officers in their investigation.

They also sealed off the woman’s family home at another location in south Kerry and declared it a crime scene and conducted an examination of the property.

Mr O’Connell gave several media interviews the day after the couple were arrested, in which, while stating he was unaware of the findings of any DNA tests, stressed that even in the event of a DNA match, proof of parentage was not proof of murder and he expressed confidence his clients would be exonerated.

“Even if paternity is proved, there is a huge chasm from proving that to proving murder, and my clients absolutely and trenchantly deny the allegation of murder and there was not a scintilla of evidence put to them in interview that would substantiate an allegation of murder,” he said.

Gardaí issued a statement after the couple’s release saying officers would now prepare a file for the DPP, and Mr O’Connell urged the DPP to expedite her decision on the matter as his clients were now in limbo and could not even return home.

Mr O’Connell’s point about there being a huge chasm between proof of parentage and proof of murder was well made and many have questioned whether gardaí might have been better advised not to reopen the case given the challenges in trying to solve who killed Baby John.

But the retired head of SCRT, former chief supt Christy Mangan, told The Irish Times that “gardaí are legally obliged to investigate the death of any person and bring it to conclusion to ensure justice is achieved... It’s about truth and justice.”

And he said that, given the nature of the historic and complex nature of the case, he fully expected the DPP to take her time to consider and review the file before coming to a decision on whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a charge and secure a prosecution.

Fr Kelly, who has been parish priest in Cahersiveen for 10 years, seemed to anticipate arguments about reopening the case in the homily he delivered at Mass in the town on the morning after the arrests.

While expressing the hope justice would be served for Baby John, he also urged people to think about the parents of Baby John and “the years of pain and suffering and loss” that they must have endured over the past four decades as he recalled how Ireland had changed since the 1980s.

“Thank God, life has changed from those dark days of shame and guilt, and I would say ‘judge not and you shall not be judged’ – we have all done wrong in our lives and so let’s leave it to God to heal all the hurt and all the wounds around this case.”