Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder inquiry dogged by controversy from the outset

Investigation into 1996 death of French film-maker has raised questions for many

The controversy that has dogged the investigation into the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier started on the day her body was found near her holiday home at Drinane,Toormore outside Schull.

The controversy that has dogged the investigation into the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier started on the day her body was found near her holiday home at Drinane,Toormore outside Schull.

 

The controversy that has dogged the investigation into the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier started on the day her body was found near her holiday home at Drinane,Toormore outside Schull.

There was a delay of more than 24 hours before State pathologist Prof John Harbison arrived at the scene to carry out a preliminary examination of the body. Gardaí have played down the impact of the delay but it must surely have reduced whatever chance he had of narrowing down the time of her murder in the early hours of December 23rd, 1996, a day before she was due to fly back to France for Christmas.

It led to calls in the Dáil for the appointment of an assistant state pathologist and the State Pathologist’s Office has since been expanded significantly.

In a book published in France in 2013 by the campaign group, The Association for the Truth about the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier (ASSOPH), the authors note the body was found by Toscan du Plantier’s neighbour Shirley Foster at Drinane at about 10.10am on December 23rd.

Yet, they point out, it was 26 hours later before Prof Harbison arrived at the scene which meant the body had lain overnight under a tarpaulin on the ruggedly isolated West Cork hillside.

According to the book: “The late arrival on the scene of the only person able to establish a forensic report had devastating consequences. The investigation was compromised to the point that John Harbison estimated the time of the murder as the night previous to the discovery of the body with no further detail given.

“The official death certificate sent by the Chancellery of the French Embassy in Dublin, dated 6th May 1997 cites ‘the 22nd or 23rd of December’ as the date and hour of death,” note the authors of the ASSOPH publication, L’Affaire Sophie Toscan du Plantier - Un Deni de Justice.

Family not informed

Controversy followed about how Toscan du Plantier’s family learned of their daughter’s death with a bureaucratic mix-up leading to her elderly parents hearing of it not from some official source, but on French television.

Writing in a preface to the French book, Toscan du Plantier’s mother, Marguerite Bouniol, eloquently chronicled how exactly she and her husband Georges heard the news.

“The death of a French woman in the south of Ireland was announced on the television news. Nothing could yet confirm it but I knew it was Sophie.

“As the hours went by and her telephone in Ireland rang out, on the TV screen, the south of Ireland narrowed to Cork, Cork gave way to the countryside surrounding it and finally the name of the village of Schull appeared. It could no longer be doubted.

“That is how my husband and I learned of our daughter’s death, from the television. Before her name was announced but long after it was known to the French and Irish authorities. No one in any government department or chancellery deigned to call us and tell us Sophie had been murdered.”

Notwithstanding Prof Harbison’s delay in arriving at the scene, gardaí were confident they would find Toscan du Plantier’s killer, the very remoteness of her west Cork holiday retreat leading to a belief they would be looking at a relatively small group of suspects.

54 suspects

During Mr Bailey’s High Court action, Chief Supt Tom Hayes, who’s in charge of the west Cork area, who now heads up what remains a live murder investigation 18 years later, said gardaí initially had 54 suspects, though he conceded the threshold for being considered a suspect was low.

Perhaps a more useful number was 10. These included Toscan du Plantier’s former lover Bruno Carbonet, who was identified by Det Garda Jim Fitzgerald after a conversation with the dead woman’s housekeeper, Josie Helen. Gardaí ruled him out when they established he was in France at the time of the murder.

Others were also eliminated from the list throughout January and towards the end of the month the focus of the investigation team began to hone in on English-born freelance journalist Ian Bailey who lived in the area.

Local Garda Martin Malone first nominated Bailey as a suspect because of his history of violence towards his partner, the fact he lived so close to the murder scene and his behaviour as a reporter at the murder scene on the afternoon of December 23rd when he asked no questions. Bailey has from the outset denied any involvement in Toscan du Plantier’s killing.

Other gardaí were also suspicious of Bailey. Det Garda Bart O’Leary from Bantry and Garda Kevin Kelleher from Schull both noticed scratches on Bailey’s hands one day in Brosnan’s Spar shop in Schull early in January.

They called to see him at the home he shared with Jules Thomas and her daughters. He explained he received the scratches while cutting down a Christmas tree and killing three turkeys they were rearing on December 23rd. Thomas and her daughters, Saffron and Viriginia Thomas, later made statements supporting his account of how he got the scratches.

Further suspicions about him were aroused when it emerged Bailey had incorrectly filled in a questionnaire about his movements on the weekend Toscan du Plantier was murdered. He had said he was at home, but gardaí learned he had stayed in a house in Schull on the night of December 21st.

Alias Fiona

Parallel with these developments was a phonecall received at Bandon Garda station on January 11th, 1997 from a woman using the alias of “Fiona”. She recounted how she had seen a man at Kealfadda Bridge, about 1.5km from Toscan du Plantier’s house, at about 3am on the night of the murder. The investigation team sought to speak to her and Chief Supt Noel Smith of West Cork Division issued an appeal on Crimeline on January 20th for “Fiona” to contact gardaí again. She did so on January 21st. She made a third call on January 24th to tell gardaí she would not be able to meet their request to come to Bandon station.

Unlike the first two calls, which she made from public phone boxes at Cornmarket Street, Cork city, and Leap, west Cork, Marie Farrell made the third call from her ex-directory number at her home at Crewe Bay, Schull, thinking it would never be traced. However, gardaí quickly traced the phone as being registered to her husband, Chris.

Gda Kelleher, who knew Ms Farrell, identified her as “Fiona” when he heard a recording of the calls. On January 28th, he asked her to call out to his house.

What followed is the subject of much dispute but on that day he introduced her to Det Garda Jim Fitzgerald and reintroduced her to Det Garda Jim Slattery who she had met when she gave a statement about a man she had seen outside her shop on December 21st.

Gardaí say she identified the man she had seen outside her shop on December 21st and at Airhill on the outskirts of Schull on December 22nd as being the same man she had seen at Kealfadda Bridge in the early hours of December 23rd – and said she now knew that man to be Ian Bailey.

The case took another twist on February 4th, 1997, when Gda Kelleher, who had heard Bailey had given a local 14-year-old boy, Malachi Reid, a lift home from school, talked to the boy.

Reid said in a statement to gardaí he had asked Bailey how work was going and Bailey had replied “fine until I went up there with a rock and bashed her f**king brains out” .

Although Reid did not testify in the High Court case which has just concluded, he did testify in a libel action taken by Bailey in 2003. Part of his Garda statement was put to Bailey who maintained his long-held insistence that what he had said was “People said I went up there with a rock and bashed her f**king brains out”.

Flabbergasting phonecall

Sunday Tribune news editor Helen Callanan contacted gardaí in early February after she was “flabbergasted” by Bailey’s response when she mentioned to him on February 1st that someone had told her he was actually a suspect in the case. He had been reporting on the murder for the Tribune.

Callanan told gardaí Mr Bailey’s response was “cool and calm”, asking her first who had identified him as a suspect before going to say “it was me, I did it, I killed her to resurrect her career”, adding it was worth £20,000 to him.

Although Bailey has never denied making the comment, he has claimed it was black humour on his part, a contention supported by Jules Thomas who in the High Court case revealed for the first time she overheard him saying it and said his tongue was firmly in his cheek when doing so.

But Callanan was adamant in her evidence to the High Court that Bailey was not engaging in black humour when he made the comment: “I took it as a confession and that is how I treated it . . . I didn’t take it as black humour.”

By the time gardaí moved to arrest Bailey on February 10th, 1997, they had several grounds for doing so: his history of violence towards his partner, scratches on his hands, inconsistencies in his account of his movements on the night of December 21s and, as they saw it, admissions in relation to the murder.

By then they also had an identification of Bailey at Kealfadda Bridge by Marie Farrell, although at this stage they had no formal statement from her, but simply a memo of their interview with her on January 28th, drawn up on February 7th.

Among the issues which have given rise to discussion about the handling of the case has been the way gardaí moved relatively quickly to arrest Bailey after narrowing down the field of suspects.

Toscan du Plantier’s family have shared the suspicion voiced by Bailey’s defence counsel, Tom Creed SC, in his summing up that gardaí were so confident Bailey would admit committing the murder under questioning that there may have been some omissions in their investigation.

‘Obvious steps not taken’

They wondered why some seemingly obvious steps were not taken. Why, for example, was Marie Farrell not asked to identify the man she saw at Kealfadda Bridge in a formal identification parade? Why did gardaí not take photographs of Bailey’s scratches? After all, he willingly gave DNA samples.

Whether or not gardaí were expecting a confession, officers were confident they would have forensic evidence to link Bailey to the killing. As Det Supt Dermot Dwyer commented to Jules Thomas, “the forensics will sort it out.”

However, it is the lack of forensic evidence to link anyone, let alone Bailey, to the crime scene that is perhaps the most baffling aspect of the investigation. How could Toscan du Plantier be bludgeoned to death in such a frenzied manner and there be no forensic evidence?

A team of Garda technical experts from Dublin travelled to the scene on December 23rd. They examined the scene on that day and again on December 24th. They removed exhibits but found no forensic evidence to link Bailey to the scene.

A French investigator told The Irish Times in 2011 that perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the lack of forensic evidence was that two wine glasses found in Toscan du Plantier’s kitchen did not even have her fingerprints on them. Questions have been raised about the preservation of the scene which remained cordoned off until December 28th, but gardaí have insisted everything was done properly.

Taped conversation

Bailey was released without charge on February 10th, 1997, but investigations continued. In a taped conversation on June 23rd, 1996, Det Sgt Liam Hogan told Det Garda Jim Fitzgerald that all he had was a “few threads” and he was trying “to knit a jumper”. Two days later he admitted in another call to Chief Supt Sean Camon that all they had was “a very weak circumstantial case”.

However, one of the areas in which gardaí felt they were making progress was in establishing when Bailey told people he knew of the murder. They took several statements over the course of 1997 that they felt helped to piece together a stronger circumstantial case against him.

Among them were statements from Schull shopkeeper Caroline Leftwick (who gave evidence in the High Court case) and musician Paul O’Colmain (who did not, but testified in the libel case) saying that Bailey rang them late on the morning of December 23rd to tell them of the murder. The exact times of the calls could not be confirmed – Bailey’s home at the Prairie, Liscaha, Schull, only became linked to the digital exchange in Schull in March 1997 – but both were adamant in testimony he told them about the murder in the late morning.

The significance of that – and Bailey has denied making such calls at that time or mentioning the murder in them – is that he has said he only learned of the murder when he received a phone call from Cork Examiner reporter Eddie Cassidy which has been verified as being made at 1.40pm.

Gardaí also obtained a similar statement on the time of Bailey’s knowledge of the murder from vegetable stall owner James Camier, who said Jules Thomas mentioned it to him at 11.30am on December 23rd, though Thomas has insisted this conversation was on December 24th.

Ex-Irish Independent picture editor Padraig Beirne and freelance photographer Mike MacSweeney also told gardaí that Bailey, at about 2pm on December 23rd, offered them photos of Toscan du Plantier’s body at the scene before it was cordoned off, even though he has said he did not visit there until 2.20pm.

In April 1997, gardaí took a statement from a witness, James McKenna, who met Bailey in the Galley Bar, Schull, on April 9th. He said Bailey started talking to him about the murder and said “That was me”, which McKenna took as an admission he had killed Toscan du Plantier.

Scrapbook of cuttings

In July 1999, another witness, Richie Shelley, came forward and made a statement to gardaí about how he and his wife Rosie visited Bailey’s house on New Year’s Eve 1998. Bailey, he said, had taken out his scrapbook of cuttings on the murder and chatted to Rosie about the killing.

Bailey later came into the kitchen and put his arms around Shelley and broke down. Shelley recalled: “I thought it was a bit strange to see such a big man crying ...he said ‘I did it, I did it . . . I went too far’,” said Shelley, adding that he understood Bailey to be confessing to the murder.

In relation to these conversations with McKenna and Shelley, both of which happened after Bailey had been drinking, Bailey has insisted that what he said was “people said ‘I did it’,” or “people said ‘That was me’”.

McKenna’s statement was one of the grounds for Bailey’s second arrest on January 27th, 1998, when he was again questioned before being released without charge. A file was again submitted to the DPP but no charges were brought.

It emerged in 2011 during Bailey’s appeal of a High Court order for his extradition to France that a solicitor in the DPP’s office, Robert Sheehan, wrote a damning analysis in November 2001 of the Garda investigation before concluding the evidence did not merit Bailey’s prosecution. Although Sheehan’s report was not admitted in evidence in the High Court case, he did testify and expressed serious concerns about the reliability of a number of witness statements taken by gardaí including, most notably, from Marie Farrell.

His 2001 review, which was strongly rebuffed by gardaí in a 36-page responding document, led to a review of the investigation by a new team of detectives under Chief Supt Austin McNally in 2002 but they unearthed no significant new evidence to further advance the case.

During the intervening years, gardaí have continued working on the case, including taking statements from more than half a dozen witnesses who clearly contradicted Bailey’s assertion that he did not know Toscan du Plantier. One was from a man who saw them talking on Cape Clear in August 1995.

Coercion alleged

But in October 2005 the case took its most dramatic twist when Marie Farrell contacted Bailey’s solicitor, Frank Buttimer, and told him she had been coerced by gardaí into making a false statement identifying Bailey at Kealfadda Bridge, thus implicating him in the murder.

Buttimer wrote to then minister for justice Michael McDowell. The Garda commissioner Noel Conroy appointed assistant commissioner Ray McAndrew to review the original Garda investigation and he produced a report in 2006, which was forwarded to the DPP who opted against any prosecution.

Since then the case has continued to make headlines with Bailey losing a High Court case against his extradition to France in 2011 on a European arrest warrant but winning it on appeal in the Supreme Court in 2012 when yet another controversy emerged.

Former DPP Eamonn Barnes contacted his successor, James Hamilton, to say he had been contacted in 1998 by State solicitor for west Cork, Malachy Boohig, about an improper approach by a senior Garda officer who wanted Boohig to ask then minister for justice John O’Donoghue to get the DPP to direct a charge against Bailey.

Evidence was given by Boohig, Barnes and Sheehan but the State pointed out Barnes and Sheehan had a different recollection to Boohig about the identity of the officer and Chief Supt Dwyer, who was present at the meeting with Boohig, denied the incident had happened.

Throughout the events of the last 18 years, the elderly parents of Toscan du Plantier, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, have watched events unfold in Ireland with doubtless dismay but throughout they have displayed a great dignity and restraint.

The events of the past two years as Irish media attention began to focus on Bailey’s claims of Garda corruption prompted Association for the Truth about the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier to comment some six months ago that he had now “supplanted Sophie as the victim in this case”.

It was true that for much of the past five months in the High Court, Toscan du Plantier was reduced to an almost incidental cipher whose death triggered the sequence of events at issue but little emerged about the woman herself in the 59 days of evidence.

Yet on Monday evening after the jury returned its verdict dismissing Bailey’s claim for damages, Mr Justice John Hedigan made a point of remembering the mother, daughter and wife whose killing on a remote and lonely hillside in west Cork remains unsolved.

Throughout the proceedings “there hangs the shadow of Mm Sophie Toscan du Plantier and her tragic and senseless death . . . it is a source of continuing dismay and anguish in both Ireland and France that her cruel killer has never been brought to justice,” he said.

“A beloved mother, wife and daughter, I do not want it thought that her life has been forgotten in this court – Ar Dheis De a hAnam,” he observed as he brought the latest chapter in the seemingly never ending tragic saga to a close.

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