Here we go again. Another twist in the du Plantier case. But let’s not rehash the awful murder; let’s go to the conflict at the heart of the case — between the Garda Síochána and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
or a quarter century, we’ve had two opposing views of the evidence. Meanwhile, Ian Bailey’s life has been destroyed, and the du Plantier family’s hearts have been broken — their hopes for justice repeatedly raised and dashed.
This new intervention from the Garda’s cold-case officers might sort things out. Or not.
For that quarter century, gardaí insisted Bailey killed Madame du Plantier. The DPP’s office was sceptical.
Someone needed to sort the solid evidence from the airy opinions, the hunches and the local gossip.
I’d love to believe that’s what is happening now — that police officers are applying fresh eyes and the highest standards to interpreting the evidence. We live in hope.
When Sophie Toscan du Plantier was brutally murdered, two days before Christmas 1996, there hadn’t been a murder in the remote West Cork area in living memory. Gardaí who faced the task of investigating the du Plantier case can’t be blamed for their lack of experience in investigating murders.
Local woman Marie Farrell claimed she’d been driving near Kealfadda Bridge — a mile-and-a-half from the murder scene — at 3am on the night of the murder. And that for “a split second” she’d seen a man walking the road in a long black overcoat.
She’d also seen this man in the long black overcoat twice in town, she said. She would later identify him as Ian Bailey. And Bailey had been prominent since the murder, as a local freelance reporter, turning up at the murder scene. In his long black overcoat… with scratches on his hands.
It was reasonable for the police to arrest Bailey for questioning.
They questioned him; he answered.
He had been killing turkeys and chopping Christmas trees, which is where he got the scratches. And he had been seen doing those things.
Bailey cooperated with police and readily agreed to give blood, fibre and hair samples.
It had been a savage murder. Contact traces between killer and victim seemed inevitable. Forensic tests — DNA, fibre, hair, blood — showed no trace connection between Bailey and the murder.
Marie Farrell’s identification was the only thing tying Bailey — very, very loosely — to the murder.
And that presented the police with a problem.
The man Marie Farrell claimed to see at Kealfadda Bridge was, she told police, 5’10” and of thin build.
Bailey, however, was 6’2” and heavily built. The only witness to place Bailey in the area that night was describing a noticeably different man.
Despite this, Garda suspicion grew.
As did the man Ms Farrell claimed to have seen at Kealfadda Bridge.
She now remembered him as taller and heavier — as tall as Bailey and as heavily built.
In one of the two TV documentaries on the case broadcast in 2021, one of the leading investigators in the du Plantier case — now retired — let it be known that he was once regarded as “the Columbo of West Cork”.
And Columbo had a theory. According to Columbo, Ian Bailey must have worn his long black overcoat during the murder, and all the forensic traces were therefore on the coat. And as it happens, a few days after the murder, witnesses saw a fire on waste ground behind the house where Bailey lived with his then partner, Jules Thomas.
They were burning an old mattress and other rubbish, Jules Thomas explained. And it’s not unusual to see a small yard fire in the countryside.
In line with the Garda view of the case, Netflix’s Sophie: A Murder in West Cork obligingly showed a reconstruction of the fire burning behind Bailey’s home — sparks flying in the night air as the long black overcoat went up in smoke.
The documentary also showed the long black overcoat steeped in a bucket of water — the implication being that someone was washing away Madame du Plantier’s blood.
The Columbo of West Cork summed up the mystery of the long black overcoat for Netflix viewers: “We didn’t find it. It was burned. So for that reason, it’s understandable there was no blood on him, no DNA.”
When an experienced, respected investigator publicly says things like that, people reach conclusions.
The garda file was sent to the DPP, who said no thanks.
The DPP’s job is to prosecute accused persons. And the DPP must first assess the evidence, ensure it is solid, that there’s a reasonable chance a prosecution will be successful.
It’s not the DPP’s job to get convictions, it’s the DPP’s job to get justice. And DPP Eamonn Barnes took the job seriously. He would later describe the garda case as “thoroughly flawed and prejudiced”.
A law officer from the DPP’s office produced a 43-page analysis of the evidence. It shredded the garda case.
Gardaí put moral pressure on the DPP. Quote:
“1. It is of the utmost importance that Bailey be charged immediately with this murder as there is every possibility that he will kill again.
“2. It is reasonable to suggest that witnesses living close to him are in imminent danger of attack.
“3. The only way to prevent a further attack or killing is to take Bailey into custody on a charge of murder and this point cannot be over-stressed.”
The DDP analysis of the garda case noted: “It is understood that the gardaí issued similar warnings about Bailey to members of the community.”
In short, garda members spread the word to locals — Bailey killed Sophie, he may kill again, imminently.
People began to read alarming meaning into Bailey’s every word and action.
There was a fumbled attempt to put political pressure on the DPP. It was immediately vetoed.
For some years, stations in a number of garda divisions had their phones tapped — by the police (don’t ask).
The Fennelly Report on the tapping noted some tapes related to the du Plantier case:
“Members of An Garda Síochána involved in the investigation, including the officer responsible for preparing the report for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, were prepared to contemplate altering, modifying or suppressing evidence that did not assist them in furthering their belief that Mr Bailey murdered Madame Toscan du Plantier.”
There was no tape of them actually doing so — just “contemplating” it.
After a six-year inquiry, Garda Ombudsman Gsoc found that gardaí lost 139 du Plantier witness statements and five files on suspects. They lost a blood-stained gate from the victim’s property, and 22 other exhibits.
Someone crudely cut nine pages from the official record of the investigation.
The Gsoc report said gardaí lost Ian Bailey’s diary — and they lost his long black overcoat…
Yes, the overcoat that Columbo believed Bailey wore while killing Sophie. The overcoat he told Netflix was burned. Apparently unknown to him, it remained in Garda custody for years, until someone lost it.
Jim Sheridan’s documentary on the case, Murder at the Cottage, showed that Jules Thomas’s house was searched when Bailey was arrested for questioning. A Garda scrupulously labelled Bailey’s overcoat and took it into custody — weeks after the overcoat was supposedly burned.
Cold case cops, it’s all yours. Lots of luck.