This is a story about a murder and a journalist who was transformed from reporter to suspect. At its heart is a tragedy and, although there are elements of farce, they fail to elicit a smile, let alone a laugh. Little about the case makes sense. Truly, to quote Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia, we are dealing with “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
Just before Christmas 1996, a French woman, Sophie Toscan du Plantier, was battered to death outside her Irish holiday cottage near Schull in West Cork. The murder remains unsolved. Or, as a local barman who first tapped his nose and then requested anonymity, told me: “I think it’s more correct to say it remains unproven.”
Like many people I met during a visit to the area last month, he was sure he knows the culprit and wasn’t at all shy about identifying him. But there is no evidence against the man who continues to live under a cloud of suspicion in a place where everyone knows him and he knows everyone.
It has been like this for 22 years for Ian Bailey, a British journalist who lived not too far from du Plantier’s cottage and drew on his knowledge of the local terrain to brief reporters sent by the Irish Daily Star and a now-defunct Dublin-based paper, the Sunday Tribune, to cover the murder. He later explained that he declined to have bylines on the grounds of “local sensitivities”.
Within two weeks of the killing, the Irish police (An Garda Síochana) became intensely interested in Bailey’s briefings and soon treated him as the most likely perpetrator, demanding that he account for his movements and provide a sample of his blood. Despite there being no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, he was arrested.
He may have been his own worst enemy, admitting some of his statements to gardaí probably raised their suspicions. “I regret saying certain things,” he said. “I was very unwise to assume they grasped my use of irony and satire. It didn’t do me any good.”
He was released without charge, but the police remained sceptical and have regarded him ever since as the “chief suspect”, making no serious attempt to seek anyone else. He was rearrested two years later, in company with his partner, Jules Thomas, and, once again, was released without charge, as was she. Bailey’s public persona suffered a severe reverse when it was revealed he had twice assaulted Thomas, leading to her being hospitalised on one occasion. She refused to press charges, but it helped feed hostility.
Now, in the latest twist, Bailey is to be tried for murder in France in absentia after fighting off an extradition warrant. He accepts he will be found guilty because he cannot offer a defence. Yet the French authorities appear to have no more information than that obtained by the gardaí in what must rank as one of the most incompetent murder investigations of all time.
According to the pathologist’s report, the attack was savage. The slightly built du Plantier, a 39-year-old producer of French TV arts programmes, was struck by a rock and a concrete block. Even so, she had put up a fight, sustaining more than 50 injuries in the bloody struggle. The crime scene should have yielded all sorts of clues.
But officers walked all over the house and the laneway, thereby negating the collection of forensic evidence. They failed to follow up with sufficient speed or determination a witness’s sighting of a blue car which he said had overtaken him at speed on the road passing du Plantier’s cottage. Some objects, such as a wine bottle, went missing after being removed by police. They even managed to lose the five-bar gate to her property, which was spattered with blood.
While it’s true to say that murder is so rare in West Cork no one can recall any instance within living memory, that’s no excuse for the inept handling of such a major case. Nor does it explain why gardaí became so convinced that Bailey was responsible. His attempts to prove his innocence make for an extraordinary narrative.
He has since obtained a master’s degree in law at Cork University. He sued eight newspapers for libel, winning some and settling others out of court. Then he took the unprecedented step of suing the Irish state for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and being the victim of a conspiracy to frame him. Following a 64-day Dublin high court hearing, he lost the case and then the appeal.
After his lawyer had lobbied the justice minister, the director of public prosecutions reviewed the police investigation and produced a report vindicating Bailey and, by implication, damning the gardaí. It is impossible to read it without wondering why Bailey was arrested and why no action was taken against some of the officers for their oversights and heavy handedness.
Unsurprisingly, the case has attracted a great deal of media attention and, like so many mysterious murders, has become the subject of a podcast exploring every aspect of the crime. In somewhat similar fashion to the Netflix true crime documentary, Making a Murderer, two English journalists, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, compiled almost eight hours of interviews. Their series of podcasts is called simply “West Cork”, and underlines the fact that many locals believe there’s no smoke without fire.
Now 62, Bailey lives on the margins. He runs a stall selling plants in Skibbereen and he sells pizzas in Schull. Last year, he self-published a book of his poetry.
Although no longer working as a journalist, he was attracted to the area by the coterie of Fleet Street newspaper people who lighted upon West Cork in the 1970s, spending summers at Crookhaven. They included the Daily Mail’s Vincent Mulchrone.
Vincent’s son, a former Daily Mirror reporter, lives in West Cork, and has done some freelance work which necessitated interviewing Bailey. He pointed me to an article in an Irish current affairs magazine, Village, which contends that du Plantier’s killer might have been a police officer who has since died.
But the evidence for that is circumstantial and no stronger than that against Bailey, who refuses to be cowed. “He seems to get off on it,” said my barman friend to the accompaniment of nods from drinkers. “We think he likes being the centre of attention. Whenever things get quiet he goes after more publicity.”
But Bailey, a handsome man back in 1996, now looks drawn and world-weary. And his bursts of laughter as he discusses his predicament sound hollow. It is hard not to conclude that this is an instance where a journalist got too close, far too close for his own good, to the story.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010