Remembering Sophie: the murder at the West Cork cottage
Content note: this post discusses a violent crime with elements of violence against a female victim which may be distressing to some readers, so discretion is advised.
The murder investigation into the tragic death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier once again captured the public consciousness this Summer with a tale that is both tragic and frustrating in equal measure.
The as yet unsolved homicide that took place in the remote setting of Schull, West Cork has left an indelible mark on the history of Ireland's crime annals and a permanent fixture in the minds of the local community, forming the subject matter of two recent crime documentaries produced by Sky Witness and Netflix respectively.
The 39-year-old French filmmaker's lifeless body was discovered laying at the side of a deserted country lane leading up to her secluded cottage on the 23rd December 1996, wearing pajamas and laced-up leather boots, her face badly beaten, a concrete block and a large piece of slate nearby.
Her clothes had been caught on the barbed wire fence and briars, which led investigators to conclude that she had been running to escape her attacker and fought back.
Whether it's through newspaper headlines, social media commentary or personal memories of that traumatic period resurfacing, the case has never truly been left behind in historic terms and serves as a heartbreaking link between two countries and their communities.
The tale itself in its original and shocking form passed me by as a young child, being only seven years old in December 1996, and the retelling of the crime would resurface in errant newspaper articles in later years.
Yet the name of Sophie Toscan du Plantier would continually echo through time, as well as the speculation surrounding the horrific events of that fateful night.
From a law student's perspective, this story and one of its main actors made an appearance in the context of defamation law during my university studies when I came across the arguably seminal case of Ian Bailey versus Irish Mirror Group Limited and Others, where the man at the centre of the story, the so-called 'prime suspect', former journalist Ian Bailey, brought an action against eight Irish and British newspapers for a variety of articles that he claimed injured his reputation and painted him as a murderer.
As a student, his name only ever resonated in the manner of countless case names I was required to recall during tutorial discussions and academic essays. The emotive connection once again went above my head, so immersed as I was in the studying frame of mind and wrapping my brain around legal terms and the key provisions of the Defamation Act 2009.
Perhaps this was for the better, given the violent elements of the crime and the shocking aspect of a woman being targeted in such an isolated place.
A further personal exposure to this case came as a result of the insightful and critically acclaimed 'West Cork' podcast, hosted by Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, whose journalistic approach, methodical research and calm, unbiased delivery of the facts provided an accompaniment to my daily commutes and walks.
I became completely absorbed in the series, listening with awe, surprise and mounting horror as the story weaved its way towards its now infamous climax of a clash of jurisdictions and the conceit of being innocent in one country, and deemed guilty in another.
I would certainly recommend this podcast for anyone who wants to delve deeper into background and the individual stories of the various people involved in this case, as well as a special update with reporting from the Paris trial in 2019.
It was a further discovery in the last few years to learn that Ian Bailey had attended my alma mater, University College Cork, obtained a BCL, LLB and a masters of law degree, proceeding to write a comprehensive thesis regarding the accountability of police force in Ireland.
Not that I would have ever paid much attention to the notoriety of my peers or given such things much thought, for I was there to gain a valuable higher level qualification and have the incredible opportunity to travel abroad for my Erasmus exchange.
I do not know Ian Bailey, nor do I recall crossing paths with him during the first year of my degree, and only know what I've read and heard from his own mouth as well during the course of the legal actions he has mounted and had mounted against him.
Truthfully, regardless of what crime he has or has not committed, regardless of his suspect status, my main sources to hand regarding Bailey's character come from the 'West Cork' podcast and the 'Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie' documentary, with the hosts who each in turn interview Bailey and spend a number of days with him.
To have a journalist being interviewed by another journalist will always be an interesting concept, because Bailey himself would be aware of the kinds of questions that could be put to him, and the hosts in turn would be able to sense if he is not being forthright with them.
In any case, the flow of each conversation was always directed by Bailey according to his humour, energy levels and willingness to even participate in the project. It makes for very interesting listening or viewing, whichever show you wish to consume first.
During the first episodes of the Jim Sheridan directed documentary, 'Murder at the Cottage', my stance was quite thoughtful throughout, taking in the facts and recalling the initial fascination that drew me to the West Cork podcast.
Observing the re-enactments tracing Sophie's last known movements in Schull on those final days that were broadcast on the Crimeline programme on the 20th January 1997 in the wake of the murder prompted an eerie feeling, having all the knowledge in the world about what was going to happen to her.
But it was during an off the cuff casual conversation in the Prairie Cottage residence in West Cork that he shared with his long-term partner, Jules Thomas, being filmed by the documentary crew, when Bailey made a remark that caused me to sit up straight in my seat with a reaction that was quite surprising, given my composed attitude so far.
It was one of irritation.
Bailey called himself a sort of a lawyer as a result of being involved with legal actions for so many years, and it pricked something in my psyche which may have come about after my long road to becoming a solicitor, recalling the nights of study, the sitting of exams, the training requirements and the code of professional conduct that myself and my colleagues adhere to as officers of the Irish courts.
It is not something to be thrown about lightly.
Mr. Bailey is a ley litigant in my own opinion, who has been instructing a solicitor and barrister for many years to represent him in these actions. True that he may have had great exposure to the courts system during the civil trial, the defamation trial and many appeals that followed, but to call himself a solicitor is a minor exaggeration.
If my tone comes across as annoyed, it is a reflection of someone who has sacrificed a great deal to attain this position, and while I would certainly not gatekeep the legal profession to any prospective lawyers of the future, it is not the best showing for anyone to claim to be a lawyer when they are not qualified to practice or have not attended Blackhall Place either in person or online for the requisite academic learning and the subsequent practical in-office training.
It is yet another string to add to Bailey's already controversial bow during his time here in Ireland, among the list of rumours of him drinking moonshine, writing salacious fantasies and penning poetry.
There is one happening that also made me feel that same irritation towards Bailey, which took place during the final episode of the West Cork podcast, where the hosts and Bailey were driving in a taxi to Four Courts in Dublin, and were running late for Bailey to be arrested under the terms of a European Arrest Warrant.
Jennifer Forde, who happened to be pregnant at the time, was being prodded by Bailey to move as quick as she could to exit the taxi, and the impatience in his voice was tangible towards this woman who may or may not have been impeding the limelight he so richly deserved.
When all was said and done, there was no furor or mayhem waiting for him. The thought to have a book of his poetry with him was an artistic touch, and evidently something that was crucial during this entire arrest process.
It did not sit right with me, and perhaps my empathy is to blame, but I would not consider making a pregnant woman risk being jostled with her husband in the car for the sake of reaching a destination and the supposed stage for a dramatic arrest.
Still, it is difficult to not imagine the turmoil of an individual undergoing an ongoing legal battle against extradition to France, evading a thrice issued and appealed European Arrest Warrant, finally culminating in the conviction in absentia handed down from the Cour d'Assises in Paris, France in 2019, imposing a prison sentence of 25 years.
It is indeed a sorry state of affairs for any human being to experience, no matter their station, position or stage of life.
The measure of Bailey's guilt is not for me to weigh up, being only newly qualified with a long career ahead of me, and so, I may only weigh in with my opinions as a person who is interested in true crime, in the legal history of the State, and certainly, my fondness for France.
It is a salient fact that no one escaped unscathed from this investigation, and the notion of justice remains a subjective definition for many.
Bailey living as a free man: injustice.
Bailey being convicted, for good or for ill, in France: justice.
This next section may prove to be controversial, but it is a collection of thoughts that have sprung to my mind in the wake of the news coverage and the 'Murder at the Cottage' documentary, which may simply be the observation of an outsider who has little criminal law experience:-
A. Bailey's treatment by the investigating Gardai
There is a great deal of reporting on the handling of the investigation by the Gardai, whether it was a lack of experience of a homicide crime, poor forensics training or anything else in between, ranging from the procedural to outright conspiracy theories.
Collectively, it all inevitably led to the finger of blame being pointed at Bailey, who appeared to be best placed as an outsider, an eccentric and a local 'blow-in' who had lived there for many years.
Perhaps it was the setting of the crime, the isolated location and the often rugged, though picturesque landscape of Schull, that provided the direction the Gardai took of suspecting someone who lived in the area, for the simple fact of the difficulty of access and the minor detour to make in reaching Sophie's home for someone who was not a local or had profound knowledge of the area.
In that regard, perhaps the Gardai had a justification in limiting their pool of suspects to someone who was living in the area, but this is more or less a moot point given the lack of progress and the slow procession of time over so many decades.
B. The demeanour of Ian Bailey
Speaking candidly, Ian Bailey does not come across to me as a likeable person.
As someone who only possesses second-hand knowledge of this person through court reports, newspaper articles and the odd tweet online, my opinion may be somewhat biased.
Being a solicitor requires a degree of objectivity in order to assess the facts, to take instructions and to be able to make a sound judgment.
Coming into the 'Murder at the Cottage' documentary, perhaps I held some bias owing to the fact that Sophie Toscan du Plantier has been denied justice for so many years and her son was cruelly robbed of his mother. I had re-listened to the 'West Cork' podcast shortly before commencing my viewing of the documentary, so memories had been refreshed of my initial impressions.
But I remained objective, listening to Bailey's story, watching the situation unfold from start to finish and being as impartial as a television viewer could be.
Truthfully, it made me uncomfortable to hear him shout at wayward hens, make remarks about the guards being incompetent, tout himself as a sort of lawyer and observing graphic excerpts from his private journals.
While he painted a sorry picture and demonstrated to the world the lingering after-effects of a prolonged legal battle and sustained scrutiny, there were moments when the classic arrogance and impulsive behaviour crystallised and left me feeling that sense of unease.
Does this make him merely eccentric or someone who is deeply disturbed? I defer to those with psychological training to correctly diagnose or even confirm such things.
I accept that fact that this has been a genuine ordeal and the immense pressure that has come to bear on this person, but there still remains a victim at the heart of this story who is unable to give their side, and that is Sophie.
Through all of this, Bailey is a consistent feature of the news headlines, with the most recent appearance being a call to RTE to involve him in any broadcast concerning the case marking 25 years since the murder took place this year.
To date, representatives of the Late Late Show have not confirmed the upcoming line-up of the seminal chat show for the Autumn season of television viewing.
C. Sophie's family and their grief
Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of this story was to witness the emotional burden of Sophie's loss to her family.
Her parents have borne this for nearly three decades, with the grief still palpable in their voices and their faces whenever they speak of the murder and its lingering aftermath. To see the photos of Sophie in the apartment in Paris where she and her brother, Bertrand, were raised, in archive interview footage during the Jim Sheridan documentary is a clear sign that she has not been forgotten.
Now an adult, Sophie's son, Pierre-Louis, has been living with this tragedy for all of his adult life. To hear him speak of his mother and witness him standing in the same kitchen where she had spent her days in West Cork, was very emotional.
Both in the interview on the West Cork podcast and the archive video footage from the 'Murder at the Cottage' documentary, his strength of character is admirable, and his resolve to see justice be done is unwavering.
His appeal to the people of West Cork during a visit in 2019 where he attended the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea and St Patrick in Goleen for a mass in memory of his mother was especially stirring, where he was quoted as stating:-
"My mother, Sophie is not a ghost, she is the victim of human cruelty and violence which has no place here. Sophie fought like a lioness against the most atrocious violence there is.
"I still come back here every year because it is the only way for me to defy this violence and to destroy it."
Pierre-Louis has chosen in the last twenty-five years to travel to West Cork and visit his mother's cottage with his wife and small children, one who is named Sophie in her grandmother's memory.
In an episode of the 'West Cork' podcast, Pierre-Louis shows the hosts around the cottage, paying particular attention to Sophie's coat which still hangs on the back of the door, never once removed or disturbed in all those years.
For Pierre-Louis, the cottage is a testament to his mother, what she loved and what drew her to Ireland in the first place, and he has made it a second home for his family, despite the shadow of grief that hangs over them.
He called on the witnesses who had been served with subpoenas from French magistrates to come to Paris, attend the criminal trial and see the murderer brought to justice, stating that he was aware that the person, who he did not name, was living among them.
D. A collaborative truth-finding mission
This next section is merely an imagining that may in itself be outside the realm of possibility to consider, but I invite the reader to bear with me.
There is a serious, bone-deep enmity between Bailey, the French authorities and the justice system in France, buffered by the pleas of Sophie's family and the Association for the Truth on the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier née Bouniol, founded to progress the investigation and to not permit Sophie's case to be forgotten.
The loss of a French citizen has left a deep wound, and this anger has prompted the consistent seeking of Bailey's extradition to France to stand trial, and recently, to present evidence of a possible hired hitman theory.
But instead of this conflict of viewpoints and a battle of wills, I wish to pose this question: in all of these years, why could the two parties not collaborate to find the real murderer?
It is truly unfortunate that if Bailey stands as wrongfully accused and convicted due to a case without foundation that failed to be tried in Ireland, there could be no chance for co-operation.
But I believe that Bailey's fortitude in pursuing a hefty legal challenge to clear his good name and to fight against several attempts at extradition, that this same energy could be used to bolster a new direction or a new enquiry to find the real perpetrator.
It would be a shining opportunity for Sophie's family and Ian Bailey to find some common ground, to put their heads together and forge ahead through their grief and misfortune, their efforts being supported in Ireland and in France.
Perhaps if Bailey's position were not so maligned with the Irish investigation focusing on him as the prime suspect and the resulting fallout with the libel trial against the various newspapers, matters may have been different in another life.
If the Gardai and the French Authorities could foster a spirit of co-operation, to accept that their jurisdictions and legal frameworks do differ, but that their primary goal is precisely the same: to bring Sophie's killer to justice, on behalf of her as a French citizen and as a welcome visitor to Ireland.
A sense of diplomacy may not ever prevail given the decades of conflict and the slow crawl of legal challenges taking their toll, with public scrutiny and pressure coming to bear down heavily.
This may be simply the observation of an aspiring mediator, hopeful of a collaborative solution, but as has been documented on various occasions, it is far from a simple task.
Perhaps with the renewed interest in the case inspired by the recent documentaries, the public's desire for justice and questions awaiting answers, there can be a substantive move towards some modicum of a resolution that is able to stand on its merit in Ireland. The French authorities and their court system have made up their minds, so their conclusions have been drawn for good.
In Ireland, that conclusion is less clear and we are left with an open ended circumstance that is open to be speculated and debated upon, with a lens being placed upon West Cork that is sharply focused on Ian Bailey rather than the welcoming community that existed for so many years.
What we are also left with at the end of this story is the loss of a quiet, unassuming and private woman who came to the shores of Ireland and the open landscapes of West Cork to find peaceful solitude, only to meet the most horrific end imaginable.
The final motif that I am left with at the end of this research and reflection on this case is a silent filmed video of Sophie one afternoon on her birthday, the 28th July in 1985, shot by Gérard Courant, a French director and friend.
Sophie is shown in close- up atop a roof in Paris, her hair blowing in the breeze, caught between looking into the lens with an animated smile, speaking to the director behind the camera and gazing off into the distance with a thoughtful, introspective look.
It is a moment caught in time, an echo of her genuine personality and a ghost of smile remaining for those she has forever left behind.
You can listen to the 'West Cork' podcast on Audible, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The 'mens rea' true crime podcast also published an episode on the crime which you can listen to on Apple Podcasts.
As always, thank you for reading.