Just before Christmas in 1996, near the small town of Toormore, County Cork, a shocking discovery was made: the body of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a 39-year-old French television producer.
Twenty-five years later, there has still been no justice for her brutal murder. The search for her killer has led to bizarre twists, with the main suspect, Ian Bailey – who denies all charges to this day – convicted of homicide in a Parisian court in absentia. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, which he has so far avoided as Ireland’s High Court ruled he couldn’t be extradited.
The murder of Du Plantier is now being examined again as part of two documentaries, Sophie: A Murder In West Cork and Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage, and Bailey – still technically a fugitive – speaks out in one of the films. Two decades on, Du Plantier’s family are seemingly no closer to discovering the truth about the night of her death. Has this been a miscarriage of justice, a mismanagement of the case by authorities, or has somebody been able to get away with murder?
Who was Sophie Toscan du Plantier?
Du Plantier had visited Ireland several times as a teenager, and in 1993, she decided to buy a holiday home in Schull, near Toormore. In the Nineties, she lived in Paris with her husband, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, and her son from her first marriage.
She decided to take a solo trip to Ireland just before Christmas, and arrived on December 20 1996 with the intention of returning to Paris a few days afterwards.
However, her body was found by a neighbour, Shirley Foster, on the morning of 23 December. She had been dressed in nightwear and boots, and she had been beaten to death, with a blood-stained piece of slate found nearby. The pathologist was unable to attend the murder scene for 28 hours, and her body was left outside for all this time. When he finally arrived, he found multiple head injuries so significant that a neighbour was unable to identify her.
The Gardai – the Irish police – have since been accused of “mishandling evidence” and of allegedly “coercing and intimidating witnesses”. However, a report later concluded that while there was a lack of administration in the investigation, there was “no evidence of high level corruption”.
The main suspect
The main suspect was named early on as Ian Bailey. A Mancunian who moved to Ireland in 1991, he was known to local police for a domestic violence attack on his partner, which led to her hospitalisation. He was convicted of assault in 2001.
Bailey denies knowing Du Plantier – though several witnesses have since contradicted this – and the main attention is around the fact that Bailey knew the victim was a French woman on the day of the discovery, before this fact had been formally announced.
Shortly after the murder, Bailey was discovered to have scratches on his forearms and an injury to his forehead, which he put down to cutting down a Christmas tree on 22 December. But investigators were unable to replicate these injuries when they tested his claim out for themselves. There were also witnesses with Bailey on 22 December who say there were no noticeable injuries on him at this point.
While he was under investigation, the former journalist began to write news articles, claiming that Du Plantier had “multiple male companions” and sought to move the focus of the investigation away from West Cork and over to France instead.
A witness in the Gardai’s case, the schoolboy Malachi Reid, reported that Bailey told him during a car ride that he “went up there and bashed her brains out”. But although he was arrested twice by the Garda Síochána, there were no charges brought against him as there was insufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
French homicide charge
If a French citizen is murdered in a country outside of France, extraterritorial jurisdiction still applies, under French law. So in 2010 – after Du Plantier’s family set up their own association to investigate the case – a European Arrest Warrant was issued for Bailey, and the Irish High Court granted an extradition order. However, Bailey appealed to the Supreme Court, and his appeal was granted.
His extradition was refused under the grounds there was no actual intention by the French authorities to "try" him at this stage, as required by the European Arrest Warrant Act 2003. Also, there was the issue of reciprocity – as the offence was committed outside French territory, Irish law doesn’t allow prosecution for the same offence when committed outside its territory by a non-Irish citizen, and Bailey is British.
At the time, Bailey told the press: “You wouldn’t be able to believe the hell that we have been put through by this awfulness.”
However, in 2017, Bailey was arrested in Ireland with another European Arrest Warrant issued by the French authorities, which would extradite him to France to face a trial for the murder of Du Plantier. He managed to avoid extradition once again (dismissed as an “abuse of process”) so the French court tried him in absentia, and he was convicted of voluntary homicide on May 31, 2019 – the sentence was 25 years in prison. Just last year, in 2020, Ireland’s High Court once again ruled that Bailey could not be extradited, and he remains in Cork, a convicted fugitive who swears he has been framed for the murder.
What does Bailey say about the case now?
He told TodayFM’s The Last Word programme: “I just thought it was very, very sad. The whole story is a tragedy. I had nothing to do with it, I’ve said that a thousand times.”
Of the Netflix documentary, Bailey told The Irish Times: “It is a piece of biased, inimical, poisonous propaganda... It is based entirely on a false narrative, the same false narrative which was used to convict me in my absence in France, linking me to a crime that I had nothing to do with and it will most assuredly demonise me.”
In Murder at the Cottage, director Jim Sheridan tracks Bailey down and interviews him. He tells Sheridan that there was a “a vast police plot” against him: “The whole thing is a load of bollocks. No, I’m not a pervert, no, I’m not a murderer. I might be a bit eccentric. If that’s a crime, everyone should watch out.”
However, Du Plantier’s son, Pierre Louis, says in the Netflix documentary: “It’s clear he killed her. The judge said it. What happens next? I don’t know. If Bailey continues to slip through the net I assure you I will make sure the net comes down on Bailey.”
The only thing that’s clear from both documentaries is that neither film will be able to solve this murder case that’s baffled authorities for almost 30 years.
Sophie: A Murder In West Cork will stream on Netflix from June 30; Murder at the Cottage is available now on Sky Crime and NOW.
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