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'As long as there is work to do we'll continue it': The lead detective searching for the remains of The Disappeared

Geoff Knupfer has a unique role. He can’t make arrests, but concentrates solely on finding bodies.

IT MAY BE winter, but for Geoff Knupfer, the lead investigator searching for the remaining members of ‘The Disappeared’ the work doesn’t stop.

He’s over this side of the Irish Sea for a few days every week – assessing information, reviewing reports, and, as he repeatedly states “refining” what his small team of investigators know, in the hope of pinpointing locations for a possible dig.

Knupfer retired from Greater Manchester Police in 1997. A decade earlier, he helped bring closure to the family of one of the Moor Murders victims by helping locate the body of Pauline Reade as part of a major cold case operation.

He was one of the leading figures in the development of forensic archeology in the UK, and in 2005 was asked to take over the search for the remains of victims of The Troubles.

Now aged 69, he still has work to do.

Three members of The Disappeared are still yet to be located. A new search for Columba McVeigh, who was kidnapped and killed by the IRA more than four decades ago, is expected to start in the new year.

“‘As long as there is work to do we will continue it,” Knupfer said.

The Disappeared was the name given to the group of 16 people who went missing and were presumed to have been killed during The Troubles. The Provisional IRA has admitted responsibility for 13 of those deaths. A further death – that of Seamus Ruddy – was admitted by the INLA.

Knupfer has a unique role as the lead investigator for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victim’s Remains (ICLVR), in that his job is not to make arrests or bring people to justice – but solely to locate and identify bodies. The information he receives from former paramilitaries cannot be used in a prosecution.

Said Knupfer:

We have engagement with the republican movement. When they receive information or possession of information that they think will be of assistance to us they will contact us and we will take it from there.

The volume of information that comes in remains “pretty constant”, despite the passing of years.

Search for IRA victims Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Knupfer spoke to TheJournal.ie at a hotel close to the border. He usually bases himself there when he’s over, he explained – as it’s within striking distance of the sites “of interest”.

The ICLVR was set up by the Irish and British governments in 1999 as part of the peace process. It operates confidential Irish, British and international phone lines, an email address and a PO Box, and makes regular appeals for information – usually coinciding with anniversaries related to the victims they’re searching for.

The hope, when the Commission was established, was that the remains of those missing would be located relatively quickly – as people came forward with information. Within a few years, however, that process had stalled. Knupfer was asked to conduct a review of the work carried out to date, before being hired to overhaul the process in 2005.

“It was really about transforming a reactive organisation into a proactive organisation,” he explained.

That’s what we did and that’s really where we are now. It’s been about investigating rather than just sitting there waiting for people to ring the number or pass on information – researching it, doing our own background work and actively appealing.

His team comprises a “handful of people who’ve got a speciality in homicide or major crime investigation – and who know how to cold case review, because that’s what it’s really all about”.

The information they receive has always been “fundamentally correct” – guiding the investigators to the general areas to search. That information is analysed, and the search area narrowed down, through painstaking research – often taking years.

Does he often initiate contact, if there’s a piece of information he needs?

Yes, but we’re very careful in the way we do it. If we have information and we think there’s a line that could be pursued we probably talk to people about how to pursue this particular line.

He observed: “The people involved in these events are passing away as well which obviously makes it even more complicated.”

Because of the way the commission operates, Knupfer is limited in what he can say about the team’s information-gathering techniques – he stresses repeatedly during our conversation that he’s “speaking generally” and not referring to any specific interactions he had that might have generated information.

Search for the Disappeared The families of Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee hold a prayer service in Coghalstown, Co Meath in June 2015. Source: Niall Carson

Former paramilitaries are often surprised at the kind of questions Knupfer and his investigators ask – questions about terrain, about geography.

We always say to people we’re talking to – you let us decide what is significant and what is not significant, just you tell us what you can recall and we’ll take it from there.
Early on the republican movement were surprised, I think, generally speaking, at some of the questions we asked because they were things that they never dreamt of.
We ask about the depth of grave, how the digging of the grave went, how many people did it – was it done in daylight? Was it done in the dark? How deep was it, what did you encounter?
One – without going into detail – talked about the different layers in the ground that they had gone through, and that actually helped us focus in on a particular area.

Three remaining victims 

The expected new search for Columba McVeigh will take place in the new year in Co Monaghan. Investigations to find the remains of former Cistercian monk Joseph Lynskey and British Army officer Robert Nairac also continue.

The remains of two other members of the The Disappeared – Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee – were found in Co Meath in 2015. Other victims have been found in counties Louth, Antrim, Wicklow and elsewhere.

This year’s successful search in northern France for the remains of Seamus Ruddy, who was killed by the INLA, differed from most of the ICLVR investigations, in that it was the first to take place outside the island of Ireland.

Even so, it fell into the usual pattern of how Knupfer and his team operate.

“That would entail face to face discussions with republicans and former paramilitaries and then going away and undertaking further research and then coming back with refined information.

I don’t know what they’re doing. We don’t ask them. But they come back and say ‘we think we’ve got some extra information on this’ – and it’s that sort of information that we use. We probably then go to the site and we try to evaluate or reevaluate the site.

‘You’ve got to be objective’

Regular meetings take place between the commission and family members. A family liaison officer has a single point of contact in each family. Knupfer said there was a strict “rule of thumb” that the families will never hear of a development connected to their relative’s case in the media without being informed first.

Silent Walk for the Disappeared Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Most recently the families gathered for the annual ‘Silent Walk’ at Stormont, to remember their loved ones (above). Even as the number still to be found reduces, Knupfer said the families, many of whom have campaigned together for decades, “all support each other – the families stick together”.

Does he think of the family members, when he’s in the countryside conducting a survey or an excavation?

“At that time, at that stage of the process, you’re thinking about it as an operation or as a process.

“There is a time to think about the victim and that’s when you recover them. Before we get there, this is about how best we achieve what we set out to achieve.

From an operational view, he said, “you tend to put that aside”.

I think, talking about cops more generally, if we all sat around thinking about how terrible a case was you’d never get anything done. You’ve just got to be objective you’ve got to get on with the job and that’s what we do.
There is a time, further down the line, to think about what happened, about how it happened and what relief it brings to the family by recovering their loved ones.

Remains of 'disappeared' IRA victims found A search outside Blessington in Wicklow in 2008. Remains of Danny McIlhone, who went missing in 1981, were found at the site. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Geographical anomalies 

A decision to carry out a dig will only happen after multiple visits to the site, and after all the appropriate “non-invasive” methods of assessing the area have been ticked off.

Knupfer and his team use Ordnance Survey Ireland mapping and imagery to compare the appearance of the site to how it looked decades ago. They’ll also use dog teams, ground penetrating radar and other techniques to try and discover any anomalies that warrant further investigation.

That research “will never tell you X marks the spot – all it will say is that there’s something different here than there is there”. They may be searching for anomalies “but the problem we’ve got is there might be 150 differences in a field, for argument’s sake. Which one is a body and which one is a natural glitch in the geology?”

That’s the question that needs to be answered before a decision can be made to move from non-invasive to starting to dig and physically searching.

“We don’t to it lightly,” Knupfer said.

I can’t emphasise too much – there’s an enormous cost associated with having half a dozen excavators and the supporting staff and archeologists and geophysicists and dog handlers – there’s some serious money involved so we do not do it lightly, but if we’ve got fresh information or refined information that would merit further work we put that to the governments and say ‘you know we think this is worth doing’. As a rule they all accept our word for it.

Knupfer tends to bring in experts from Britain to support physical searches.

By law we are not allowed to do anything other than recover victims and forensically examine them – only for identification purposes and also, for safety’s sake, in case there’s a booby-trapped body, which has never been an issue but the legislation is there.

Can’t hand over evidence

The police “other than assisting us, certainly don’t get in the way, they support us”. Neither the gardaí nor the PSNI can use any evidence recovered by the commission, and it can’t be used in a court of law.

If, for argument’s sake, we recovered the body and there was ballistic evidence available within those remains they would never get access to that, we would destroy that, because the legislation says we can’t examine the recovered remains for forensic purposes – so they do not get access to anything.
That is the guarantee. That is why the republican movement and former paramilitaries are happy to engage. They know that nothing can come of it – not from our end of it anyway.

Knupfer first began to study forensic archeology techniques thirty years ago – taking a “quick crash course” in physical archeology in advance of the cold case investigation of the Moors Murders and speaking to experts in the US about how police could adapt what they had learned from traditional archeologists.

We got to know how best these things can be done, how we can adapt traditional archeological techniques that have been established over many, many years to find ancient remains and buildings into doing what we wanted to do.

Brendan Megraw inquest Source: Brian Lawless

After the Moors Murders investigation, he worked with academics in the UK to “develop forensic archeology as a separate tool” – and worked as part of an advisory team to the police, while he was still in the force. He continued to campaign for the development of the discipline as he worked in a separate major crime role in the Home Office.

It is now very developed, there are many universities teaching forensic archeology, doing masters degrees in it and what have you. We’ve moved a long way from the 1980s to where we are today.

Knupfer, who’s technically a contractor for the ICLVR, used to do other consultancy work too – but aside from “the odd bit of lecturing here and there” now concentrates solely on his role searching for The Disappeared.

“I’d like to retire, really, if I can,” he said.

“If we can find these three it would be wonderful – it’s probably a big ask but we would love to go away knowing we had found everyone.

That’s our objective and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

Anyone with information on The Disappeared can contact:

  • The ICLVR in complete confidence on 00800 555 85500
  • By writing to ICLVR, PO Box 10827, Dublin 2
  • Or via the website www.iclvr.ie.

Related: ‘The Disappeared’ detective hopeful of new search for Columba McVeigh next year >

Read: Murdered by the IRA, the body of this British Army Captain has been missing for 40 years >

Read: “No grave to tend, no place to grieve”: The remaining ‘Disappeared’ >

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