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The du Plantier murder review: Inside a garda cold case investigation

The Serious Crime Review Team was set up in 2007 to find answers to long unsolved murders.
Jun 29th 2022, 10:10 PM 36,689 0

Updated Jun 30th 2022, 8:30 AM

THE NEW GARDA review to find Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murderer will be conducted by a group of specialist detectives who have had major success in solving historic cases.

The Serious Crime Review Team (SCRT) is a unit inside the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation based in Harcourt Square in Dublin. 

They are specialist detectives with expertise in revisiting old cases to find new routes of investigation. 

They have had a number of successes – one of the most infamous cases being the murder of Irene White in which three men conspired to kill her. She was stabbed to death in her Dundalk home as she washed the dishes in 2005. 

They have successfully prosecuted two suspects and are due to send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the man who led the murder conspiracy. 

Just this week a man had been charged with the alleged murder of a woman in the 1980s following a review. 

They are also involved in Operation Trace – the investigation into the disappearance of six women in Leinster. 

Still on their books is the murder of Raonaid Murray, a 17-year-old who was killed just yards from her home in Dun Laoghaire in 1997. 

Sources have said that there have been several internal garda reviews into the investigation of the west Cork murder to date but none of them have established any new evidence to progress the file to a charge.  

Ms du Plantier, was found with fatal head injuries, on a boreen just feet from her holiday home in west Cork. 

She was a French television and film producer who was beaten to death having fled from the isolated property near Schull shortly before Christmas, 1996.

No Irish charge

No one has been charged with her murder but a French court previously found the English man and Schull resident Ian Bailey guilty of her killing. The Irish High Court has refused to extradite him to France.

Bailey had been arrested by gardaí in connection with the murder but was never charged. He has denied any involvement in the murder.

The one time journalist had written in 2021 to the garda Commissioner, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) asking for a fresh examination which he said would clear his name of wrong doing.

bantry-west-cork-ireland-30th-july-2021-ian-baileys-appeal-against-his-conviction-for-drug-driving-and-the-possession-of-drugs-has-been-adjourned-until-october-pictured-below-ian-bailey-at-bantr Ian Bailey in West Cork. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Gardaí sent a file to the DPP in the 2000s causing a law officer to launch a stinging attack on the investigation and the work used by gardaí to find the killer.  

It has emerged that gardaí had misplaced key evidence including the large metal gate that Ms du Plantier was found near. 

A review had been ordered in 2021 into the investigation by Commissioner Drew Harris. This re-examination was conducted by the Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, the lead officer of the force’s Organised and Serious Crime unit. 

That report was completed and now the garda press office has announced that the Garda SCRT will conduct “a full review of this case”.

They have appealed for witnesses to make contact and there will also be other methods used. 

The SCRT, often known as the Cold Case Unit, was formed in 2007 and, according to gardaí “conducts reviews of unresolved historical and current major crime incidents with the primary aim of assisting in identifying new investigative opportunities in a case”. 

The team’s adopted motto is “to the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe the truth”.

The review process

There is a process at local station level and divisional level whereby Detective Inspectors or Detective Sergeants regularly review unsolved investigations – especially murders. 

They draw up new possible points of enquiry – the difference with the SCRT is that they have further strategies and capabilities and are independent of the local policing environment.  

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The work of the SCRT is to take the garda investigation file and examine statements and find key pieces of evidence that may have been overlooked.

These new lines gathered from the observations of witnesses at the time of the offence are then followed up. 

Another key method for the detectives is to devise a new forensic examination strategy. Some times this involves a re-examination of the scene but also of any exhibits that were found at the time. 

kealfadda-bridge-toormore-co-cork Kealfada Bridge, Toormore, west Cork - close to Sophie's home. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

New advances in DNA have already borne fruit for the SCRT in other historical murders in Ireland. 

The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee had explained the role of the SCRT in the Dáil in 2020.

“The purpose of a review conducted by the SCRT is to assist the Senior Investigating Officer with the criminal investigation.

“These reviews constitute an independent examination of evidence and other material, gathered during investigation and to ensure that it conforms to approved standards; that the investigation has been thorough, conducted with integrity and objectivity; and to identify further investigative opportunities.

“The remit of the SCRT is broad and would include reviews of troubles-related cases, where appropriate,” she said. 

As the team work through their evidence they develop what gardaí call “job sheets”.

These notes, written in receipt books, are given to detectives to carry out specific enquiries – it could be as simple as the location of a car or to take a fresh statement from a witness. 

The answer to who killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier could well be on one of those job sheets in the coming months.

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Niall O'Connor

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