A NEW documentary has shed some light on the murky events surrounding the brutal murder of a French film maker in Ireland over two decades ago.
The hazy blend of fact and myth surrounding the mysterious killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier near to the sleepy town of Schull, West Cork, on 23 December 1996 are held up to fresh scrutiny by documentary maker Jim Sheridan in his new film, Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie.
The harsh landscape surrounding Schull, an area meant to be haunted by the ghost of the murderous White Lady, and Sheridan’s gristly narration and ominous music all give the film an eeriness befitting of its subject.
Standing at the foot of Sophie’s gave in France, Sheridan opens the film by saying: “This is not the first grave she was buried in. She was buried here, but her spirit lives on in Ireland.”
Indeed, it is clear to see why Sophie’s spirit lives on and this story has captured the imagination of not just those living in Schull, a quiet, bohemian town in the South of Ireland, but also the rest of Ireland, France, and now, with the release of this and an upcoming Netflix documentary, the UK as well.
There is the stark goriness of the murder, which involved Sophie being bludgeoned with a large concrete block, as well as staggering deceit and incompetence by the authorities, and the enigma of who committed the murder.
The primary suspect for the past quarter of a century has been the former journalist, gardener, and self-described poet, Ian Bailey.
Owing to the complete absence of any direct evidence linking Bailey to the crime, he has never been charged in Ireland.
The lack of physical evidence is in part due to the fact that Sophie’s body was left outdoors until the arrival of Ireland’s top State Pathologist John Harbison 28 hours later – who was incommunicado on the day as he was celebrating his 63rd birthday.
By the time he arrived the body was frozen solid, and Sophie’s face was so badly disfigured that her neighbour could not formally identify her.
Over the following months, Bailey caught the Garda’s attention by being the first person to report on the killing, relaying details, like the fact that Sophie had not been sexually assaulted, before they had become public knowledge.
From starting with a list of around 50 suspects, the guards, then hopelessly out of their depth and desperate to be seen to be effective, narrowed their focus to Bailey.
So convinced were they that they had their man, Garda officers bribed and cajoled key witnesses to implicate Bailey in the crime and discounted other lines of inquiry.
While the film does a good job in showcasing Garda corruption, it also shows Bailey’s unsettling flamboyance in the face of such serious charges.
In an interview with Hot Press, Bailey admitted that he jokingly told a local 16-year-old that “things were going well until people started saying that I was the murderer and had bashed her brains out.”
His poetry also veers into violent and pornographic imagery, which did not help his case when it was read out in open court during his libel suit against several publications in Ireland, and later, his murder trial in absentia in France.
Despite the farcical nature of the Irish investigation and the inadmissible witness testimonies it produced, the French courts were happy to try him, in the absence of any counsel or case for the defence.
Summing up the trial, Jim Sheridan said: “Without scientific proof, with retracted statements, with absent witnesses and no interrogation of the facts, the French have proved him guilty.”
He highlights that the clashing legal systems, the Napoleonic Code in France and the Common Law system in Ireland, complicate judicial cooperation between the two countries.
What would be found inadmissible as hearsay in Ireland is treated as evidence in French courts.
Sheridan said: “How can you be a guilty man in France and a free man in Ireland, can somebody explain that to me?
“There are two crimes here, there’s the murder and there’s the lack of justice.”
The filmmaker notes the damage done to all parties in the case: “It’s like a Shakespeare tragedy, where there are no winners at the end, only broken shells of people.
“Sophie’s family are consumed by anger and sadness, can’t find their way out, their daughter’s death unavenged, the sentence handed out but not endorsed.
“They remain convinced that the man who murdered their daughter is free, and no matter what way you look at it, that’s the truth.
“And innocent or guilty, Ian Bailey has had a quarter of a century of a life sentence on remand in the prairie, unable to leave the country.”
Indeed, not only Bailey but his long suffering girlfriend Jules Thomas has served a life sentence, as despite the rumours and losing friends, she has stuck by the accused murderer for the past 25 years.
She has since left Bailey, who described it as "very hard going" to thein April this year.
She continued: "I put up with him for far too long and I realise now that it was a waste of time. It was always a one-way flow; men like him don't ever bend or accommodate...it's to do with their egos."
Throughout the documentary, Bailey's decline is tempered by the presence of this fiercely loyal and seemingly level-headed woman by his side, and so her departure will undoubtedly be a blow.
On whether he thinks Bailey’s guilty, Sheridan says: “I don’t know, I don’t think we can say for sure.”
Sheridan then raises perhaps both the most important and consistently neglected question hanging over the whole saga in his closing commentary.
“And if it was not Ian Bailey here that night,” he says as the camera closes in on the rugged terrain around du Plantier’s cottage, “there is no one out there looking for the man who left no trace.”
The documentary first aired on Sky Crime on June 20 and another film, Sophie: A Murder In West Cork will be available on Netflix from Wednesday, June 30.