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Time and again, I saw the hopes of Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s family crushed

Will the truth about her murder now be buried with Ian Bailey, the only suspect?

Newspaper reports on the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier at the end of December 1996 showed an airport security photo of the victim pushing a trolley at Cork airport a few days before she was savagely beaten to death outside her holiday home in west Cork. This beautiful Frenchwoman loved Ireland, I thought, and now she is dead.

I had just been appointed The Irish Times’s France correspondent. Over subsequent weeks, months and decades, I interviewed Toscan du Plantier’s widower Daniel; her courageous parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, now in their 90s; her only child, Pierre-Louis Baudey Vignaud, and a host of relatives, friends and lawyers. I covered meetings of the association they created to seek the truth about her murder. Time and again, I saw hopes of justice crushed by an Irish system which proved incapable of prosecuting the man who, in the words of Ian Bailey, the sole suspect in the case, “bashed her brains in”. It was one of several such self-incriminating accounts by Bailey, which he would later dismiss as “black humour” on his part.

Bailey died last Sunday in Bantry of a suspected heart attack.

I crossed paths with him twice, in Bantry in 2017 and in the open-air market in Skibbereen in 2019 where local wags said he sold “pizzas to die for”. At the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Bailey attended a talk by the writer Colm Tóibín about Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. Bailey, a large man, stood in the doorway as the audience filed in. Then he ostentatiously took a front-row seat and listened as Tóibín spoke of blood and slaughter. An air of palpable unease hung over the room. All eyes were on Bailey.


Bailey studied law at University College Cork. In a class on criminal procedure, a friend’s daughter recalled, Bailey shocked fellow students with a question about murder with a blunt instrument to the head.

In May 2008, I did a radio interview about the 13-page post mortem report by state pathologist Dr John Harbison, which had finally been forwarded to the victim’s mother. Bailey’s lawyer threatened to sue me and the radio station. I said I would love to testify against Bailey in a court of law. I heard nothing more about it.

In the 2010s, a new narrative emerged. An Garda Síochána had tried to frame poor Ian Bailey and ruined his life. An Irish magazine publisher asked me, “How dare the arrogant French come to Ireland and tell us how to run our justice system?”

The French public and French media could not understand why Bailey was not prosecuted. I was twice invited to the magistrates’ school to attempt to explain it. France requires a body of corroborating evidence for a conviction. Ireland demands proof beyond reasonable doubt.

In 2019, a French high court found Bailey guilty of murder in absentia and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Bailey and his French lawyer refused to attend the trial. Ireland refused to extradite him.

I argued with an Irish official who told me, “I cannot imagine anything worse than being wrongly convicted of a murder.” I told him I could not imagine anything worse than feeling certain you know who killed your loved one and not seeing that person brought to justice.

The same official dismissed all evidence against Bailey as “circumstantial”.

After consuming copious amounts of stout and whiskey on the night of December 22nd, 1996, Bailey disappeared for several hours from the bed he shared with Jules Thomas, his partner for more than 30 years. She would initially say that when he returned the next morning, he had a bleeding wound on his forehead and scratches on his hands and arms - remarks she later withdrew, but which other witnesses corroborated. He said the injuries were caused by cutting down a Christmas tree and killing turkeys.

Toscan du Plantier had run through the brambles below her house while her killer pursued her. Gardaí assumed the murderer would have similar scratches.

Three days after the murder, two witnesses saw Bailey burning clothes in a bonfire in Thomas’s Garden. A hatchet head was found in the ashes. Toscan du Plantier’s family said she kept a hatchet by the back door to chop wood, and for self-protection. They believed the missing hatchet inflicted the bleeding wound on Bailey’s forehead.

At a December 2003 libel trial, at least six witnesses said Bailey told them he had killed Toscan du Plantier. They reiterated their testimony at the 2019 trial in Paris. Irish officials dismissed this as “hearsay”.

Bailey lied about having met Toscan du Plantier before the murder, and about the time of his arrival on the scene of the crime

Helen Callanan, the former news editor at the Sunday Tribune who published articles written by Bailey about the murder, became uncomfortable when she learned he was a suspect. “It was me, I did it, I killed her, I did it to resurrect my career,” Bailey told Callanan.

Malachi Reed was 14 years-old when Bailey picked him up hitchhiking shortly after the murder. Reed asked Bailey how his work was going. “He said fine, until I went up there with a rock and bashed her f**king brains in,” Reed testified.

One year after the murder, Richie and Rosie Shelley spent New Year’s Eve with Bailey and Thomas. Richie Shelley testified that Bailey spent most of the night discussing the murder of Toscan du Plantier. In the early hours of the morning, Bailey drifted off to sleep, then woke up crying. “He put his arms around me and said, ‘I did it, I did it’. Then I asked: ‘You did what?’ He said: ‘I went too far.’” Shelley’s account was confirmed by his wife.

Bill Fuller, a gardener, worked with Bailey before the murder. When he confronted Bailey about rumours that he had killed Toscan du Plantier, Bailey spoke of himself in the second person, saying, “You did it. You saw her in Spar on Saturday. You saw her walking up the aisle with her tight arse. You fancied her. You went up there to see what you could get. She ran off screaming. You chased her to calm her down. You stirred something in the back of your head. You went too far. You had to finish her off.”

There were other damning accounts. Bailey lied about having met Toscan du Plantier before the murder, and about the time of his arrival on the scene of the crime. He included in his newspaper reports details which only the killer could have known.

Peter Bielecki, a neighbour, testified in the 2003 libel trial that Bailey had told them he assaulted his former wife, Sarah Limbrick. He was physically abusive to Jules Thomas, once hospitalising her. When Bielecki took Thomas to hospital in 1996, he testified: “Jules was curled up in almost the foetal position, at the foot of the bed, and was making these terrible animal-like noises. She had some hair in her hands ... her eye was purple and there was blood coming out of it. Her face had gouges in it and she had teeth marks on her arm ... It was the most appalling thing I’d ever witnessed.”

Barring a posthumous confession amid Ian Bailey’s possessions, or tardy revelations by a third party, the truth about Toscan du Plantier’s murder will probably be buried with Bailey. A Garda cold case review continues and the Director of Public Prosecutions is expected to make a determination whether charges would have been pursued had Bailey lived. Ireland would do better to hold an inquiry about the dysfunction of its justice system.