After 20 years family has ‘nothing left to lose’, and are no longer afraid of naming the suspect, writes Joyce Fegan.
THE family of Fiona Sinnott said they know who her murderer is and after 20 years they have “nothing left to lose”.
“We know who killed Fiona. For so many years we were afraid to mention names but not anymore,” said Diane Sinnott, Fiona’s sister.
“After 20 years our family has nothing to lose. We’ve lost so many of our family members. We protected Fiona’s daughter Emma until she was a certain age, but we’re not fearful anymore, we’ve nothing left to lose,” she added.
Fiona, who was 19 when she went missing in 1998, had an 11-month-old daughter Emma. The Sinnott family lost touch with Emma after Fiona’s disappearance. The family is now trying to establish contact with Emma.
“Fiona’s daughter will be 22 in February. We didn’t only lose Fiona, we lost the closest thing to her. She knows we are trying to make contact with her,” Diane explained.
While the Sinnott family always held onto the hope they would find Fiona’s body, with the passage of time, they believe they can only achieve this if someone with information comes forward.
“We mightn’t get it off the suspect, but we definitely believe there are one or two other people, local people who know. We are just hoping that after all these years they’ll help us and speak up because we are not going to stop,” said Diane, who still lives and works in Wexford.
Fiona’s sister said she has “no fear” of the suspect but the few people with crucial information may be “fearful”,
“I’d have no fear of the suspect. If I came face-to-face with him I’d ask him where my sister is. But he’s always hid. The two people with information I believe are fearful of the suspect,” Diane told the Irish Examiner.
While Fiona went missing in 1998, it was not until 2005 that her case was upgraded to a murder investigation. However, Fiona’s family always suspected the worst. They believe her body lies in Wexford county.
“I believe she’s not far. She’s closer than what we might think. You could be driving by her on the road all the time,” said Diane.
It was suggested at the time that Fiona had left for England, however, this line of enquiry was pursued and no leads were ever found. Fiona’s family said her daughter was the centre of her universe and she was planning her first birthday before she disappeared.
“I always knew something happened to her. I knew she didn’t just take off and leave her daughter Emma, or us, her family,” Diane said.
“She couldn’t have just taken off, it was midnight on a Sunday, there were no buses or boats. The answer lies in Wexford,” she added.
Fiona’s father Pat, 59, died in 2004, of a “broken heart” and her sister Caroline died last year at just 47. Pat, on his death bed, spoke of finding Fiona, and Caroline thought of her every day.
“No way did my dad think when he passed away it would go on this long. He never stopped searching. On his death bed he said to a couple of his brothers: ‘Don’t stop searching for her. Find her.’
“Caroline, the oldest, she died last year and she talked about Fiona the whole time. She never stopped searching, not a day went by that she didn’t think of her. And not a day goes by that Fiona doesn’t come into my mind,” Diane said.
However, after 20 years the Sinnott family has grown frustrated and time has not made their loss in any way easier.
“We are getting angry and frustrated — it’s been 20 years now. We always had hope before now. Every time there was something in the papers, we thought someone would come forward,” said Diane.
IN FEBRUARY 1998, Fiona Sinnott was an independent 19-year-old. After breaking up with the father of her 11-month-old child many months earlier, she was living in rented accommodation with her daughter Emma in Ballyhitt, Co Wexford.
Ballyhitt is a small townland in the south-eastern corner of Wexford, between Rosslare Harbour and Kilmore Quay. It is about 16km from her family home in Bridgetown.
She was in regular contact with her parents Mary and Pat and four older siblings, but before widespread mobile phone use, a week could go by without her touching base with them.
However, the family always met for coffee on a Friday in Wexford town, when Fiona would get the bus into meet them.
On Sunday February 8, 1998, Fiona was out with friends in her local pub Butler’s, which was about a 1.5km walk to her rented home. The friends joked and chatted about their night out the previous Friday, February 6, in Tuskar House Hotel in Rosslare.
On Sunday, February 8, Fiona left the pub just after closing time, intending to walk back to her rented accommodation. This was the last time she was seen alive in public. No trace or sighting of her has ever been reported since and in 2005, gardaí extended their enquiry to a full murder investigation.
At one point on the Sunday evening in Butler’s, Fiona made a call to one of her brothers asking him to come to the pub but he declined because of work commitments.
It was Fiona’s father Pat who would eventually report her missing and due to the pattern of communication in her relationship with her family it would take until February 18, 1998, before he approached gardaí.
Fiona’s sister Diane explains that the family met every Friday for coffee in Wexford town and when Fiona failed to show up the second Friday in a row, they started to worry.
When the investigation into her disappearance was launched, gardaí established Butler’s pub as the last place Fiona was seen in public and so they began talking to anyone who was there on the night.
Her ex-partner was also drinking in the pub, but not in the same company. He was the last person to see her alive.
“Gardaí could confirm that she and estranged partner, Seán Carroll, had left the pub at around the same time. When contacted by gardaí and interviewed, Mr Carroll told them that he had walked Fiona home to her house in Ballyhitt after leaving Butler’s pub and that when they arrived, she had gone straight to bed.
“He said that she had complained of feeling unwell, complaining of pains in her arm and upper body area. He had, he said, spent the night asleep on the couch downstairs,” wrote retired detective sergeant Alan Bailey in his book, Missing, Presumed.
“At around 9am on Monday morning, February 9, prior to his leaving the house, Mr Carroll said he had gone into Fiona’s bedroom, where she was lying awake in bed and she said that she was still in pain and intended to go see her own doctor later that morning. She told him, he claimed, that she had no money and intended to hitch a lift to the surgery. He said he gave her about £3 and had then left the house.
“Carroll said that when he left Fiona’s house that morning, his mother had been waiting outside in her car. They drove back to their home in nearby Coddstown, where Emma was staying. Throughout the period between February 9, and February 18, Emma had continued to stay with his parents in their home,” wrote Mr Bailey.
The retired detective headed up Operation TRACE, the Garda taskforce set up to look for missing women, and spent many years investigating Fiona’s case.
Various leads were followed up and enquiries made, but they all led to dead-ends. Gardaí contacted Fiona’s doctor’s surgery and she had never visited it on February 9, nor after that. There are no sightings of her in public, either hitching a lift or taking a bus. A technical examination was carried out of her home and no evidence of foul play was found.
According to Mr Bailey, “what was considered most remarkable, however, was the complete absence of clothing and other personal items indicating that a teenage girl and her 11-month-old daughter were actually living there. It was as if the house had lain vacant all the months Fiona had lived in it.”
Mr Bailey also explained that a local farmer had approached investigating gardaí about black refuse sacks on his land, once the missing person appeals went out into the public. The farmer had dismissed the bags as part of the regular trend of illegal dumping and set fire to them, but before he lit them he checked for an address within the contents.
He found correspondence and containers with the name Fiona Sinnott on them at an address on George’s St in Wexford town — a previous rental address of Fiona’s. The farmer thought nothing of them because the address did not match the one in the missing person’s appeals.
One strong line of enquiry that was followed up involved an English lorry driver that Fiona had met out at the Tuskar Rock Hotel in Rosslare on Friday, February 6, 1998.
The couple had spent the night together in the cab of his lorry and he was to catch the first ferry from Rosslare the next morning. It was suggested to gardaí by a male acquaintance of Fiona’s that she may have left for England, perhaps with or after this lorry driver.
The lorry driver was tracked down and immediately agreed to meet with gardaí. He admitted to having spent the night with the teenager. He was ruled out as a suspect because he was able to prove his whereabouts from the Saturday morning of February 8, on. The likelihood of Fiona having left for England is highly unlikely as she had her daughter, who was the centre of her universe.
She had plans she was looking forward to. Her sister Diane’s 21st birthday party on February 27, which she was helping to organise and February 28 was her daughter’s first birthday — something she’d been greatly looking forward to and again something she had been making plans with friends and family for.
Over the last 20 years, gardaí have continued their enquiries. Information was received after her disappearance suggesting that a male was finding it very difficult to live with the role he had taken in disposing of Fiona’s body.
The person whom he was confiding in suggested he tip the gardaí off anonymously about the location of Fiona’s body. The distressed male refused to do so claiming that including the murderer, only two other people knew the exact location of the teenager’s body and tipping the gardaí off would be the same as signing his own death warrant.
This male died of a suspected drugs overdose in 2001.
“Whether the overdose was accidental or deliberate is unknown,” wrote Mr Bailey.
In 2005, seven years after Fiona’s disappearance, she was legally classified as dead.
On September 16, 2005, gardaí arrested three men and women with close family links, in connection with Fiona’s disappearance. In a press conference that same morning, gardaí announced that they were now treating her case as a full murder investigation.
The six, aged between 30 and 60, were held at New Ross and Enniscorthy Garda stations. All were later released without charge.
To mark Fiona’s 10-year anniversary, a plaque was erected on September 12, 2008, in a cemetery near where she was last seen. The plaque was to be unveiled the following day, September 13, at a special ceremony. When the Sinnott family arrived for the ceremony, they discovered the plaque had been stolen. Mr Bailey wrote that: “It is almost certainly the case, from speaking with locals, that this despicable act was carried out either by or at the request of her murderer.”
A second plaque has since been erected in the same spot and this too has been stolen.
The family received “reliable information” in 2015 and began their own dig at a site in Co Wexford. They were assisted by diggers and trained cadaver dogs to excavate a piece of land at a private home. This search never produced any evidence.
Last year, the gardaí renewed their appeal for information in the case and carried out door-to-door enquiries in the local area.
In February 2017, it was revealed detectives had conducted 459 enquiries and taken 355 statements to date. They were also due to carry out a fresh forensic examination of the home Fiona shared with her daughterusing techniques that can find evidence in a way unheard of 19 years ago. It is now possible to compare unknown crime stains with profiles on the DNA database that was set up in 2015.
In February of this year, Fiona’s family marked 20 years since her disappearance with a ceremony on the beach in Kilmore Quay, the beach where Fiona and her sisters would play on as children. Twenty roses were thrown into the water representing each year she has been missing. If Fiona was alive, she would turn 40 this October.
February 6, 1998:
Fiona enjoys night out with friends in Tuskar Rock Hotel, Rosslare, and spends the night with an English truck driver
February 8, 1998:
Fiona meets three female friends in her local pub, Butler’s, and leaves after closing time to walk home alone
February 9, 1998:
Fiona’s former partner and father of her child, Seán Carroll, claims to see her awake in her bed when leaving her house having spent the night on the couch
February 18, 1998:
Fiona’s father Pat reports his 19-year-old daughter missing in Kilmore Quay Garda Station and a missing person’s enquiry is launched
February 27, 1998:
Fiona’s sister Diane marks her 21st birthday
February 28, 1998:
Fiona’s daughter Emma turns one
Our Lady’s Island Lake, close to where Fiona was last seen, is drained with gardaí keeping a 24-hour floodlit watch as it emptied. No trace was found of the missing teenager
Fiona’s father Pat dies “of a broken heart”
Fiona is legally classified as dead
September 16, 2005:
Gardaí announce they are now treating the case as a murder investigation
September 16, 2005:
Three men and three women are arrested and questioned in New Ross and Enniscorthy Garda stations in relation to Fiona’s murder — they are all released without charge
September 12, 2008:
A plaque is erected in memory of Fiona for a ceremony marking 10 years since her disappearance
September 13, 2008:
The ceremony takes place, but the family discover the plaque had been stolen overnight
Fiona’s family receives information and begins a private dig at a site in Co Wexford, however, no evidence or remains are found
Fiona’s sister Diane delivers a speech at the National Missing Persons Day in Farmleigh House saying: “We just want Fiona to have a decent Christian burial which she deserves, not the burial place she has at the moment”
Gardaí begin carrying out door-to-door enquiries in Broadway, Co Wexford, where Fiona was last seen
Gardaí renew their appeal, saying a motorist saw a male and a female on the roadway around the time Fiona left the pub in February 1998. There were reported to be two males in their late teens or early 20s nearby, yet none of those people have ever come forward. Gardaí are anxious to trace their whereabouts
Fiona’s older sister Caroline dies in Wales, where she had been living, after a short illness
An Emmy-nominated producer begins working on a documentary about the case.