Sophie Toscan du Plantier savagely lost her life near a place she saw as refuge

Journalist Eddie Cassidy recounts the aftermath of the brutal murder and outlines how the French film-maker had come to love her time in West Cork

Sophie Toscan du Plantier had, by all accounts, a glamorous lifestyle in France but she also sought a retreat, occasionally, from being in the public eye in Paris.

Her actor husband Daniel Toscan du Plantier had established his own film production company. Sophie once had a desire to become an actress.

Listed at the time of her murder in the Cork telephone directory as Sophie Bouniol, she had been emerging, in her own right, as an independent documentary producer.

But she had wanted an escape from her high-profile life and, very quickly, developed a love for Ireland and its people.

She finally found her refuge on the rugged Atlantic-swept Mizen peninsula.

In diaries, she wrote about being at ease in West Cork. She loved to visit her dormer property, a converted farmhouse, and appeared to have easily overcome any fears of isolation in the rural setting she had chosen.

“The Irish love their country in a more exclusive way than the Lozerians,” she wrote, referring to her birthplace and upbringing in the south-central region of France.

“It is a country of endurance, of resistance, pride in a flag, more than mere roots!

“I really love this country, I an adapting to it, and at the same time my body is, more or less, getting used to the cold.

“I am becoming hardened to it and I feel at ease here, with the people, their language and their thoughts.”

And with great eloquence, she wrote of her desires to find a house and to spend time here.

“Perhaps its doesn’t need to be too isolated for me to find serenity.”

Later she penned: “The scenery is to die for; it changes all the time, going from English-type countryside with Swiss chalet-like houses to stony desert and red dust.”

The extracts from the diary were published in a paperback, by writer Michael Sheridan, in 2004, Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

And Sophie did discover her half-acre of paradise, near Toormore, in between the peninsula villages of Schull and Goleen.

Her home was a five-bed farmhouse on a hillside above a rocky landscape with sheep-grazing fields, and where the sky and sea met the horizon as she would have looked across a sweeping valley.

She had a small number of friends in the locality. Occasionally, she had been joined by family from France and other friends but, in many respects, she seemed also to enjoy being on her own.

Her dreams of spending more time living and writing in West Cork in between her work schedule in France came, however, to an inglorious end in 1996.

She was bludgeoned to death and her skull crushed. When her body was found, she had been wearing a nightshirt with leggings and high brown, laced-up, boots.

In a bid to escape her killer, she had run through briars, yards from her home.

In the frenzied attack that followed, she had been battered to death with a rock and a concrete block.

Gardaí believe another type of weapon was also possibly used, but it was never found.

Scratched by the briars and possibly barbed wire, up to 50 wounds had been inflicted upon her body, discovered on the morning of December 23.

In garda parlance, a murder file remains open.

But the likelihood of her killer being brought to justice is highly unlikely.

Despite significant advances in crime-detection techniques such as DNA, forensic offices did not discover any firm evidence.

And, despite a 2,000-page file being sent to the offence of the DPP, the DPP said the mainly-circumstantial evidence presented did not warrant a prosecution.

In the 18 years since the horrendous crime was committed, the murder of Sophie continues to whet the appetite of the public.

In West Cork, time eased the shock for local people but they remain furious that a mother savagely lost her life in the tourist haven.

And a killer is still at large.

Regularly, the murder dominates the headlines, especially around Christmas when Sophie’s parents, Georges and Margeurite Bouniol, now in their 80s, and other family members attend a commemorative mass in Goleen.

Their prayers of the killer being brought to justice have not been answered.

The local community has taken the couple to their hearts and share with them and Sophie’s now adult son Peter their grief and the injustices associated with the murder.

At the time of the murder, I was the Irish Examiner’s West Cork correspondent. And, according to Ian Bailey, he was alerted to the murder when I contacted him around 1.40pm on the day the body was found.

Mr Bailey resided several miles from the scheme.

My phone records, at the time, show it was just before midday when I rang gardaí in Bantry, asking to speak to a superintendent about an incident reported to me.

The body had been found by a neighbour on a shared laneway to Sophie’s house around 10am, or so, and it is common knowledge gardaí arrived there at 10.38am.

A local GP reportedly arrived around 11am while a priest also attended.

When I received a phonecall less than an hour later, it did not come from any of the investigating officers. And I was not immediately told a murder had been committed.

My exact recollection, somewhat impaired at this stage due to the passage of time, was that a woman’s body had been found.

I was not told it was a French national. And my initial reaction, not knowing the location, was that a hit and run had occurred or someone had fallen or collapsed and died from natural causes or hypothermia. A similar incident did occur on the Mizen a year before Sophie’s murder.

Most surprisingly, local people I spoke to, initially by telephone, were not aware of the drama unfolding and the only person I contacted that had actually been at the scene was not forthcoming with any details.

In hindsight, what the first arrivals at the scene saw must have been horrifying and very traumatic in the light of the injuries inflicted.

Despite that person’s reluctance to disclose any details, there was no immediate indication from official channels there had been a murder, or that the female body found was that of a young or older person.

With deadline commitments, I finally decided to contact Mr Bailey, who just weeks earlier, had spoken to senior editorial staff in the Examiner and had indicated he would be a available as a freelancer. I had been told he would be a likely “stringer” if I needed one.

Having been informed a road near the scene could be closed off, I asked Mr Bailey if he would go to the area and file as a freelancer if it was a road accident, or otherwise.

I made the call around 1.40pm and, to the best of my recollection, I gave him some directions and some vague details.

Some time later, I rang his landline and, aware at that stage that the death was suspicious, I agreed to meet him at the scene which I did, possibly around 4pm.

It had been suggested I had advised Mr Bailey the body had been that of a French woman. I honestly can’t say now if I said that or not but have long believed I did not.

Significantly, when the DPP’s office was examining the garda file, a senior official in that office took exception to my insistence that I did not know it was a French national.

According to reports conveyed to me, the official said“this is an incredible assertion by Cassidy” and strongly believed that a senior garda had given me all the details, warts and all, before I arrived at the scene.

In 1996, for the benefit of readers, there was no social media and mobile phones did not have cameras.

As a matter of fact, in areas such as rural West Cork, mobile phones were a waste of time and, to this day, there are blackspot areas with no signal including parts of the national secondary road that winds through the region.

In December 1996, the mobile phone reception was dire, full stop.

News gathering on that particular day involving door-stepping locals in a sparsely populated area.

To some extent, the person in the DPP’s office would possibly have little or no knowledge of the murder location but should have been aware why gardaí, immediately after the discovery, did not divulge for operational reasons much detail of the brutal crime.

At no time during the investigation was I ever handed the garda file — although some French colleagues, who arrived out of the blue, did get a sneak.

Mr Bailey and myself were both at the scene, sheltering below a small cliff, from sharp wintry winds.

The scene was sealed off when I arrived and the body was screened off. Livestock grazed in fields where they was as much an outcrop of rock than grass.

The winter sunlight faded shortly after my arrival. I left the scene with a photographer to knock on doors.

It was almost 24 hours after the discovery of the body that the then state pathologist conducted his first examination.

A full inquest has not been heard but in January 1997, at a preliminary hearing in the courthouse in the Bantry county council offices, Prof John Harbison firmly stated the cause of death — which would be most crucial in any likely court proceedings — could not be determined.

In their hunt for the perpetrator, the difficulty of establishing a time of death had left gardaí on a back foot in their investigation.

A motive has never been established. A murder weapon was not discovered although a concrete block at the scene may have been used at some stage.

Had Sophie’s death been a random killing? Had she been spotted walking at Three Castles on the afternoon before her body was found and trailed to her home by the killer?

Despite autopsy results not being disclosed, it would appear the 38-year-old victim was not sexually attacked.

Her face, however, was almost unrecognisable from the battering she received.

A gaping hole was left in the back of her head and strands of hair, discovered in her hand, were after forensic testing shown to be her own.

She had came to the south- west of Ireland to seek serenity and privacy.

In her diaries, she unlocked her love for the peninsula people and its way of life.

Her husband Daniel remarried for a fourth time and died in Berlin in 2003, aged 61.

Seven months after the murder he visited West Cork. He had spoken of having a convivial phonecall with Sophie at 11pm. It was the last-known contact with her before her body was found.

In a Paris newsaper, he once declared: “There is a devil somewhere in the hills of southern Ireland”.

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