Sophie Toscan du Plantier: 20 years on - Facts of brutal killing became lost among lies, untruths, and injustice

A portrait of Sophie and her son Pierre Louis, aged three.

The murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier proves the rights of a victim and their family are secondary in our justice system, writes Michael Sheridan. 

IN DECEMBER 2001, for the first time, the case of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier came onto my writing radar.

It was coming up to the fifth anniversary of the event and one of the reasons I planned an article for a Sunday newspaper was that it had, by then, completely faded from the attention of the media.

The approach I followed was a reconstruction of the murder combined with a psychological profile of the killer.

I did not seek any co-operation from the victim’s family for the article but this became my focus when, early in 2002, I was commissioned by The O’Brien Press to write a book on the subject.

I wanted to know more about Sophie than as a murder victim which, far too often, is what a person who suffers such a tragic fate is reduced to, as if he or she had no previous existence.

During the course of my research, I quickly discovered there was a great deal of misinformation, myth, downright untruth and nonsense peddled in media accounts mostly in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

A prime example was that, in the kitchen of the holiday home in Toormore outside which the killing took place, two chairs were pushed close together and there were two wine glasses on the sink.

This was to give the impression that the killer was in the house on the evening prior to the crime — which happened sometime after midnight — and was on intimate terms with the victim. The chairs were pushed together for a completely different reason, as I would discover later. There were no wine glasses on the sink.

Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier while on a trip to India. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.
Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier while on a trip to India. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.

The caretaker, Josephine Hellen, was widely quoted as saying a poker was missing from the living room. This was to give the impression that the murder weapon was the poker. It was not and when I interviewed the caretaker she revealed, not only did she insist she had never said it she stated she had never spoken to any journalist about the matter.

This fact was invented and peddled to news outlets and received wide publication.

In fact, the murder weapon was a small hatchet which was taken from outside the back door and used by the killer to deliver 40 wounds to the body of Sophie, who had fled to the gate in an effort to escape the frenzied attack.

Then, as she attempted to crawl away through thorny bushes and barbed wire beside the gate, the killer pulled her backwards towards the driveway, turned her over and dropped a 30lb concrete block on her upturned head, completely destroying her face.

This was the classical act of a sexual psychopath to destroy the identity of his victim after a frenzied and brutal attack.

So much for the wine glasses and the poker.

There were a lot more lies peddled about the case and the possible motivation for the killing, among them the untruth that Sophie’s marriage to Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the French film mogul, was in trouble.

Sophie and her husband Daniel at a dinner party in Paris. False rumours were spread of difficulties in the couple’s marriage. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.
Sophie and her husband Daniel at a dinner party in Paris. False rumours were spread of difficulties in the couple’s marriage. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.

The couple were splitting up, the story went, and he would lose half of his estate.

The implication was clear that the now late husband had his wife murdered by a third party.

But in the history of murder, had an assassin ever used the weapons of convenience as in this case and then returned to his lodgings covered in blood?

The truth, as I would discover later, as with the vile suggestion that the victim was having an affair, was that the couple, like all married people, had their conflicts but, at the time, were closer than ever and planning to have a child.

There were many more lies and much misinformation.

I quickly realised that there were very good reasons why the family and husband of Sophie had vowed to never again engage with the media.

It appeared that I would have little or no chance of getting their co-operation.

That being the case, I decided that there would be no book and, in the summer of 2002, I faced the prospect of abandoning the project and returning the advance. Nonetheless, I thought I must try and while I was in Schull I was made aware that the family were there on holiday.

I rang an intermediary and a meeting with Sophie’s parents and aunt was arranged the following day at an hotel in Bantry.

After a tense three-hour discussion, the Bouniol family agreed to give their backing and co-operation in the writing of the book and later I got the same backing from Daniel, who tragically died suddenly some years later at the Berlin Film Festival.

Sophie after her First Holy Communion outside Notre Dame Cathedral with her cousin Alexandra, left, aunt Marie Madeleine Opalka, Bertrand (partly hidden) and cousin Patricia. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.
Sophie after her First Holy Communion outside Notre Dame Cathedral with her cousin Alexandra, left, aunt Marie Madeleine Opalka, Bertrand (partly hidden) and cousin Patricia. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.

I knew then that I would have the opportunity of telling the reader who Sophie was and help underline the extent of her loss and the impact of her tragic end on those who loved her most.

She would be something more than a murder victim depicted in life from a poor passport photograph.

By contrast, with the help of a valued friend and forensic psychiatrist, I aimed to provide from the brutal facts and modus operandi of the murder a portrait of a killer who, by his merciless coup de grace with the concrete block, robbed his victim of the dignity of her beauty so that when her family came to identify her, the only recognisable part of her face was her nose.

The profile of this brutal and perverted criminal is one of an individual who called that night at the holiday home overlooking Roaring Water Bay looking for sex and, in the classic character of the psychopath, reacted to his rejection with a rage and appalling violence.

The killer may have displayed local knowledge by not approaching the main door of the house where they could be seen through the glass porch.

The killer knocked at the side door where they could not be seen by the occupant.

Blood spatter on the side of the door indicated that the killer kept it open with one foot and punched Sophie hard in the face.

Feeling she would be trapped in the house, she fled to the garden. Halfway down, the killer caught up with her and attacked her with the hatchet,causing a welter of blood to be deposited on a rock.

She ran on to the gateway, where the killer again caught up with her and rained blows to her head and body, leaving extensive blood spattering on the gate.

It was then, like a trapped animal, that Sophie attempted to crawl through the thorn bushes before being pulled back for the final sickening and foul act.

It is hard to believe that 20 years have elapsed without any closure for the Bouniol family and the evil murderer is still walking the streets.

Mother and daughter — Marguerite Bouniol with Sophie. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.
Mother and daughter — Marguerite Bouniol with Sophie. Picture reproduced by permission from the book ‘Death in December — The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.

The murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier simply proves once again that the justice system in this country is totally weighted in the favour of the rights of a perpetrator while victims and their families have no rights whatsoever.

Michael Sheridan is author of Death in December — the story of Sophie Toscan du Plantier (The O’Brien Press)

No public event to mark 20th anniversary as frail family’s grief goes on

- Eoin English

It had been a heartbreaking annual pilgrimage for them to the place where she at first found peace and solitude, and where she ultimately met a brutal death.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s parents, Marguerite and Georges Bouniol, would traditonally fly in from Paris a few days before Christmas each year to spend a few days at her holiday home in West Cork to mark the anniversary of her death.

They would attend a memorial Mass in Goleen, lay a wreath at the bottom of the laneway leading from their daughter’s isolated holiday home in Toormore, near Schull, and pause to reflect at the spot where her battered body was found on this date in 1996.

And every year, with courage and dignity, they would express the hope that, one day, they would eventually get justice for her.

Pierre-LouisBaudley-Vignaud, son of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, in Bantry. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Pierre-Louis Baudley-Vignaud, son of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, in Bantry. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

To mark the 10th anniversary of her death, in 2006, they wrote a poignant open letter to her killer in the hope it would lead to a breakthrough in the case.

Their letter read: “You were the last person she saw — you, her killer. A look of terror, and probably pleading, in her eyes.

“She tried to escape from you. She ran through the field, bleeding, her hands and her arms broken. She screamed for help, knowing that no one would hear her, her cries drowned out in the wailing wind.

“Why?

“And yet she believed in friendship, in the Ireland she loved, where she owned the house she had dreamed of. She found there the calm she needed for her work. She was always touched by the kindness of Irish people. When you murder someone, it’s the family you kill.”

As the years wore on, their visits became more of an effort and, in turn, less frequent. Two decades of relentless campaigning, and false hope has taken its toll. Their pain endures.

Marguerite and Georges Bouniol, the parents of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, on one of their visits to West Cork. The family helped Michael Sheridan in his book on the brutal murder. Pictures: Michael MacSweeney/Provision
Marguerite and Georges Bouniol, the parents of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, on one of their visits to West Cork. The family helped Michael Sheridan in his book on the brutal murder. Pictures: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

George, a retired dentist, is in his early 90s. Marguerite, a former deputy mayor of Paris’s second arrondissement, is in her late 80s.

Neither made the trip to West Cork this year. A close friend of the family said they are frail and physically not up to making the trip.

There will be no public event, in either Ireland or Paris, to mark today’s 20th anniversary.

It is understood that her parents will be joined by close family and friends at a private memorial in Paris.

But the Association for the Truth about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier (AsSoph), the group set up to crusade for justice on behalf of her family, say the fight for justice goes on.

Jean-Pierre Gazeau, Sophie’s uncle and the president of AsSoph, said his niece was murdered in dreadful circumstances just yards from her beloved Irish home.

“At that time, no one could predict that family, friends, and all of the people aware of the case would have to wait 20 years for truth and justice for Sophie,” he said.

“At this moment, we have neither truth nor justice. We are still waiting just like so many other families and friends of victims in Ireland.

“AsSoph feels very strongly about this lack of truth and justice and we are in total solidarity with the families of victims and our friends.

“In Sophie’s case, an important step in our search for truth and justice was reached when the French investigating judge decided in July to charge the main suspect with voluntary manslaughter before the Paris Assize Court, and simultaneously issued a second European arrest warrant against him. Hence, we now have a suspect who is also an accused person.

The house of Ms du Plantier in West Cork. She was attacked with a hatchet, then tried to escape through thorny bushes and barbed wire beside the gate. Picture: AFP/Getty
The house of Ms du Plantier in West Cork. She was attacked with a hatchet, then tried to escape through thorny bushes and barbed wire beside the gate. Picture: AFP/Getty

“Our quest for truth and justice changes its tenor because of the perspective of a case in absentia, and unless the Republic of Ireland eventually decides to honour its European commitments on judicial co-operation, and makes an immediate transfer of the suspect to the French authorities.

“Then if the accused is convicted, we can really fight to obtain justice, because a convicted person must be punished.”

Mr Gazeau said everyone involved in AsSoph knows the campaign for justice still has a way to go, and he insists that AsSoph, as well as Sophie’s family and friends, remain “very vigilant”.

“There will be many obstacles that will transpire in the coming months to slow or block the case, and it is this continual underbelly of thematic elements which is visible in Sophie’s case and in so many others in Ireland,” said Mr Gazeau.

“The French judiciary and the family of the Sophie are clearly being insulted.

“The charge being brought before the Paris Assize Court is described as a farce by the accused’s Irish solicitor, or one-sided by the accused’s French lawyer.

“But we ask on what side is the farce or the bias?

“Is it not the refusal by Ireland to fulfil its obligations in terms of justice and European judicial cooperation during these 20 years, or if it is not the distressing spectacle given by the suspect during the case that he brought against the Irish State, and newspapers (and lost), in 2003 and 2014.

“To clarify, the French judicial procedure is not a ‘farce’ and is not ‘one-sided’.”

Mr Gazeau said the process offers “sound guarantees” by allowing the accused person to appeal against his committal for trial by the Assize Court, to be represented and defended by a lawyer if a trial is held in absentia in Paris, and if, in case of a conviction and he is extradited to France, then a new trial has to be organised in his presence and the presence of his lawyers.

“The case of Sophie Toscan du Plantier has dragged its heels in the Irish State for 20 years now,” he said.

“Is it now long overdue for the family of Sophie to obtain the justice they so rightly deserve, and which is demanded in compliance with European ;aw?”

READ MORE: Day 1: Sophie Toscan du Plantier: 20 years on - Battle for justice goes on

READ MORE: Day 2: Sophie Toscan du Plantier: 20 years on - Bailey blames his ‘dry humour’ for admissions which cost him dearly

 

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