The Tale of The Beautiful French Filmmaker Bludgeoned in Ireland
It’s been 18 years since Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s battered corpse was found on the rugged Irish coast. The case is far from cold, but justice may never be served.
SCHULL, Ireland—She was a chic Parisian film producer with a holiday home in one of the most beautiful and remote corners of Europe: an isolated, windswept peninsula at the southernmost tip of Ireland.
Sophie Toscan du Plantier could have been a heroine out of a Daphne du Maurier novel. Instead she ended up the victim in one of the worst horror stories in this country’s recent history. Her brutal murder—she was bludgeoned while fleeing her desolate farmhouse onto the vast moors in the middle of the night in her pajamas—remains unsolved 18 years later.
Sophie’s husband, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, a prominent French film producer who worked with Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa, told Le Figaro after the murder that “there’s a devil somewhere in the hills of southern Ireland.”
Known in French cinema as simply “Toscan,” he was once married to French actress Marie-Christine Barrault and had affairs with Isabelle Huppert and Isabella Rossellini. He died in 2003.
But the rest of Sophie’s family, especially her elderly parents in Paris and her now-adult son, remain anguished over the lack of progress in the case and the fact that the “devil” is still out there.
“We’re suffering and sad and angry,” Sophie’s uncle, Jean Pierre Gazeau, told The Daily Beast on the phone from Paris. “We want closure and resolution. We want Sophie’s killer brought to justice.”
Irish prosecutors and French investigators have been locked in a power struggle that came to a head last week when the self-described prime suspect in the murder lost a lengthy and expensive court battle he brought in Dublin, hoping to prove that local police conspired to frame him for the murder. The estimated $5 million cost of the trial made headlines all over Ireland because taxpayers may end up footing the bill.
Ian Bailey, 58, a tall, eccentric Englishman who moved to West Cork in 1991, has been arrested twice—once in 1997 and once in 1998—in connection with the du Plantier case, but no charges against him have ever been filed. He has fought back against the accusations as just as tenaciously as he has been pursued by Irish and French detectives.
In one of the many bizarre twists and turns, Bailey, a sometime freelance journalist, was one of the first people at the murder scene after having been asked to file a report by an editor at the Irish Examiner newspaper who had never used him before.
Even though Bailey has never been charged with the murder, French magistrate Patrick Gachon has continually sought his extradition. A European arrest warrant issued for Bailey in 2010 means he can't leave Ireland without fear of being detained at other European airports after landing.
French detectives are expected to return to West Cork again this year to work further on the case in their attempt to bring Bailey to France to stand trial in connection with du Plantier’s death, Irish officials said. Irish police sources told The Daily Beast it’s unlikely Bailey could be extradited without being charged with a crime in Ireland, but French law allows for a person to be tried for a crime in absentia.
“I live in fear that I will be tried in France and extradited,” Bailey told The Daily Beast. “For now I can’t leave Ireland. I wasn’t able to go to England for my mother’s funeral. But I have always said I was innocent of this crime and I will continue to fight to defend myself.”
Bailey’s personal life has been laid bare in court over the years as a result of mostly unsuccessful libel actions he filed against several Irish and British newspapers as well as his recent claim that he was wrongly arrested twice as part of a police conspiracy against him.
He has often overshadowed Sophie to the point that most people in Ireland who know about the case talk only about him.
Bailey was 6 foot 4, movie-star handsome, and lived a few miles over the remote moors from du Plantier in 1996. A self-described poet, Bailey was like many expat artists and writers drawn to what is called the “Irish Riviera” because of its extraordinary rough beauty.
Many foreigners, or “blow-ins” as the Irish call them, in West Cork also tend to have New Age or hippie leanings. Bailey was no exception. In between odd jobs like gardening, Bailey was known to get up in the middle of the night to write poetry or play the bodhran, a goatskin drum.
A key witness in one of his libel trials said that she had been told Bailey would sometimes sit outside and “howl at the moon.” Other times he would go down to nearby Barleycove Beach and “sit in a rocking chair, naked, while ten lesbians danced around him,” Marie Farrell testified in court.
Bailey also had a history of domestic violence that came out in his court cases. He admitted beating his longtime partner, Welsh artist Jules Thomas, so severely on at least three occasions between 1993 and 2001 that she had to be taken to the hospital, according to media reports of the trial at the time.
According to court testimony, Thomas was once beaten so seriously that her lip was partially torn off, clumps of her hair were missing and there were teeth marks on her hands. That attack occurred in May 1996 and was so bad that Thomas’s daughter called a family friend named Peter Bielecki who later told the court during one of Bailey’s libel trials what he had seen, the Irish Times reported.
“I could hear what I can only describe as animal sounds. Terrible distress,” Bielecki testified. “Jules was curled up in almost a fetal position at the foot of the bed and making these terrible, terrible moans. I think she had hair in her hands. She was pulling hair in her hands. Her eye was purple. It was huge. There was blood coming from one point. Her mouth was swollen, her face had gouges in it and her right hand, I think it was her right hand, actually had teeth marks. She had teeth marks on her hand and arm.”
“It was as if somebody had their soul ripped out,” Bielecki continued. “It was like their spirit was gone. It has to be said it was absolutely the most appalling thing I have ever witnessed.”
Thomas got restraining orders against Bailey twice and he was jailed briefly because of his assaults on her, but they are still together and share the same house they did when Sophie was murdered.
“Jules Thomas is a strong woman, she’s tough,” said the owner of a small inn near Schull who worked in a fish factory where both Bailey and Thomas briefly worked. “I guess at the end of the day she can handle Ian.”
Bailey blamed whiskey for the attacks and has said he no longer drinks.
“My behavior was shameful and disgraceful,” Bailey told The Daily Beast. “I have said that over and over and I have fixed it. There are no excuses for it but at the same time it is not that unusual in this locality and many others. It does not mean I’m a murderer.”
Bailey is right in that nothing definitive links him to du Plantier’s killing. Although Bailey told The Daily Beast he remains a “person of interest” in the case, a police source said detectives are no longer focused primarily on Bailey. Jules Thomas was also arrested twice in connection with the murder and she is also pursuing a court case against the state for wrongful arrest, the Independent reported.
“We’ve lived a nightmare," Thomas told The Daily Beast. “It’s gone on for so long it’s almost impossible to describe. It’s had a very profound effect on both of us. But neither one of us is about to stop fighting. This is not over."
Bailey’s lawyer Frank Buttimer declined to comment, but a source close to Bailey’s defense who did not want to be identified called him a “convenient suspect.”
“He had no family, no roots here and even worse, he couldn’t shut up,” said the source. “He talked to the media all the time. He should have kept his trap shut.”
Police have a 2,000-page dossier but numerous sources familiar with the case told The Daily Beast it contains a lot of circumstantial evidence and hearsay that has been disputed and refuted in and out of court over the years.
Many wild theories have been floated, such as that Sophie was killed after a reported hefty life insurance was taken out on her life, but none have stuck in the media, or in the clannish environs of West Cork, like the accusations against Bailey.
Du Plantier’s uncle, who is president of a Paris-based association dedicated to bringing her killer to justice, said simply, “all roads lead to Bailey.” But he, like the police, has no proof.
Gazeau, 69, has been so determined in his fight to help Paris prosecutors nail Bailey that he traveled to West Cork and walked across the bleak hilly moors from Bailey’s home to Sophie’s white farmhouse to see how long the trip took on foot. “Thirty-six minutes,” he said.
Normally to get to Du Plantier’s house, you drive a few miles south out of Schull down a winding road bordered by the rocky shores of the Atlantic on one side and the rugged, gorse-covered hills of the Mizen peninsula on the other. The directions given by the locals sound like a scary fairy tale. “Take a hard right onto the little lane after the humpbacked bridge,” they say.
It was the same route du Plantier, then 39, took on December 20, 1996, when she flew into Cork Airport from Paris for a quick break before a planned return to France on December 23 en route to spend Christmas with her husband in West Africa. She was a documentary filmmaker and told friends she focused on work better in the rural seclusion of West Cork. She bought her property, which her son, Pierre, still uses regularly, in 1993.
Du Plantier’s private life has also been scrutinized in the past 18 years. Sources close to the investigation confirmed media accounts that she and Daniel du Plantier had somewhat of an open marriage and Sophie brought at least one lover to her West Cork home on several occasions. (Daniel du Plantier remarried not longer after Sophie’s death.) But she was alone the last time she went to Ireland.
Du Plantier’s plain but imposing five-bedroom farmhouse sits prominently on a ridge at the end of a long dirt road that’s almost impossible to find. It has a spectacular view that extends for miles and in the distance includes the lighthouse at Fastnet Rock, said to be the last part of Ireland seen by 19th-century emigrants as they sailed to America.
A simple Celtic cross placed on the dirt lane near the gate below her house marks the spot where du Plantier’s bloodied body was found by her one neighbor on the morning of December 23, 1996.
She was found wearing a nightshirt with leggings and brown, lace-up boots. She apparently had crashed through briars and some barbed wire in a desperate attempt to outrun her killer. She’d been beaten so savagely with a heavy concrete block and a flat rock that her skull was crushed and the back of her head bashed in.
Local police have been criticized over the years for what is sometimes described in media accounts as an amateurish initial investigation that may have forever hindered efforts to find valuable forensic evidence.
For example, du Plantier’s body lay under a tarp for 24 hours before the state pathologist came from Dublin. As a result, an exact time of death could never be established.
Many of the original detectives on the case have retired, but the officer in charge of the current investigation, Chief Superintendent Tom Hayes, bristles visibly in his office above the River Bandon when the topic of how the case initially was handled comes up.
Hayes, a large, imposing man who is clearly wary of the media and proud of his department, will say little on the record, nor does he want his chief investigator, seated next to him, to say much either.
But he does want the difficult case cracked and says he still hopes anyone who has information about the du Plantier case will come forward.
“This is a live investigation that is open and ongoing,” Hayes says slowly. “The case is 18 years old and we are very anxious to bring this to a conclusion for the sake of Sophie’s family.”
But will her murder ever be solved?
Eddie Cassidy, who covered West Cork for the Irish Examiner at the time of Sophie’s murder and who called Ian Bailey to ask him to go to the scene and file a report, says that so much time has gone by that even he doubts his own memories about the case at times.
“It’s one of the most bizarre murders I’ve ever heard of, between the brutality of it and the lack of forensic evidence,” said Cassidy, who’s still with the Examiner.
“The crime has put a dark cloud over what’s always been such a beautiful place and a very close-knit community. To think the killer is still out there somewhere is very sad and scary. You just have to hope that someday we’ll know who did it.”