HER name is one of the most recognisable in Ireland, but almost 25 years after the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, her killer remains elusive. On the night of 22nd December 1996, Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in a lane just beyond the gates of her holiday home, Schull, West Cork.
She was 39 years old, a regular visitor from France who had travelled to Cork without her then 15-year-old son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud. The trip would be her last, but her death has been the subject of painful fascination ever since.
Multi-award-winning director Jim Sheridan has made a meticulous five-part documentary that sifts through every element of the case and questions if Toscan du Plantier’s killer will ever be brought to justice.
Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie landed on Sky Documentaries and Now TV yesterday (Sunday June 20). It opens with Sheridan monologuing about his fascination with the case. We see stunning footage of the seas off West Cork, where Fastnet Lighthouse’s light beams out. We learn that Toscan du Plantier was a quiet person who worked as a filmmaker and was drawn to the area by its rugged beauty and silence. West Cork was her sanctuary away from the glitz of red-carpet life.
The documentary focuses on the residents of Crookhaven who knew Toscan du Plantier. We hear what she was like and how their shock at her death has never entirely left the quiet corner of Ireland.
Local Gardaí, the Dublin-based forensics team, and reporters give insight into the days following the murder. We see archive footage from tv, radio, and newspapers, including The Echo.
Early on, we meet Ian Bailey and Jules Thomas, the couple who would become the focal point of the investigation. Just a few hours after the murder, Bailey becomes suspect number one. A journalist and poet, Bailey’s in-depth knowledge of the case aroused suspicion. So did his scratched hands - which he said were a result of cutting down a Christmas tree. A scratched forehead added to the evidence pile, and his admission that he left his house in the middle of the night to work in his studio. In his original statement, he had been in bed all night.
Despite a witness claiming to see a man fitting Bailey’s description late that night on a bridge leading to Toscan du Plantier house, and Bailey’s use of black humour saying that he had killed her, there was no actual evidence found at the scene of the murder. Reports of Garda mistakes and coercion, plus the late arrival of the state pathologist at the location of her death, meant that Bailey could not legally be arrested for the crime.
Mr Bailey has always denied any involvement in the murder.
The former Director of Public Prosecution, James Hamilton, tells Sheridan that it is simply not possible to prosecute a suspect without substantial evidence. Despite European Arrest Warrants issued by the French police and requests for extraditions, Ireland has not handed Bailey over to the French authorities. Bailey has remained a free man, but the suspicion remains.
Sheridan spent several months interviewing Bailey and his partner. We see the difficulties in their relationship. Bailey had issues with alcohol; he also had a furious temper, resulting in Thomas needing hospital treatment.
Sheridan shows us Bailey’s diaries in which he wrote violent poetry and drew highly sexualised images.
These diaries, Bailey’s violent behaviour, and his comments about killing Toscan du Plantier, resulted in the French courts trying him for murder in absentia. They found him guilty, but he remains in West Cork.
Sheridan travelled to Paris for the duration of the court case, and we see footage of him talking to Bailey with daily updates.
Toscan du Plantier’s uncle Jean-Pierre Gazeau, her son, and her parents feature in the press preview of the documentary. Her son, Pierre Louis, is interviewed from their holiday home, a place he returns to regularly. It has been reported in the Irish Times that the family have requested that all their interviews be removed from the documentary, and it also says that Sky has agreed to do so. It will be interesting to see what the newly edited cut will look like and how cohesive it will be without their significant contribution.
Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie is on Sky Crime and Now TV now.