25 Years: Sophie Toscan du Plantier
23rd December, 2021 marked the 25th anniversary of the brutal killing of French film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. It remains Ireland’s highest-profile cold case.
When I first saw Murder At The Cottage, I had no idea what I was getting into. The first couple of episodes were interesting, they hooked me in, but the bombshell for me was when the prime suspect shuffled onto camera, sat down, and introduced himself. From that point on, this would be an emotional roller coaster. This case has taught me a lot about true crime, and in particular about true crime TV documentaries.
What I learned this summer was that genuine true crime investigation is monotonous, infuriating, time-consuming, mainly unrewarding, and yet addictive, all at once. Watching a TV show or listening to a podcast is basically true crime as entertainment. All the shows have something in common: they try to weave a logical narrative through events which are sometimes random, sometimes misrepresented, sometimes based on fading memory. I tried out some experiments on my own memory, and found it very poor indeed. Nobody should ever rely on eye witnesses, even ones who were actually present - you would be surprised how many people pretend to have seen something that later turns out to be hearsay. Everyone involved in this case, every witness statement, is suspect. Not a suspect, just questionable. Why would anyone outside Sophie’s circle still want to talk about this event 25 years later? For attention? For money? Both?
Forensic science in Ireland in 1996 was not exactly world-leading. Mistakes were made. Corners cut. Laziness prevailed in some of the events and decisions taken that Christmas. But I still believe that everyone tried their best to get to the truth. I no longer believe that anyone involved in that case was fundamentally corrupt. Everyone makes mistakes. Hardly anyone in real life is out and out corrupt.
Added to the difficult timing, a killing the day before Christmas Eve in one of the remotest parts of Ireland, is the local population. Schull and surrounding areas had become a haven for alternative lifestyles by 1996. Many locals were not Irish, they were comers-in, or blow-ins, as all the shows repeatedly remind us. They were attracted to West Cork in the way druids are attracted to Glastonbury. Everyone who appeared on the shows, and in many cases, the same people appeared in all of the shows, were somewhat artistic. Some were undoubtedly fantasists. Some had axes to grind and will forever have to live with their conscience. Trying to put a neighbour or enemy into the frame of a major international murder investigation is not helpful. In some places, the line between idle gossip and malicious lies was crossed. Some people, earnestly declaiming this or that suspect on camera, omit to tell you that they are convicted drug dealers or worse. They forget to tell you that they had reasons to stick to the police theory. They change their names, if you look closely. Some even change their appearance depending on whether they are talking to Netflix or Sky. Some deviate markedly from their own sworn police witness statements. Memory is a funny thing, but their deceit is unforgivable.
It is sadly the case that if a murder is not carried out by a friend, colleague, relative, or someone else who knows the victim, it is unlikely to be solved. Today, the odds are better. With amazing forensics and CCTV on every city centre lamppost, the odds are higher than ever. But still, quite low. Lower than you would hope or think. If a foreigner is killed at night, in a remote area, outside, with no witnesses and no useful DNA at the scene, no fingerprints, you can forget it. There will be no justice. That probably hasn’t changed as much as I expected in 25 years.
It has been over six months now since I first heard of this case, and almost all of the shows and podcasts are based on the same flawed statements from that original flawed investigation. You will not find the truth there, not the whole truth. I am not sure you or I will ever get to the truth now. It has been too long. But Sophie has taught me almost everything I know about true crime. I continue to keep in touch with various journalists, producers and local residents. But I am no nearer to understanding what happened that frozen night, 25 years ago. It starts to feel like a lost cause.