Sophie Toscan du Plantier: The Medium Man
There is a very tall man who lives in West Cork, west of Schull. Almost as west as the west can take you. He plays upon his tallness, and chooses clothes that make him seem taller: a long, black overcoat and a black hat, a fedora. Boots sometimes elevate his soles a little so that 6 feet 3 inches with the boots and the hat can look like 7 feet. This man, a giant in this place, has carried a large stick, a thinking stick, sometimes. For a time, many years ago, his hair was long like his body. This man has a gigantic personality to match his physical size, and he always caught stares from the people who noticed him, even before the murder, his head bobbing above any crowd in this part of rural Ireland. Indeed, his size contributes to his physical strength. He is a good labourer, a strong worker. When a neighbour was murdered using a heavy concrete block, it was this man they turned to first.
But this is a short story, a story about a medium man. A man so medium that everyone forgot about him. But the medium man wears a hat, too. The medium man’s hat is so indicative of one country, one place, it has become a cliché. Which is odd, because the word cliché and the hat, the beret, also come from the country of which the murder victim belonged.
The police once noted that there were 41 foreign nationals living in this location. Many of them are French. There is a French connection here going back decades or even centuries. In 1979, at Whiddy Island, near Bantry, a ship exploded, killing 42 French nationals out of a total of 50 victims. Bantry is not so far from Schull in West Cork. It was an international tragedy that is still remembered in France.
The murder victim arrived at Cork Airport on Friday afternoon, 20th December, 1996, alone. She was carrying more luggage than usual for such a short trip that was due to end by Christmas, although her flight home was not fixed in her mind. Perhaps the luggage contained Christmas presents for her few friends in Ireland.
At some point, either before or after jumping into the hire car, a Ford Fiesta, the victim was joined by a man, who was English or Irish and tall. He pushed the passenger seat right back as far as it would go. The reason we know this is that the man who pumped petrol into the fuel tank helped her understand the Irish pump attendant asked. The mix up over language fixed her as French, and fixed the episode in the mechanic’s mind. We know about the seat because it was noticed after she died by her family.
The following day, Saturday, the French victim was shopping. The medium man, this one and only time wearing a beret, was seen outside the same shop. It was as though he were either watching or waiting. How many of us have preferred to wait in the street as our ever-patient partners hunt bargains inside? When the woman left, the man followed at a distance.
The next day, Sunday night. Shortly after the woman was murdered outside her home, a man is seen about a mile away at around 3 am, so this is really Monday morning. He is wearing a long black coat, but no hat. He is of medium height, perhaps 5 feet 8 or so, possibly even 5 feet 10, but definitely short of 6 feet. No giant. He is glimpsed for a second or two from a moving car, illuminated by a bright light that would make any colour dark. The car carries on, as does the medium man, in the opposite direction. The medium man is going west towards Goleen, in the opposite direction from where the murder victim and her gigantic neighbour live.
The next day, Monday, a medium man appears in a travel agency in Galway. He is nowhere near West Cork, but this is a travel agency that the murder victim once used many years ago, when she first arrived in Ireland and had no anchor, no property. This medium man wants a plane to France, but there is also some odd suggestion that he had been staying in a West Cork hotel or B&B and had left without paying. Why would he do that? He appeared agitated. Was he in a hurry? Had something bad happened?
Believe it or not, this story about the medium man is fully supported by witness statements. Nobody really took much notice of them at the time, but there is a narrative that shows he is the killer of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, and that he is not the gigantic man, the poet and journalist from England.
But there are two problems with this story.
The most obvious problem is that it gently implies the killer was French. However the man at the garage who helped interpret an Irish accent was either English or Irish. He was absolutely not French. And if he was French, and was a friend of Sophie, why did they not arrive on the same plane? They were never spotted together at Cork Airport.
But there is a more subtle problem relating to the Avis hire car.
Did you ever hire a hire car at an airport? What is the one thing you never need to do? That’s right, you never need to fill it with ten pounds of petrol because they always start off full. The only time you put petrol in is right before you drop it off, not right after you collect it.
But even if you discount that stop for petrol, if you remove that part of the story, you also eliminate the problem of this man’s nationality. If you remove the petrol stop from the story, you still have a story about how a medium-sized man was seen several times, was seen with the victim, and was seen in odd circumstances at a funny time of night, shortly after the victim was brutally murdered, just a mile away from her house, walking out of the road that led back there.
It makes you think.