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The Unusual Suspects
Another popular article from the Crime Guy archive about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in West Cork, Ireland.
I have been through all of my notes on the Sophie Toscan du Plantier cold case and come up with some open questions. Questions that I still have, after reviewing all of the evidence and gossip that is in the public domain. Perhaps the first thing to stress is that, this being a live case, there is much that never made it out of the corridors of power. But, thanks to various civil cases, there is much that in a normal case would be secret which is now 'semi public' and out with various journalists to look over. So even if you have read all the books, the newspapers, heard the podcast and watched the documentaries, you are still quite a bit less informed than many others. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you are aware of it.
The next thing to get out of the way is the presumption of innocence. Everyone knows and expects the police to collect more information than they can share, to keep any future trial a fair one. At some point in an investigation, though, a strong narrative or two might develop. It's the point of most danger in an investigation. Do the police keep an open mind, or do they pursue their blossoming narrative? I would like to hope that they have enough people to do both. In the commercial world, it is sometimes possible to divide the teams up to avoid cross-pollution on a project. Keep the personnel separate and parallel, and see if they arrive at the same destination. Not only was this not done in Cork, I believe the police focused on a single narrative too quickly, under terrific pressure.
So my motive in pursuing a different line of enquiry is this: we all know the police made mistakes, otherwise there would be a killer behind bars. So the only way to achieve a different result is to investigate in a different way. The way I chose, the unpopular way, was to assume Ian Bailey's innocence. I'm afraid that if you make that choice, then you pretty much have to assume that all of his statements are true. Even the contradictory ones, because time affects the memory in significant ways. Like milk in a fridge, the memory goes off. So I take Bailey out of the equation, and move forwards.
George Pecout and Karl Heinz Wolney are two names that keep coming up. You can find a few things about Wolney on the internet, but the name of George is a little harder to come by. Sophie's former boyfriend, Bruno Carbonnet, had met George with Sophie in Ireland. George was behaving oddly that day, and made comments that stuck in Bruno's memory. George lived near the Hellens, Josie Hellen being Sophie's housekeeper. George had been interested in the cottage too. He told Sophie not to trust the Hellens, for reasons unknown, and he later killed himself with a shotgun. Although George's brother had also killed himself, George's suicide came out of the blue, according to his family. In my mind, he is a suspect because he knew Sophie and lived in the area and met a violent end. There is a suggestion he might have seen or even had a drink with Sophie on the Sunday afternoon she was in Crookhaven, but Billy O’Sullivan at the pub does not remember it. For the coat fans, yes, George Pecout had a long black one. If I lived in West Cork in winter, I would have one.
Karl Heinz Wolney is probably better-known to you. He killed himself in 1997, shortly after Ian Bailey was arrested for Sophie's murder. Rumour is that his friends heard him mentioning some terrible act he had done. But without those rumours, you still have a German musician dying shortly after the murder of Sophie. Even better, the word is that he was playing in Crookhaven on the night of Sunday 22nd December 1996. We know Sophie was at O'Sullivan's in Crookhaven that night. Did Sophie see Wolney play? Did she give him a lift home? Had he visited her cottage before? Wolney is very much in the frame.
Why is Bill Hogan making new statements to police in 2021? He has never given evidence in any of the civil trials and has sat on his apparently explosive information ever since 2001, which anyway turns out to be hearsay. Why is nobody suggesting Bill Hogan as a suspect? He pretends to have been Sophie's friend. She certainly bought his cheese. But he has not behaved as a friend in the years since the murder.
Alfie Lyons had a bandaged hand when interviewed by police after the murder. He and Shirley found Sophie's body in the lane. Alfie runs back up to Sophie's cottage to knock on the door. Why? Was this because he wanted to reassure himself that the body was not hers? Or to warn her not to come out? How close did he get to the body? Could Alfie be the source of the smear of Sophie's blood on the outside of the door? Was Alfie ever seriously treated as a suspect? His drug farming activities had put him in conflict with Sophie before.
People criticise Ian Bailey for keeping himself in the news. But the family have been much more successful in keeping the case in the news, even persuading President Macron to publicly talk about it last week. I suggest that, whatever his motives, Bailey has simply fed a media machine desperate to keep the mystery alive. Even if you find some of his comments and actions distasteful, the case is still in the news. There are many unsolved cases over the years that have been forgotten and buried, never to be solved. This one is still very much alive, and part of the reason is the eccentric Englishman.
For what it's worth, and to remind myself, my aim is not necessarily to prove who killed Sophie. More experienced professionals have tried: police, journalists, film-makers. This is not the ambition. My personality is simply drawn to the unsolved mystery. But I have even given up hope of convincing myself what happened that night.
I think the best any of us can do is keep the story in the news, and hope that someone knows something, and comes forward. For sure, the locals with their grudges and vendettas, their grinding axes (or maybe hatchets - one for the serious addicts there) have all to share the guilt for this case remaining unsolved. The police are only as good as the witnesses, when there is so little hard evidence. And we know that witnesses lied, whether knowingly or not, because in the years since, they have contradicted their own documented police and trial evidence. Everyone is fragile. Nobody should really be blamed for this case laying open on the shelves, 25 years later. Most murders are not solved, unless they are committed by a friend or relative and there is hard evidence at the scene, or the crime itself is witnessed by more than one person. Nobody should blame themselves. Except for one man, and only he knows who he is.