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When Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found murdered on December 23rd, 1996, near her holiday home in Drinane, near Schull, County Cork, Ireland, it shocked not only the county but the country.
It had been the first murder in the area in maybe a century or more. This was a very remote area — few immediately knew where her house was. Artists, poets and various artistic types ostensibly came to the region to mix with locals but were viewed with suspicion at best.
Nonetheless, her killing — unusual as it was — intrigued not only folks in the area but the country as a whole. It put a spotlight on the Irish police (the Garda), and their investigative skills — the investigation quickly shifted from the local police to those from Dublin — or the lack thereof. It also forced an examination of Ireland’s criminal court process and ultimately extended itself to the French and France’s legal system as well.
When her body was found by a neighbor. Toscan du Plantier’s head had been staved in by a concrete block (or a huge rock) and her body was left askew not far from her driveway. She was dressed in a nightgown and boots; her body was splayed against a fence. It was left there without forensic protection out in the rain until the coroner arrived 28 hours later. The investigation then pinioned from one questionable interrogation to another.
The 39-year-old had bought the house in this remote region of West Cork after she had visited frequently with friends and family but in December 1996 she traveled there alone for the first time.
Born on July 28th, 1957, Sophie Bouniol had been raised in Paris’s first arrondissement (district) in the apartment where her parents Marguerite and Georges Bouniol still live. She married in 1980 and had a son, Pierre-Louis Bauday-Vignaud, the following year.
Sophie was a producer for French television of documentaries on subjects concerning art and various subcultures. Among her documentary projects was a film about the concept of “the fold” in art and philosophy, titled Il Voit Des Plis Partout (He Sees Folds Everywhere). Directed by Guy Girard, the film was released a year after her murder and was billed as presented by “Sophie Toscan Du Plantier.”
In 1991, she got remarried, this time to the renowned French film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier and they lived in Paris’s second arrondissement. In 1992, she bought a getaway home in Toormore, County Cork. Sophie visited frequently with friends and family but in December, 1996, she traveled there alone for the first time.
At the time of her murder, she had been separated from her second husband, who, as a prominet producer, brought more attention to the sensational circumstances of her death. A peculiar mix of murder mystery and social commentary pervaded stories of her demise and the subsequent media coverage at the time of the initial investigation. Although this murder happened more than a quarter century ago, it still stirs interest in its central mystery — who killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier?
The investigation out of the Garda’s Dublin headquarters was led by chief inspector Dermot Dwyer who interviewed many of the key participants and eventually became convinced that English journalist Ian Bailey— who had moved to the region several years before the murder and was originally from Manchester — was the prime suspect. Bailey, as a local “blow-in,” at first provided articles from a bird’s eye view of the investigation. Then the focus shifted from him being an investigator to suspect because of several surprising discoveries. He apparently had been seen in the area of the murder at 3 AM on the day of the event. He had scratches on his hands and face and had been under police scrutiny for his violent relationship with his live-in lover.
Bailey eventually was accused of the murder and was tried inabsentiain France where he was convicted. Yet he’s still out free in Ireland because the Irish court didn’t extradite him to France.
This murderous affair is being talked about again because Netflix released at the end of June, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork— a three-part documentary mini-series about this still open-ended crime story. Directed by John Dower and produced by Suzanne Lavery, this telling of the tale both tries to make sense of its convolutions and sorts out the characters involved — the suspect, the witnesses to his behavior, the Garda and Sophie’s survivors — including her only child.
Besides revealing the flaws of the investigation and the quirky nature of the folks living out there in West Cork, the series shows the impact Sophie’s death had on the people who were there in one way or another. It’s a well-made doc and provoked this audience member to ask lots of questions, some of which I wished it had answered.
I wanted to know what happened to the house and Bailey’s relationship with his lover at the time. I would have posed further questions to the son about the effect of his mother’s death. And there’s more.
But, I guess, I will have to turn to West Cork, a non-fiction podcast series reported and hosted by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde. The 13-episode series premiered as an Audible original in February 2018, as a binge, and was made freely available widely as a podcast in 2021. A new episode of the series was released this May, 2021, detailing the trial of the main suspect. It is Audible’s most listened-to podcast series of all time, and spent seven consecutive weeks as the site’s number 1 nonfiction best seller. The series became notable again in April 2021 when it was released free to air on the general podcast platforms and went in at number 1 In the Apple podcast charts in several countries.
So thanks to the media, Sophie’s death will not be forgotten. Whether justice will ever be served remains to be seen.
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