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Two days before Christmas in 1996, the battered body of 39-year-old French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier was discovered outside her isolated vacation home in Ireland. As du Plantier’s husband, parents and son mourned her, an Englishman who lived in the area, Ian Bailey, became the prime suspect in her murder. However, Bailey always officially denied any involvement in the death, and no forensic evidence has tied him to the crime. He never faced charges in Ireland, but was convicted in absentia at a 2019 trial in France. He was not extradited from Ireland following this conviction.
Opinions are divided about whether Bailey is the killer, or if someone else got away with murder. The mystery surrounding du Plantier’s death has been the subject of a podcast, 2018’s West Cork, as well as documentaries that include 2021’s Murder At the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie and Sophie: A Murder in West Cork.
Du Plantier’s death was the first murder in the town in decades
Du Plantier considered her Irish farmhouse a refuge from her busy life in France alongside her famous film producer husband, Daniel Toscan du Plantier. But the quiet setting turned deadly. At approximately 10 in the morning on December 23, 1996, a neighbor spotted du Plantier’s body lying on a path near her house in Toormore, West Cork. It was clear she had been brutally attacked.
A murder hadn’t occurred locally for decades, meaning the police had no experience with this type of investigation. Du Plantier’s body, dressed in a T-shirt and leggings, was left outside until the pathologist arrived the next day. Given the time that elapsed before his arrival, it was impossible to pinpoint a time of death. Other forensic evidence may have been lost due to this delay.
The autopsy revealed that du Plantier had 50 injuries. Her face had been battered with a concrete block and a rock. Her fingers were broken, presumably from trying to defend herself. She had apparently run through briars and encountered barbed wire, possibly in a bid to escape. No signs of sexual assault were found. Only one blood sample from the crime scene revealed DNA that didn’t belong to du Plantier.
In the beginning, there was no clear suspect
The police tried to track du Plantier’s movements from the time she’d flown into Cork Airport on her own on December 20, spoke to numerous witnesses and received anonymous tips on the phone. The case also drew media attention. One reporter who covered du Plantier’s murder for several publications was Ian Bailey, a British national who’d worked as a journalist in England before relocating to Cork in 1991, where he focused on poetry and gardening.
Du Plantier’s husband, though he didn’t fly to Ireland after his wife’s death, was not seen as a viable suspect. Their relationship had experienced problems, but was considered a happy one at the time of her murder. And Daniel, who spoke to du Plantier on the phone a short time before the attack, was in France. An ex-lover of du Plantier’s, who’d been upset at the end of their affair years earlier, also had an alibi.
Police were on the lookout for people with scratches and soon noticed that Bailey had such injuries on his hands. When questioned, Bailey said his hands, and his forehead, had been scratched by climbing a tree to cut its top off for a Christmas tree and from killing a turkey. However, a forester said that the type of tree Bailey climbed was unlikely to produce such wounds. Questions also arose about the amount of detail in Bailey’s articles. In addition, the person Bailey said told him that the victim may have been French has stated he was unaware of this information at the time of their call.
Bailey was arrested for the murder but eventually released
Bailey, who willingly provided a hair sample, denied any involvement in the murder when he spoke with police. But he said to one editor that he’d committed the murder to reignite his career. Friends also revealed that Bailey had made a confession about going “too far” to them, and a local teenager who’d received a lift from Bailey in early February 1997 told authorities that the reporter said to him, “I went up there and smashed her brains in with a rock.”
Bailey was also tied to the crime by a witness who’d told police he’d been in the vicinity of du Plantier’s farmhouse on the night of the murder. And Bailey had a history of violence, having beaten his partner, artist Jules Thomas, on at least two occasions prior to du Plantier’s murder. On February 10, 1997, Bailey was arrested, as was his partner, but both were released without charges. In January 1998, Bailey — alone this time — was again arrested, but again was released without charges.
Bailey explained away his “confessions” as dark humor or his reiterating what was being said about him. There had been no indication of forced entry at du Plantier’s home, indicating she willingly opened her door. Bailey denied knowing du Plantier, saying he had only seen her while gardening for her neighbor, though this assertion was contradicted by others who said the two had been introduced. No forensic evidence was found to tie him to the murder.
Bailey was found guilty in a trial in absentia
In 2001, Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was not enough evidence to support the prosecution of Bailey for du Plantier’s murder. The eyewitness who’d placed Bailey near the scene of the crime recanted her testimony in 2005, with the explanation that she had been pressured by police to name Bailey. Bailey felt he’d been “set-up” by police.
The investigation into du Plantier’s death wasn’t over, however. Though she had been killed in Ireland, French law sanctioned official inquiries into the death of French citizens abroad. With support from du Plantier’s friends and relatives, such an investigation gained momentum in 2008. Authorities in France received the Irish case files and exhumed du Plantier’s body to conduct their own examination.
The French autopsy uncovered no new evidence, but a magistrate believed there was a case against Bailey. The magistrate issued a warrant for Bailey’s arrest in 2010. The Irish Supreme Court ruled against extradition in 2012, and again refused to extradite Bailey in 2017. In May 2019, Bailey was tried in absentia in France. He called the proceedings a “farce,” but three judges at the Cour d’Assises found him guilty and issued a 25-year sentence.
The case remains an unsolved mystery
Irish courts ruled against extraditing Bailey following his 2019 conviction. Yet he could face extradition outside of Ireland. Bailey said in 2021, “If I went to England, I would be immediately arrested on foot of the European Arrest Warrant.”
Du Plantier’s family remain convinced of Bailey’s guilt, but his conviction hasn’t resolved the mystery surrounding du Plantier’s death for everyone. The one bit of DNA found at the crime scene that didn’t belong to du Plantier has not been identified. Speculation about other potential killers has ranged from a theory that a hitman tracked and killed du Plantier to the unlikely supposition that she was attacked by a stray horse.
Though Bailey has sometimes seemed to enjoy his notoriety, he has also spent decades as a murder suspect. And du Plantier’s loved ones must cope with an unresolved quest for justice.
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