Did the TV battle to find Sophie’s killer lead to any notable answers?
3rd July 2021
‘Can I ask you something?’ says the elderly French lady sitting in an ornate floral chair. Her hair is dyed black and styled to perfection. She wears a pretty brooch on the lapel of her black jacket, her wine-coloured lipstick a perfect match for her shirt.© Provided by Extra.ie
‘Are you going to interview Bailey?’ she says, smiling at the interviewer behind the camera.
When he answers in the affirmative, she is still smiling with her lips but another emotion shines through her eyes, a mix of anger and sorrow. ‘He adores being interviewed,’ she says in French, emphasising the word ‘adores’ with a wave of her hands. ‘He loves it.’
The woman is Marie Madeleine Opalka, the aunt of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the film and documentary maker who was murdered near her holiday home in Schull, West Cork, in December 1996.© Provided by Extra.ie The Netflix documentary A murder in West Cork aimed to put Sophie back at the centre of the story.
It’s hard to imagine what Sophie would think now of the fact that she herself is the subject of two documentaries made for rival TV behemoths.
Award-winning film director Jim Sheridan was first out of the traps with his Murder At The Cottage: The Search For Justice For Sophie made for Sky, while just this week Netflix released its programme, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork.
Sheridan says he began making the documentary because he wanted to search for justice. Sarah Lavery, from Bangor, Co Down, who is the executive producer for the Netflix documentary, says they wanted to place Sophie back at the centre of the story, a spot that has for years been reserved for the Gardaí’s chief suspect in her murder, Ian Bailey.
Due to legal wranglings, libel trials and unsuccessful legal actions against the State and their conduct towards him during their investigation, for the past number of years Bailey has been the central figure in this story.
It is fair to say that both documentaries do put Sophie back in the picture in a way many of us living in Ireland who’ve followed the news over the last 20 years will have forgotten.
This pretty, intelligent, successful woman who was a mother, a daughter, a niece, a friend, was brutally murdered by someone who battered her with a rock then made sure she was dead by hitting her again with a breeze block.
The brutality of her death is very evident in Sheridan’s programme, something which made Sophie’s family unhappy.© Provided by Extra.ie Sophie Toscan du Plantier was killed in December of 1996. Pic: Sophie: A Murder in West Cork/Netflix
They asked for their interviews with Sheridan’s crew to be pulled after seeing the series before it was broadcast, saying the interviews they gave had little to do with the original project as it was presented to them as a search for justice for Sophie but ‘rather aims to demonstrate the innocence of Ian Bailey’.
They were upset at how the trial of Bailey in France was shown and were also upset at the fact that images of Sophie’s body at the scene were included.
There is indeed a lot of grisly detail, pictures of bloody stones, the legs of the victim covered with blood spattered on her nightclothes.
‘I’m aware that I’m going to have to show more images and photographs that show how brutal her murder was,’ says Sheridan to the camera in one episode. ‘And I know that her mother and father, brothers and son will be looking away but I think it’s necessary to give you an understanding of how deep the pain was and is.’
This is not a view that the makers of the Netflix show share and you’d be inclined to agree with them.
‘I think the projects are probably quite different because for us the really interesting aspect was Sophie and focusing on Sophie as a woman and as a 360-degree portrayal of her as an individual,’ Lavery says. ‘In so many true crime documentaries and series there is the trope of a glamorous victim whose death kicks off the series and then you don’t really hear or know anything about them.
‘For us the opportunity to put her back at the front of her own story and really own that for her again felt like a privilege and something really worth doing. So much of the coverage of the story has been centred around Ian Bailey and it felt like it really was time to bring it back and make her the focus.’© Provided by Extra.ie Sophie with her son.
Bailey is included, of course, in the Netflix documentary, as Lavery insists you cannot tell this story without interviewing him.
But he in turn has now demanded Netflix remove his interviews from the show, saying he did not give his permission for them to use it. Netflix has refused his requests.
Just like Mme Opalka says, Bailey does love being interviewed. But the Bailey presented in the Netflix show is somewhat different to the one who appears in Sheridan’s episodes. It is strange the way that the same people can be interviewed, the same stories can be heard but one can walk away from both programmes with different conclusions.
Bailey was convicted of murder by the French courts in 2019, after a campaign led by Sophie’s uncle and subsequently her son Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud to have the evidence gathered in Ireland used to bring Bailey to trial.
What is presented by the Netflix documentary would seem to be rather damning. The timeline of Bailey’s knowledge of the murder is called into question by witness statements saying he seemingly knew of the killing just 45 minutes after Sophie’s body was discovered.
Bailey’s reportage for the newspapers held details that no one else in the press knew, something Sheridan also acknowledges. He also was the one who filed the stories that made Sophie out to be sexually promiscuous, something that was not true.
‘I think there was a certain salaciousness in the reporting at the time and the idea of Sophie using the cottage as some sort of love nest,’ Lavery says. ‘I actually find that really offensive, that idea that she was bringing male visitors there and generally it was her uncle or her cousin or her husband or her family members.
‘She did bring a lover there, but why shouldn’t she? This presentation of her in the press at the time as a loosemoraled French woman I think is a form of victim shaming that I hope we wouldn’t do today.’© Provided by Extra.ie Jim Sheridan made and directed Murder at the Cottage for Sky. Pic: Hells Kitchen/Barbara McCarthy via Sky Studios
Witness after witness repeats the claims that Bailey confessed he had murdered Sophie. Billy Fuller, who regarded himself as a friend of Bailey’s at the time, even went to Paris to give his statement again.
When asked on camera why he felt Bailey had killed Sophie, Peter Bielecki, a sculptor and Schull resident, says: ‘Because he told people that he’d done it.’
Bailey is alleged to have made these confessions to at least 11 people, including a couple during a late-night drinking session and a 14-year-old boy he was giving a lift to.
Against the backdrop of Schull’s misty hills and clear waters, it is evident that Sophie’s killer did more than just claim her life. The death of this beautiful French woman has divided the community of Schull and traumatised many who still bear the scars to this day.
Some residents admit they don’t go to the market where Bailey scratches a living; others insist you can dislike someone but that doesn’t make them a murderer.
In both documentaries, grown men are moved to tears when they talk of the callous murder of Sophie. Bar owner Billy O’Sullivan, who served Sophie her last cup of tea is one; Fr Denis Cashman who said prayers over the body is another.© Provided by Extra.ie Ian Bailey said that the last 25 years of his life had been ‘taken’ from him due to his inclusion as a suspect in the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder. Pic: Hells Kitchen/Barbara McCarthy via Sky Studios
Peter Bielecki weeps over another act of violence towards a woman this time Jules Thomas at the hands of her partner Bailey.
Hair was ripped out of Jules’s head in clumps, her lip was ripped open and she needed eight stitches as her eye was swollen so badly.
Bailey seems almost remorseless in the Netflix show.
‘We’d both been drinking and maybe I don’t know what happened and she started to grab me and I was pushing her back and I hurt her in that process,’ he says.
But the voice of Thomas is a glaring omission in that documentary as she is not given a voice as she is in the Sky programme, in which she says Bailey never hit her again after that.
‘I’ve blocked it out now,’ says Thomas of the attack. ‘I cured myself of thinking of it so I don’t. It’s only putting myself through more agony so why bother? He has never been violent since.’
For his part, Bailey is more remorseful insisting the violence towards Thomas was ‘to my eternal shame but I have nothing to do with this crime’.
Sheridan’s detail is more forensic, piecing together evidence that Netflix omits, possibly due to the fact that Sky’s series runs to five episodes, with the filmmaker hoping to add more episodes.
His attention to detail is what casts doubt on the French guilty verdict, given that the court used Marie Farrell’s statement that she has since retracted.
Farrell said she had seen Bailey on Kealfadda Bridge near Sophie’s home on the night of the murder but subsequently retracted this statement saying she had been asked by gardaí to place Bailey at the scene.
She now insists the man she saw that night had a middle-eastern appearance, something she repeats on the Sheridan documentary. However, as someone who has lied in the midst of this web of lies, Farrell no longer seems like a credible witness, no matter what her motives have been to do so.
Similar lies are hiding the killer of Sophie in plain sight but the differences in both documentaries are similar to the differences in the French and Irish justice systems.
In France, Bailey is a guilty man, a murderer at large, avoiding the 25-year prison term handed down to him due to geography and the failure of a legal system in the country where one of its citizens died to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Here though, Bailey is a man who has been dogged by an ineffectual investigation. As Sheridan’s documentary points out, there is no DNA evidence linking Bailey to the murder, despite him and Thomas voluntarily offering up their DNA all those years ago.© Provided by Extra.ie Jules Thomas has since left Ian Bailey after over 20 years together. Pic: Hells Kitchen/Barbara McCarthy via Sky Studios
Mistakes were made by the gardaí: Bailey’s black coat was actually seized in a search of his house but subsequently went missing, as did a bloodstained gate from the site where Sophie was killed.
Bailey is now 64 and has spent over two decades with Sophie’s murder hanging over his head. He has suffered, Thomas has suffered and now the couple have split due to the renewed pressure.
Sheridan’s interview with Thomas reveals Bailey has sunk back into drinking too much as she says their lives were better when he was with Alcoholics Anonymous and receiving support.
‘There are people out there who know who murdered that woman,’ Jules says to the camera. ‘And I can’t believe they can live with what’s going on. I can’t believe it.’
They can, though, and quite possibly continue to do so, hidden by the messy garda investigation, the unreliable statements, the lies and the gossip that has been told so many times that it has become fact.
‘We set out in search of justice and what are we left with?’ asks Sheridan at the end of his series. ‘Broken hearts, damaged people, damaged communities, unmet grief, unanswered questions.
‘It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy where there’s no winners at the end, only broken shells of people.’
But that’s something he’s definitely wrong about. Shakespeare was, of course, writing about imaginary characters, while Sophie Toscan du Plantier was a real woman who suffered a terrible and violent death.
And there are undoubtedly winners when it comes to the documentaries. Netflix shares soared as subscriptions rocketed when its series Making A Murderer captured the public interest.
Within just three months of its release, the streaming service added over five million extra subscriptions, sending the share price through the roof.© Provided by Extra.ie Ian Bailey is portrayed in a very one-sided manner in the Netflix production. Pic: Sophie: A Murder in West Cork/Netflix
A quick Google search will show that already the internet is filled with articles designed to grab search engine optimisation clicks on the back of the series: Who was Sophie Toscan Du Plantier? Everything you need to know. Where is Ian Bailey now? What happened to Marie Farrell? And so it goes on.
As for Ian Bailey, he is, as Mme Opalka points out, a man who is very fond of an interview. In fact, he cannot stop talking to the press and now that Thomas is no longer with him, it would appear he has no foil to stop him from talking and talking and talking, showing an incredible lack of sensitivity towards Sophie’s elderly parents, her son, her brothers and all those who loved her.
For her son Pierre-Louis, now himself a father of two, that fight will continue.
‘As long as the person who killed my mother is not behind bars it is a wound that will never heal,’ he says.