Barry Cummins, the best-selling Irish author of ‘Lifers’, ‘Missing’ and ‘Unsolved’, recently had his fourth collection of true crime stories, ‘Without Trace – Ireland’s Missing’, published.
The book, a labor of love for the crime writer, features heartbreaking stories of people who’ve mysteriously vanished from Ireland. From the two young Belfast boys who went missing while on their way to school in the 1970s, to the more recent unexplained disappearances of a number of young men from Limerick, to the heart-warming, yet ultimately tragic tale of the reuniting of an Irish father and son after decades apart, an account of the IRA disappeared, the chilling story of convicted rapist Larry Murphy and lots more, are all included within the pages of ‘Without Trace’, a follow-up of sorts, to his previously acclaimed work on the missing persons issue, ‘Missing’.
He recently spoke with Michael Fitzpatrick about the book, and the ongoing issue of Ireland’s missing persons.
Mike Fitzpatrick (MF): The families of those who’ve gone missing rarely give up hope. Is that feeling shared by the media and the Gardai?
Barry Cummins (BC): Not really, the families keep up hope, sometimes I think it’s a case that the media forgets about missing persons, or some Gardai can forget. It’s not always the case. There are some fantastic Gardai who individually are doing wonderful work, but I would argue that collectively, the Garda force and the Irish government could do an awful lot more to honor the memory of missing people and continue to highlight cases.
It’s reasonable that every Garda and politician, from the Taoiseach to every other TD in the Dail, should be aware of the names of all those eighty or so missing people and should know the general ins and outs of the cases.
Not only in their own constituencies, but from Donegal to Wexford, they should be able to recognize the names, and I would argue that perhaps that isn’t the case today, that you might be hard pressed today to find a politician who would know the details of all those cases. I’d be very surprised, delighted, but very surprised.
MF: Some families, in particular that of missing woman JoJo Dollard, and Marie Kilmartin (victim of unsolved murder), have worked tirelessly on behalf of their missing, or murdered, loved ones. How effective have their efforts been?
BC: I think it’s been very effective, but it’s sad that it takes that for the Government to actually act.
The daughter of Marie Kilmartin, I saw Aine, down in Portlaoise, on a December morning, in the pouring rain, handing out leaflets to passing motorists, appealing for information about her mother’s murder.
It’s something that she was well capable of, and I’d say, well done and fair play to her, but she was in a position where she had to do that, which is pretty much an indictment of our society. It had an effect though, and the authorities started asking questions.
I was down there and we did a report which generated a lot of debate. The, ‘powerholders’ of Irish society then saw what this young woman doing what she felt she had to do, and since then there’s been a cold-case investigation into Marie’s murder.
It’s not led to any charges, but that occurred after Aine was on the streets handing out leaflets. In the case of JoJo Dollard, one of her sisters, Marie Phelan, had long campaigned for the establishment of a missing persons unit, and there should be, but it’s not happened.
MF: Your new book, ‘Without Trace’ includes missing-persons cases that are not as well-known as others. How important is it to keep these cases in the public eye?
BC: I think it’s crucial to keep them all in the public domain. I don’t discriminate between the various missing persons, some of the cases are more high profile because there’s a strong likelihood or a reality that perhaps the missing person has been murdered and their body been hidden.
Sometimes it’s not as clear as that. That can be one reason that some cases are pushed more by the Gardai. Sometimes families can find it difficult to speak out and deal with the media and the onslaught of attention that a missing person case can generate.
The first book I wrote was quite focused on Operation Trace and the women who went missing in Leinster, who are believed to have been victims of murder, and also two missing children, Philip Cairns and Mary Boyle, so that was quite specific in type of cases.
Even back then and I wrote that in 2002, I realized that I was only touching the surface of the issue of missing persons, and there were many different types of cases. It’s taken this long for me to come up with what I think is a book of different types of cases, all listed together, to show different issues, and highlight different problems, and, as you say focus on some cases that haven’t got as much attention as before, though I’d be first to admit to being selective, that I’ve chosen to write some cases, and maybe there are others that I could have written about as well. Each of the chapters I’ve written, I’ve had, not only the assistance, but the blessing of the families involved.
MF: Do you think after so much time has elapsed, such as in the John Crerar case (Crerar was convicted of murder two decades after the body of his victim, Phyllis Murphy, was found), that there is a chance of new evidence being discovered, or new witnesses coming forward?
BC: I do yes. It’s a cliché but it’s true, somebody somewhere knows something. I estimate that there are about eighty people who are long-term missing in Ireland. And that’s right across the board, from IRA victims, who were killed and buried in the ’70s and early ’80s, during the Troubles, and totally different cases, people who’ve gone missing, due to (the activities of) organized criminal gangs, to today, individual victims of murder or manslaughter, to other people who have maybe taken a personal decision to go away, and may not have been of sound mind at the time.
People must have seen something, other people may have suspicions about what’s happened, but haven’t come forward. Part of this book is for me, a fascination with human nature, and psychology, and what makes somebody come forward after whatever length of time, and do the right thing.
There’s one case I write about in chapter three in the book, about a criminal from Dublin, who I only identified by the letter D. He walked into a Garda station in February of last year, and said he wanted to confess his involvement in a shooting death in the late 1980s, and the hiding of the man’s body in north County Dublin. The man who made that admission later took his own life, sadly, but the Gardai believe he was credible. They carried out a search, and didn’t find a body, but the man this person said he killed, is missing, and the Gardai didn’t realize that until then.
In that case, it appears that there was a religious conversion. He’d found God in his later years. Someone who’d been a violent and dangerous person, something brought him into that Garda station, a man who’d spent his life avoiding Gardai, suddenly wanted to talk to them.
I don’t know how that can be, but it is a fascination I have. The strangest things can happen, and people do come forward after such a long time.
There may be eighty cases, in which 160 people or more who might have some type of information that could solve those cases.
MF: You’ve reported on dozens of distressing cases over the years, are there any in particular that have occupied your mind more than others?
BC: Well, you mentioned the John Crerar case, where Phyllis Murphy was missing for a relatively short period of time, compared to other cases.
She’d been missing for weeks, as opposed to years, but she was missing, and but for certain circumstances and a chance discovery during a search, Phyllis Murphy’s body might never have been found, and the forensic evidence found with her body might never have been identified, and then twenty years later with the advances in forensic sciences might never have identified her killer, and John Crerar might still be free today.
That’s a case that I often think about, if only that could be done in other cases. If only bodies could be found, that could bring some solace and comfort to the families involved, and also from a detective’s point of view, that then the Gardai would have a crime scene, then they could begin a proper investigation.
MF: And then there’s Larry Murphy (notorious convicted rapist, often suspected of involvement in the cases of other missing women, released late last year).
BC: I often think about the case of Larry Murphy, a man who’s now out (of prison), and I’ve just been doing some checking over the last few days and as of today, Larry Murphy’s not on the island of Ireland. It’s believed he’s somewhere in mainland Europe.
When I talk about him, I stick to the crime he admits to have committed. On one given night, against one woman, in February 2000. What I think about is, and what I’d like to know is, what did this man intend doing with the body of his victim, if he’d succeeded in murdering her.
By his admission he’d a bag over her head, she was in the boot of his car, and he’d tried to murder her. If he’d succeeded in killing this woman, where would he have gone, was there a plan, was there a location he intended hiding the body of his victim?
That woman went through an awful ordeal, absolutely horrific, beyond the comprehension of most people, but she’s also lucky and has gone on to lead her life and doesn’t engage with journalists about the case, and quite rightly, I understand that.
What I’m getting at, is, if that woman hadn’t been found by chance, and she hadn’t fought for her life and Murphy hadn’t been caught, we might well be talking now of a woman who was last seen in Carlow in February 2000, and is now a missing person. That’s what I often think about, the details of where he would have gone after killing the woman.
We may not have known about him at all, he could still be out there, without people knowing what he was capable of.
People have said to me that there’s nothing to show Larry Murphy’s involved in missing persons, but I say there is. He was responsible for that woman going missing from Carlow, although she wasn’t reported missing, he took her liberty for a number of hours, transported her across county boundaries, and ultimately, if things were different, she could still be missing today.
That’s the kind of case that I do think about, and is what drives me to investigate other types of missing persons cases.
Convicted rapist Larry Murphy gets into a taxi after he left Arbour Hill prison in Dublin last year (Photocall)
MF: Do you think we’ve heard the last of convicted and now released criminals such as Murphy or Michael Bambrick (double murderer, released from prison)?
BC: Michael Bambrick engaged with the Gardai prior to and since his release. They are aware of his whereabouts, he committed two awful crimes, taking the lives of two women, and served a relatively short period of time, I think he served three-quarters of a seventeen-year sentence. We’ve not heard anything of him since his release, except that the authorities are aware of where he is. Murphy is somewhat different, in that he did not engage with authorities coming up to his release, he didn’t want to know them. Within an hour or two of his release, as the media tried, quite rightly, to figure out where he was going, he went into a Garda station to complain about the media following him.
I don’t think he would have diminished the media interest in him, but people might think differently about him if during his time in prison he’d apologized for what he’d done, or talked about it. At least Bambrick did talk about why he did it, where he brought the bodies. Murphy never outlined his motives, or assisted the Gardai. If he’d spoken at all to the authorities about the crime he admits he did, then he’d be giving something back to society.
MF: Has there been an incident where the family of a missing person might prefer to be left alone and not had the case reported upon?
BC: There are some cases, and the reasons are different. The person might have been the victim of a criminal gang, and the sheer awfulness of what might have happened to the person might be too much for a family to deal with publicly.
There are some cases, not where they don’t want appeals being made, but that they can’t be the public face of the appeal. I can’t go into detail, and in the book, they’re not in it, because this book is all about families coming forward, being proactive and speaking out.
MF: And (Gardai’s missing persons unit) Operation Trace has since wound down?
BC: It has, most of the detectives involved back in 1998/99 have since retired, and the others are now assigned to other work. The cases are still being investigated, but not collectively.
Operation Trace tried to establish that there were links between the cases but there was nothing to show that there was.
In three of the cases, they determined that they were unconnected (missing persons Fiona Pender from Tullamore, Fiona Sinnott from Wexford and Ciara Breen from Dundalk); those responsible for these (abductions) are believed to have been known by the victims.
The other cases, for example, JoJo Dollard and Annie McCarrick, it’s possible that the same person is responsible, but it boils down to speculation.
My own view, when people ask is there a serial killer operating in Ireland, is that I simply don’t know, but I believe that it’s possible that there’s more than one that’s been operating. It’s an issue that has to be considered, when you look at the numbers. It’s possible that there’s been more than one predatory attacker.
These women did not choose to go missing and the families know that. That’s something Marie Phelan has done right from the start, to say (her sister) did not go missing.
Ultimately, there should be a missing persons unit, and that’s what Marie’s been campaigning for. The Gardai involved in Operation Trace did wonderful work, but it came far too late. It came after the sixth woman had disappeared in Leinster, in 1998, five years after Annie McCarrick disappeared, and three years after JoJo Dollard disappeared. It did very good work, and led to arrests and lines of inquiry, but ultimately, it didn’t find any of the women.
MF: In recent years, more of the IRA’s disappeared have been found.
BC: In relation to the IRA disappeared; it was only through the IRA and pressure on the IRA that they gave back some of the bodies and gave the information. It’s something that most of the bodies were found in the Republic, Counties Wicklow, Meath, Louth, Monaghan. That’s what I wanted to get home, it’s not a so-called, and I hate the phrase, a ‘northern problem’, it’s an all-Ireland problem.
It’s incumbent on the Irish government to do everything they can in relation to missing persons. I look on it that criminals don’t respect borders.
So, the Gardai and the PSNI really have to up their game and liaise much more closely because the answers to some cases might be in the other part of the island.
Sometimes in this country we’re on the back foot, chasing our tails with regards to missing persons. We’ve been so good in other parts of policing, and so progressive, but with missing persons, we’ve been behind the times, and we should really do everything we can, and publicize cases.
MF: And what about the Gardai, where missing persons are concerned?
BC: The Gardai have been absolutely wonderful in other areas of policing, such as tackling dissident Republicans, and the Criminal Assets Bureau, which is the envy of police forces around the world for the work it’s done and the wealth it’s taken from criminals, and the Emergency Response Unit, keeping tabs on criminal gangs in Dublin, Limerick and beyond, and there’s great community policing, and that’s all wonderful, and well done to the Gardai, but when it comes to the missing persons issue, I’ve found that sadly, the Gardai are not as brilliant as they are in other areas, and I think they need to look at that.
I’ve been investigating such cases for over fifteen years and am still amazed at some of the things that haven’t been done properly. For example, there’s one woman (whose case is in the book), whose body was found in dense undergrowth. I assumed like a lot of people that she’d walked into the sea, and I was wrong, nobody’s an absolute expert. I don’t claim to be. It’s about trying to think outside the box all the time.
I think sometimes the Gardai and reporters, just follow logic, where sometimes there’s no logical answer, the person may have (been injured) or suffered a bereavement, or may not be thinking straight, just because they were seen walking one direction, doesn’t mean they didn’t suddenly double back.
MF: What about the issue of unidentified bodies found in Ireland?
BC: The longest chapter in the book is about unidentified bodies, and it took me so long to write a chapter, which is a pretty comprehensive list of unidentified bodies in the Republic of Ireland but I’d be the first to admit that it’s not the complete list.
There’s no publicly accessible database, or a private database, it’s not an issue that’s been pushed before, but I’ll certainly push it now, that there’s potential for solving these cases.
There’s a man buried in Donegal who was washed up in 1983, I still believe that man can be identified. The woman washed up in Wexford in 1995, I believe she can be identified.
One of the things that I’m keen to stress, if I can, is that the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, is heralding, and rightly so, this new DNA database that would finally be introduced in Ireland. It’s something that we should have had a long time ago.
Part of that database would hold information for missing persons, so DNA can be taken from a parent or close relative of a missing person, to be held on file, and that’s a brilliant thing.
In relation to unidentified bodies, what has to be done is that the bodies where no DNA or samples were taken, would have to be exhumed, and DNA taken, and the person laid to rest. I do believe that people can be identified.
MF: Ireland has quite a number of individuals like you, Fr. Aquinas Duffy, and other groups and organizations campaigning for missing persons.
BC: What Father Duffy has been doing for years, is brilliant. It’s wonderful work that he’s doing. Not only the work on individual cases, but the guestbook on the site, some of the messages there are wonderful.
There’s one I saw, and I’d love to know the story, he said he’d been missing seventeen years, and his brother found him.
Some of those stories you would love to know, because it helps other families.
There are about eighty long-term missing persons cases, and about thirty of those may be the victims of murder or manslaughter but the rest, the answers might be totally different.
‘Without Trace – Ireland’s Missing’, the latest book by Barry Cummins, is available at all good booksellers.
This interview first appeared in the Irish Examiner in 2011.