Vanishings that haunt Ireland

The disappearance of six young Irishwomen over recent years has prompted fears that a serial killer is on the loose. Or are the Irish police simply incompetent?
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It was the disappearance in daylight of student teacher Deirdre Jacob, 18, on 28 July this year, that finally forced the beleaguered Irish Gardai's hand. Deirdre, back in Ireland for the holidays from a west London college, had spent the afternoon in the centre of her home town, Newbridge, in county Kildare, south-west of Dublin.

At lunchtime she visited her grand-mother's shop. The attractive dark- haired teenager was then captured on a security video at the Allied Irish Bank at around 2.20pm sending a pounds 180 bank draft for a flat share for the new academic year.

Ten minutes later she visited the post office and then chatted to a friend on the street before making her way down a narrow, tree-lined country road, past the local evangelical church. The last sighting of her was about 3pm just 300 yards from her parents' front door. Then, the teenager with everything to live for vanished.

Irish police announced two months ago that Deirdre's disappearance was to be investigated alongside the cases of at least five other young women who had gone missing over the past five years. Officers appeared to be finally taking seriously what locals had believed for years; that a serial killer is on the loose in Ireland.

The attempt to link the cases has caused endless media excitement and mollified a public which believed the Gardai had been blind to the obvious for too long. However the establishment of a new Tracing, Reviewing and Collating Evidence unit (Trace ), led by John Hickey, an FBI-trained Assistant Commissioner, is not without its critics, not least among the families of the missing.

The new Trace unit has been set up at Naas, south-west of Dublin, at the centre of a 30-mile circle within which four of the six women went missing. The disappearances are recorded on maps and charts lining the walls.

The first woman to go missing was Annie McCarrick, 26, an Irish American who was studying in Dublin. She disappeared during a trip to the mountains, south of the capital, on 26 March 1993, sparking one of the largest missing persons investigations in Irish history.

US ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and vice-president Al Gore lobbied the Irish government on behalf of Annie's family. Ms McCarrick's father John, a former New York cop, was scathing about the investigation by Irish police and offered $150,000 reward for information. Mr McCarrick also hired a private detective to search for his daughter. But five years on no positive leads have emerged and the disappearance of Annie, his only child, has broken his marriage, his health, and the bank.

After Ms McCarrick came beautician Jojo Dullard, 21, who disappeared on the evening of November 9 1995, outside a phone box at Moone, Co Kildare, while hitching home from Dublin after missing the last bus. Jojo was talking to her best friend when she hurriedly hung up saying a lift had arrived. She was never seen again.

Ms Jacob, Ms Dullard and Ms McCarrick went missing in roughly the same area as part-time model Fiona Pender, 25, who disappeared from Tullamore, County Offaly, on August 23 1996 when was she was seven and a half moths pregnant.

But also included in the core police investigation are Ciara Breen, 17, who disappeared from Dundalk on Eire's northern border on 17 February 1997 and Fiona Sinnott, 19, a single mother who went missing in February this year from County Wexford in the south.

In line with FBI theory that hard-to-solve cases need a fresh eye, six detectives unassociated with the previous investigations, have been drafted in to Naas to work full-time on the six core cases, and at least six other murders and disappearances of women stretching back as far as 1979. As well as reviewing the records of known sex offenders, the detectives are reviewing each disappearance in chronological order, seeking "common threads".

Assistant Commissoner Hickey, much admired for his successful recent hunt for the killers of Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, admits that the only link between the women at the moment is that all six were attractive and young and disappeared inexplicably and without trace.

But that does not stop him giving serious consideration to the theory that was ignored for years: that a serial killer is responsible. "The Gardai doesn't want to scare the public," he says. "But it would be foolish to ignore the possibility."

It is early days - and no breaks have yet been announced - but the unit clearly has its work cut out. While the police, and most of the relatives, accept that the missing women are dead, and almost certainly murdered, there are no bodies or crime scenes to examine. The serial killer, if he exists, has left no signature that would offer clues, only empty phone boxes and deserted country roads.

The relatives of the missing, meanwhile, have been divided over their views of Trace. Those who bought into the serial-killer theory are pleased the police are taking it seriously. But other relatives say the unit is a smoke screen for weaknesses in the way missing cases are investigated. It is those weaknesses they insist that have prevented breaks in any of the original separate investigations. They feel the unit is a sop to families' demands for a permanent national system for the cross-filing of information on missing women.

On a cattle farm, at the end of a muddy track in County Kilkenny, Jojo Dullard's sister, Mary Phelan, 46, is among the most dismayed. In the past three years, Mrs Phelan, a 4ft 10ins farmer's wife with no previous campaigning experience, has become the bain of her local police force with her unrelenting determination to find Jojo's body and her killer.

Once the police scaled down their searches, her personal battle became a national crusade. She has co-founded a national organisation for the relatives of 84 people who have gone missing in Ireland since 1990 and is now its spokesperson.

Mary Phelan helped raise her little sister after their parents died. For her and her husband Martin, normal life ceased the night Jojo rushed from the phone box in Moone for a lift. The Phelans still work their little farm, but Jojo occupies their every spare moment. In the corner of the kitchen, oddly out of place below a portrait of Jesus lit by a single orange bulb, sits a fax and copier. Among the coffee cups, the kitchen table is strewn with documents and newspaper cuttings. The couple are working on the latest in a string of publicity campaigns to keep Jojo's case alive.

"I knew in my heart the moment Jo went missing that that was it. It was totally out of character for her to disappear." But she says the police refused to listen and vital investigating time was lost. When the case was opened, the Phelans complain the police were less than thorough.

Relations between the Phelans and the police have hit rock bottom. In the early days of the investigation, a local officer gave them the name of the main police suspect who had allegedly given officers conflicting statements. The Phelans now believe that a complex conspiracy has been hatched to protect him.

Two hours drive north, Josephine Pender, 49, sits in the dying light of a winter's afternoon, looking at old pictures of her daughter, Fiona, modelling in a brides magazine. She is kinder to the police, sympathising that when her daughter disappeared "where to start an investigation was a problem". Fiona's boyfriend was arrested but never charged. Mrs Pender says she knew quite quickly that Fiona was dead. Excited about her coming baby, she had no reason to disappear.

While she has no complaints about the police, she also believes the answer to her daughter's disappearance lies locally, not with some ritualistic, roving killer. She sees an irony in the possibility that setting up Trace might allow real killers to go free. But she welcomes any fresh police interest. Along the path, however wayward, she hopes some new clue may yet emerge.

"I remember Fiona and I watching the appeal for information about Jojo Dullard on television when she went missing," she says. "Now I am in the same position. You cannot imagine the pain."

Mrs Pender suffered four miscarriages before she had Fiona and her two brothers. She has only one child left. Her eldest boy Martin died in a motorbike accident just over a year before Fiona's disappearance. "When Fiona went missing we went to all the places that meant something to her. To the spot where Martin died, to his grave in Tullow and to the hill where all that was left of his bike was buried. Now all I want is to put Fiona down beside her brother."

In the face of such suffering the Gardai have delivered few answers. According to the cynics, Trace has been set up to get the police off the hook. "Nothing really links these cases except that the police failed to solve them," says one Dublin journalist.

The Trace detectives, meanwhile, press on, backed by many ordinary, anxious Irish people. A string of attempted abductions this week of young women on the outskirts of Dublin only reinforced their view that a serial killer, at large for as long as two decades, is still out there.

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