Hunt for pregnant woman relaunched

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The Independent Online

They were the vanishings that haunted Ireland. Six young Irish women from neighbouring midland counties disappeared during the 1990s, prompting fears that a serial killer was on the loose. The searches became a national crusade for the victims' families.

Twelve years on, the disappearances remain a mystery, but in one small town a mother once again waits with trepidation for news of her daughter.

Fiona Pender was 25 and seven months' pregnant when she went missing from the town of Tullamore, Co Offaly, in August 1996. The last memories Josephine Pender has of her daughter centre on joint shopping trips to buy baby clothes. Fiona is technically listed as a missing person, but the police believe that the part-time model was murdered. This week they relaunched the search for her body.

Fresh hope of a breakthrough came when a wooden cross, inscribed with Fiona's name, was found by hill walkers in the Slieve Bloom mountain range in May. It has never been established whether the 2ft-high cross had been left as an act of cruelty, compassion, guilt or some other motive. But it has revived interest in the case.

Following a report by world-renown-ed expert on the discovery, up to 30 police and military personnel are examining the area. Superintendent Kevin Donohoe said: "Fiona Pender didn't disappear on her own. There are people who know the facts in respect of it, who obviously haven't given us full stories – or indeed any stories. For whatever reason that they couldn't do before now, they should come and talk to us now."

Police incompetence was blamed by many for the failure to make progress in the cases of Fiona Pender and the other vanished women. Four disappeared within the same 30-mile circle. Of the six who went missing in between 1993 and 1998, all are now presumed dead, almost certainly murdered. But their bodies have never been found.

A special investigation, known as Operation Trace, was established to establish links between the cases with techniques learnt from the FBI brought in. Various arrests of suspects have been carried out over the years, but no charges have been made.

Meanwhile, Mrs Pender waits as the mountain is searched. "It's a two-edged sword," she said. "We're hoping we will find her but if we do we'll have to deal with that too. But if I could just find her – I miss her and my little grandson would be 12 now. All I want is Fiona back. I don't want anything else, I don't want anyone punished. I just want Fiona back to give her a Christian burial."