We will never stop the fight for justice,” says Pierre-Louis Baudey, whose mother Sophie Toscan du Plantier was beaten to death while on holiday in West Cork in 1996. “We will never stop. We can’t. Not while Ian Bailey is living free.”
The young French woman’s death – and her life – are at the centre of Netflix’s chilling, enraging documentary A Murder in West Cork. The three-part series forensically unpicks the case that stunned the remote town of Schull in Ireland two days before Christmas and has gone unsolved for 25 years. It presents the mountain of evidence against the prime suspect, British journalist Bailey, a narcissistic, violent oddball and wannabe poet with “an absence of normal modesty”, as one local described him. Bailey has been arrested numerous times in connection with the murder but has never been tried in Ireland. He was found guilty by a panel of judges in France in 2019, where he was tried in absentia and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Several failed attempts have been made to extradite him and he maintains his innocence to this day.
While there is a sharp focus on Bailey, the documentary’s aim is to preserve the memory of Sophie and the human being she was before her death. “We wanted to put Sophie back at the centre of the story,” says the series’ director, John Dower. “In so many of these true crime series, the victim is just a cipher for all the other action.”
Sophie’s family had been approached countless times to contribute to books and documentaries, but they finally accepted this project because it’s a celebration of Sophie’s life. “Oh, she was everything,” says Pierre-Louis, who was 15 when his mother died. “I am an only child and my parents divorced when I was one, so I lived with her. We were very close. She wasn’t just the wife of a French producer [Daniel Toscan du Plantier]. She was arty and intellectual. She was very social but more than half of her was solitary: writing, thinking, meditating.”
Pierre-Louis was staying with his grandparents’ when the murder happened, and was woken up in the middle of the night to the news. Sophie, 39, had been found dead on a lane near her holiday home. Her body lay tangled in brambles and her pyjamas were torn. A bloodied concrete block was found beside her.
The family agreed to do the documentary on the condition that Sophie’s body was not shown. They need not have worried. The producers weren’t planning on including those pictures. However, another series by Irish director Jim Sheridan, which premiered on Sky Crime earlier this month, did include photos of the corpse – until the family demanded they were removed. They had initially given interviews to six-time Oscar-nominee Sheridan on the understanding his show was about getting justice for Sophie. After watching previews, they asked that these be withdrawn, claiming his documentary instead “aims to demonstrate the innocence of Ian Bailey”.
The crews of the Sky and Netflix documentaries were in West Cork at the same time. Pierre-Louis claims Sheridan told locals not to speak to the Netflix crew. “That was so wrong,” he says. “It is a public affair and nobody has the right to block witnesses. This is not Jim Sheridan’s project, it’s not Jim Sheridan’s life, it’s not Jim Sheridan’s affair. I really was furious. I told him, ‘Stop, I’m not happy with that.’”
Bailey signed an exclusivity deal with Sheridan, meaning Netflix only had interviews with him from 2018. Bailey is now threatening to sue Netflix for airing them. “Exclusive contracts are rare in documentaries but for a prime suspect to sign one when he claims he wants his story out there is odd,” says Dower. “Sheridan’s film takes the stance that Ian Bailey is a victim of police corruption and they’re entitled to do that; we took the view of the family [that Bailey is guilty]. The idea that documentaries are objective is bollocks. Now Bailey’s saying our film is poisonous propaganda. I don’t want to make this about the battle of the two films, because ours is about Sophie and this story, but it’s unavoidable.”
Sky declined to respond to The Independent’s request for comment. A spokesperson for Dare Films and Sheridan strongly denied that the filmmaker ever encouraged witnesses not to speak to the Netflix crew. “Both productions share a large number of similar contributors, including key witnesses, investigators and local residents. Mr Sheridan’s project cooperated with Netflix and released various contributors from contract when asked,” they said.
“Murder at the Cottage is an independent, balanced documentary and does not make a conclusion either way on the guilt or innocence of Ian Bailey. The series explores the case in great detail and tries to understand why a convicted murderer in France is a free man in Ireland.”
Having two documentary teams on his doorstep is probably the stuff of Bailey’s dreams. As Sophie’s aunt puts it in Netflix’s show, he “loves interviews”. “Ian has done so many interviews and every single one of them is almost identical,” says Dower. “I’ve always felt they have a scripted quality.” Bailey does seem to enjoy the notoriety. Not only has he spoken to the press endlessly, he also wrote salacious newspaper articles about the murder case while he was the prime suspect. “It’s properly crackers,” says Dower.
The case the Netflix documentary builds against Bailey is damning. Numerous members of the Schull community claim Bailey confessed to them. Bailey has no alibi: he left his bed the night of the murder and returned the next morning with a cut on his forehead and scratches all over his arms. Many believe the scratches are from the thorns that Sophie became entangled in before her death. He also had a large bonfire after the murder in which police found traces of clothing.
Pierre-Louis has visited the house in Schull with his wife and children since Sophie’s death, and has seen Bailey in the flesh “two or three times”. “That was very hard,” he says. “He recognised me and with his eyes he was saying, ‘We both know what happened.’ I saw it.” He’s determined not to stop visiting. “Bailey may have taken away my mother’s life but he will not take away my freedom to go back to Ireland.”
The missing link in the documentary – and in the case – is Bailey’s former partner Jules Thomas. Initially, she had claimed Bailey was asleep beside her all night on 23 December. She later changed her story to say he had got up. Schull residents claim they saw Thomas badly beaten several times and Bailey has admitted to domestic violence. She was quiet about the case for many years but in April this year, the pair finally split. Thomas told press: “I’ve had enough.” Bailey’s Twitter bio says he’s looking for a place to live. Dower is hopeful that Thomas will now start to talk.
“Jules wouldn’t speak to us before,” he says. “We did get access to the photos after one of the incidents of domestic abuse with Ian. They’re shocking. But it didn’t feel right to show those – it’s an invasion of her privacy.”
The most moving moments in the series are the interviews with Sophie’s parents, for whom the grief is still so raw. “I’ve been making documentaries for over 20 years and those are the hardest interviews I’ve ever had to do,” says Dower. “Her parents are in their nineties. They’re so frail. The father, George, kept breaking down in heaving sobs of tears.”
For Pierre-Louis, the interviews were cathartic. “I needed them,” he says. “With friends and family, it’s taboo – you don’t go around speaking about the murder of your mother.” He watched the documentary alone. “When I finished it I felt love for Ireland. I want to go back. I feel at home with my mother when I’m in that house in Schull. I know it’s strange.”
Dower is in awe of the family, who founded The Association for the Truth About Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 2017. “They’ve done their own investigation,” he says. “It’s so admirable and humbling.”
Pierre-Louis wants the people of Ireland, where the case is infamous, to be convinced by this documentary that consolidates all the evidence and testimony from the last 25 years into three compelling hours. “They must revolt and put pressure on their justice system,” he says. “We must get a reaction.”
‘Sophie: A Murder in West Cork’ premieres on Netflix on Wednesday 30 June
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies