The vanished: why time and technology may provide answers for the families of Ireland’s missing women

The disappearance of six women have remained unsolved since the 1990s but developments this week show that while the cases may be cold, they are not closed
Top row, left to right: Annie McCarrick, Deirdre Jacob and Fiona Sinnott; second row: JoJo Dullard, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen

Top row, left to right: Annie McCarrick, Deirdre Jacob and Fiona Sinnott; second row: JoJo Dullard, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen

Catherine Fegan

Margaret Wogan was about to finish her shift in Poppies café when the couple walked in. It was a cold and blustery afternoon in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, as she watched the man take a seat while the woman approached the counter. There was a selection of cakes and pastries on display and as the woman, tall with wavy hair and an American accent, pointed out things to her companion that he might like to eat, Wogan noted his surly replies. He seemed gruff and uninterested. The woman ordered and went to the table to join him. In recalling the scene, Wogan, who was in her mid-50s, would often remark on one physical characteristic she found striking about the man. She had always heard descriptions of people having a “square face”, but it was only when she saw him in Poppies that day that she knew what that meant.

In March this year, Margaret Wogan died at the age of 79. According to her daughter Una, the woman she saw in the café on March 26, 1993 matched the description of Annie McCarrick, an American tourist who went missing that day. At the time, her mother told a garda who came into the café about what she had seen, but it appears her tip-off was never followed up. “Mammy was 100pc sure it was Annie but after telling a local garda, no one ever came back to her on it and I know it’s something that always played on her mind,” Una says.

The sighting in the café, say private investigators behind a fresh investigation into the McCarrick case, is a vital piece of information that changes the entire narrative about a disappearance from more than 30 years ago.

“It’s always been the accepted belief that Annie was last seen in Johnnie Fox’s pub,” says Brian McCarthy, a private investigator.

“Our investigations found that to be a case of mistaken identity. Further to that, we now have a sighting in the café, closer to where Annie would have got off the bus in Enniskerry that day. The woman who saw Annie was not asked to help with an e-fit. We think this sighting is more crucial than initially thought.”

The case of Annie McCarrick, the 26-year-old student who set off for a walk in the Wicklow mountains and was never seen again, has been long confined to annals of cold case history with five other high-profile missing persons cases that have never been solved. The cases of the six women who disappeared in Leinster in the 1990s have been grouped together under the umbrella of Operation Trace. The whereabouts of McCarrick, Deirdre Jacob, Fiona Sinnott, JoJo Dullard, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen are unknown.

This week, following work by the Serious Crime Review Team, gardaí announced that the JoJo Dullard case has been upgraded to murder. It follows news earlier this year that a file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Deirdre Jacob case, which was upgraded to a criminal investigation in 2018. Separately, the private investigators looking into the McCarrick case recently met the Serious Crime Review Team to share new information.

Decades on, it is now hoped that the passage of time, together with advancements in investigative techniques, could finally solve the mystery of what happened to the three women.

* * *

It was 11.35pm on a dark November night in 1995. JoJo Dullard was standing inside a phonebox on the main street of the village of Moone in Co Kildare, talking to her friend Mary. The door was partially open, with her thumb pointed upwards, letting drivers know she was looking for a lift. A dark four-door car pulled up beside the phone kiosk and JoJo told her friend: “I have a lift, I’m off.”

This would be her last contact with friends and family. Earlier that morning, JoJo left her home in Callan to travel by bus to Dublin. There, she met some friends in Bruxelles Pub on Harry Street, just off Grafton Street, and stayed with them for the afternoon. She missed the last bus home, so boarded one to Kildare instead and arrived in Naas at about 10.50pm.

From there she hitched a lift from a driver in Naas who dropped her off in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, near the edge of the motorway. At about 11.15pm JoJo hitched another lift and was dropped off in Moone in Co Kildare at about 11.35pm. She called her friend from the phone box in Moone and explained that she missed her bus and was going to hitch her way home.

Memorial: A plaque in Moone, Co Kildare, the last place JoJo Dullard was seen alive

Memorial: A plaque in Moone, Co Kildare, the last place JoJo Dullard was seen alive

Years passed, rivers were dredged, canals drained and mountains combed in vain for her body. Nothing tangible emerged. Then, in February this year, the Serious Crime Review Team, the national cold case unit, was asked to take a fresh look at the garda files.

“The JoJo Dullard case came as a request from our colleagues in Kildare for us to review it and that’s essentially what we did,” says Detective Superintendent Des McTiernan, head of the Serious Crime Review Team.

“Not every case can be progressed with review,” he says. “In most cases, murder investigations are done to a very high standard, no stone is left unturned, and in those cases a review is not going to progress them any further on the basis that the original investigation team did as much as they could.”

Fresh perspective: JoJo Dullard’s sister Kathleen Bergin with Garda Detective Superintendent Des McTiernan (far left) and Superintendent Martin Walker at a media briefing this week

Fresh perspective: JoJo Dullard’s sister Kathleen Bergin with Garda Detective Superintendent Des McTiernan (far left) and Superintendent Martin Walker at a media briefing this week

The review doesn’t mean gardaí in Kildare didn’t do a good job on the JoJo Dullard case, he adds. On the contrary, the review of the case revealed a “mountain of work had been done”.

So, 25 years on, what has changed? Therein lies the answer, he says. The passage of time and its effect on the people who might hold vital clues about what happened to JoJo is a significant feature of the new inquiry.

“Things change with time,” he says. “Loyalties change, people feel that bit freer to talk than they did 25 years ago, or people might have learned about things in the course of 25 years that they didn’t tell the guards at the time or think was important enough to tell guards at the time. With a renewed appeal, they might think it’s now the time.”

As part of the review of the Dullard case, a victimology report was carried out to assess the probability of various grim scenarios: suicide; that she had chosen to disappear; that she lost her life accidentally by another’s hand. Separately, a ‘proof of life’ analysis — which examines systems and data banks — assessed the likelihood of whether JoJo could still be alive.

“These processes led to an upgrade of the case to murder,” says Det Supt McTiernan. “Having gone through Jo Jo’s life, start, middle and finish, you then had to show that the only reasonable option is to believe that A, she is a dead and that B, she met her death through violent means.”

Now it is an active murder investigation, detectives now have “teeth” to advance the case. They can apply for warrants to carry out digs and searches, arrests can be made and charges brought. A fresh set of eyes will look at the case and detectives are asking anyone with information to come forward. Private investigators, who have been involved in a number of the Operation Trace cases over the years, are also welcome to assist, says Det Supt McTiernan.

“We would welcome any help, any information, regardless of where it comes from,” he says.

Having recently met detectives from the Serous Crime Review team about the Annie McCarrick case, Brian McCarthy believes there is a serious and concerted effort to finally solve the Operation Trace case files.

“I think they are keen on drawing information from everyone,” he says. “I met with them and we had a good conversation about Annie’s case, and I have no doubt that they are serious. They will pick up on things, analyse them and take them forward in their own way.”

Both the Dullard and Jacob families have been openly critical of the investigations into their respective cases in the past. However, the appointment of Drew Harris as Garda Commissioner in 2018 has inspired new faith in some quarters.

“I have no doubt that the new brush coming in has been a positive move,” says retired detective garda Alan Bailey.

Retired Detective Sergeant and author Alan Bailey

Retired Detective Sergeant and author Alan Bailey

Bailey was in the force 39 years. Most of that time was spent on Operation Trace, where he was national co-ordinator for 13 years.

“Trace was a step back from a fully-fledged investigation,” he says. “It was set up as a fact-finding exercise, looking for commonalities with a view to seeing whether or not we had a serial killer in operation. There had been the case in the 70s of John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans set out to rape and murder women in Ireland, so it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility. Once we looked at each of the six cases, we were able to say that in at least three, the women were killed by someone known to them.”

The cases Bailey is referring to are those of Fiona Sinnott, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen. In each case, gardaí have an identified suspect and a motive. But what they have never had are the bodies.

Fiona Pender was seven months pregnant when she went missing from her flat on Church Street in Tullamore in August 1996. A man known to her family, though not a member of it, and who lived in the midlands in the 1990s, has always been the chief suspect.

In 2015, there was fresh hope of finally locating Fiona’s remains when a woman living abroad accused her husband of a range of violent, including sexual, attacks on her. When she went to the police in the jurisdiction where she had settled with her husband, she linked him to Fiona’s disappearance, presumed murder. She told them that when in a rage her husband threatened her and strongly implied that he had killed Fiona and that she, his wife, would be next. The woman even pinpointed an exact location in Ireland where she believed the body was buried. However, despite her willingness to come to Ireland to assist in the inquiry, her information came to nothing. She broke up with her husband, and her case against him did not result in a conviction.

Fiona Sinnott was 19 when last seen on the night of Sunday, February 8, 1998. She had been socialising at Butler’s pub in Broadway, Co Wexford, with friends and she left at about midnight. She lived with her 11-month-old baby daughter at a cottage in Ballyhitt, Broadway, and had been looking forward to celebrating the child’s first birthday. Her disappearance was initially treated as a missing-person case until being upgraded to a murder inquiry in 2005.

Ciara Breen (17), was last seen alive in February 1997, having left her home in Dundalk late at night. She sneaked out her bedroom window to meet a local man, who later became the chief suspect in the case. He has since died, and Ciara’s remains have never been found.

“It does play on your mind, in particular with those cases, when you can’t give a family a body,” Bailey says. “But I do believe that it’s never too late. Sometimes the passage of time can be a good thing, old loyalties die, people feel freer to talk and, in some cases, nature can intervene, as happened in the discovery of Antoinette Smith’s remains [in a shallow grave]. Time, on the other hand, can go against you when the people searching for their loved ones, the ones looking for the bodies pass away too. That’s the sad part about all of this.”

Ciara Breen’s mother Bernadette died in 2018, knowing who is believed to have killed her daughter, but never getting a body or justice. Josephine Pender, a staunch campaigner, died after a lengthy illness in 2017, just three weeks after the 21st anniversary of her daughter Fiona’s disappearance.

Orphaned at an early age, JoJo Dullard was reared by her sisters Kathleen and Mary, both of whom have fought tirelessly to ensure that the search for their sister continued. Mary died in April 2018, leaving Kathleen to carry on the campaign alone. Over in the US, John McCarrick died in 2009 not knowing what had happened to his only daughter. The search for answers had consumed the best part of his life, costing him his marriage, hundreds of thousands of dollars and his health.

Bereaved: John McCarrick photographed in 1994, a year after his daughter Annie went missing. John died in 2009

Bereaved: John McCarrick photographed in 1994, a year after his daughter Annie went missing. John died in 2009

“Annie was on his mind all the time,” says Brian McCarthy. “He always ended up doing back to that phrase: ‘Someone out there knows.’

“It just broke him. You could just see him physically deteriorate. The weight walked off him. He just got old so fast. Total heartbreak.”

* * *

The relatively new field of forensic anthropology and its trained professionals occupy an essential place in the investigation of cases of missing and unidentified individuals.

What we eat, where we go, everything we do leaves a trace, clues that can wait for months, years, sometimes centuries, until a forensic anthropologist is called upon to decipher them. When human bones were found at the rear of a Dundalk house in 2017, the thoughts of locals immediately turned to Ciara Breen, who was last seen less than 200m away in 1997.

As is standard procedure, the State Pathologist, then Marie Cassidy, was called to the scene. Because the remains were skeletal, she was joined by forensic anthropologist René Gapert. It was up to him to determine whether the find might be related to Ciara’s disappearance 20 years before, when she was just 17.

Ultimately, they were not, but experts like Gapert are routinely called in by gardaí to determine if bones belong to a human and, if so, help determine age, gender, height and broader medical history.

Forensic anthropologist René Gapert

Forensic anthropologist René Gapert

“A person’s entire biological history can be mapped through the bones,” Gapert says.

“As an anthropologist, I try to establish a biological profile of the remains. I examine every single bone to aid you in identifying the ancestry of the person, the age at death, the sex, depending on what is available, the living height. Then any kind of pathology or illness you can detect, things like dental interventions or surgical interventions you can see. Then you look for trauma, anything that occurred during the lifetime.” That includes injuries sustained at or near the time of death.

For gardaí in the Dullard case, advances in areas like forensic anthropology and DNA could prove vital. The Serious Crime Review Team has the expertise of Forensic Science Ireland at their disposal, as well as outside agencies in the UK.

“Essentially if we came across JoJo, there would be forensic advancements there now that wouldn’t have been there in 1995 that might lead us to her killer,” says Det Supt McTiernan.

“If JoJo is found with clothes on, there may be some trace evidence, some mark of the killer on her, something there that we can use. You just don’t know.”

In the case of Dullard and the other Operation Trace vanished women, there are no known remains, no crime scenes and no physical evidence to speak of. According to Bailey, for a substantive breakthrough in a “missing assumed murdered” case says, remains are needed.

“You need a body, or DNA to link the perpetrator to the crime,” he says. “With these cases you have none of that, which can prove difficult at trial stage, even though circumstantial evidence still carries weight.”

In the absence of a DNA match, Bailey says working the alibi evidence is key.

“You really need to look at how the passage of time has affected the alibi,” he says.

“Whether a story that was given 20 or 30 years ago has changed because someone no longer has a hold over you. Quite a bit of the success in cold cases will depend on that. It’s all about going back over every detail, talking to every witness again and looking for something that might have been missed.

In the case of Annie McCarrick, and maybe others, missed opportunities haunted those connected to the case long after she disappeared.

“Not long after Annie went missing there was a reconstruction in the village and Annie’s father was there,” says Una Wogan.

“Mammy told us that one of her big regrets was not going over to him that day to tell him that Annie had been in the café.

“She said she was too intimidated because there were gardaí around him. She said, ‘If the gardaí didn’t come and take a statement what’s the point in going over?’ I know that was something she regretted.”

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