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Did the killer of Baby John come from NI?

Cold case detectives investigating the murder of the five-day-old infant in Kerry 35 years ago are checking his DNA profile against the UK's database in a bid to identify the perpetrator. Kim Bielenberg reports

Tragedy: Kim Bielenberg at the grave of ‘Baby John’
Tragedy: Kim Bielenberg at the grave of ‘Baby John’
Legal teams visiting the farm where Joanna Hayes lived
Councillor Norma Moriarty
Valentia Island farmer Pat O’Driscoll
Under scrutiny: Joanna Hayes (left) and her family, who later withdrew their confessions to detectives

Superintendent Flor Murphy is convinced that there are people in south Kerry who know the identity of the parents of Baby John. When he was found dead on the rocks at White Strand, near Cahersiveen, three-and-a-half decades ago, the tiny infant had 28 stab wounds. The baby, who would soon lie at the centre of a national scandal that still resonates until this day, had lived for just five days.

And, yet, for all the attention that the Kerry babies scandal attracted in the 1980s, in the intervening period there was little detailed inquiry into who actually killed Baby John - once the initial, catastrophically botched investigation into the case was over. That was until Supt Murphy reopened the investigation a year ago, amid no little fanfare and some controversy.

While there is some scepticism in the area that the truth will emerge and a veil of silence still lies over the locality, Murphy is now hopeful that the mystery of what happened to Baby John will be solved.

He says there are eight or nine detectives working on the case, including two from the serious crime review team, commonly known as the "cold case unit".

With advances in technology, detectives were able to analyse a card that contained a sample of Baby John's blood from the original investigation. Using this blood, forensic scientists were able to build an accurate DNA profile of the infant.

As well as taking DNA samples in the area, investigators have checked Baby John's profile against the UK DNA database in case there is a match in Northern Ireland, or Britain.

Murphy, who is based in Killarney, says: "There are people out there who have knowledge of the pregnancy and the birth - these are people close to the mother."

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Those with knowledge of what happened in the wider community may have felt constrained, because of their social circumstances and influences at the time, according to Murphy.

"Maybe, because of their associations and friendships, they may not have been in a position to come forward at the time," he adds. "But time can change a lot of things."

There are certainly quiet rumours circulating in the county about who the culprit might be - but, so far, nobody has come forward with any kind of conclusive proof.

The story of Baby John began on the evening of April 14, 1984, when local farmer Jack Griffin went out for a jog along the beach not far from his home at the top a hill in the area known locally as Over the Water.

Griffin, a keen runner, had just stopped to check on some cattle when he spotted what he initially thought might be a doll, but it became apparent that it was a baby with a mop of dark hair.

The farmer then ran the long distance to the home of his brother-in-law and returned by car with his wife's nephew, Brendan O'Shea. After confirming that it was a dead baby, they alerted police, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards.

Griffin was still living on his farm at the top of the hill when I tracked him down this week. Like many people in the area, he is reluctant to discuss the case.

"I found it and I did what I did," he told me. "I never talked about it very much to anyone and that's the way I want it. I don't think at all about it."

Soon after the baby was found, local undertaker Tom Cournane was called. He christened the baby using water from a local stream and named him John, apparently after a beloved uncle. Later, after the state pathologist had examined the body, Cournane organised a proper funeral, with local schoolchildren in attendance at the burial, including his own daughter, Catherine.

Now an elderly man in poor health, Cournane is said by local people to have treated the deceased baby as if he was one of his own family and the plight of the infant and the mystery that surrounds him is said to have affected him deeply.

After the discovery of the body, attention quickly turned to who had actually killed the baby and in what circumstances.

An investigation was launched, with detectives drawing up a list of women in the county who had been pregnant, but did not have a baby to show for it, or who had recently left the area. Local young women and teenagers were quizzed about their relationships.

Detectives soon came to believe the baby belonged to 25-year-old Joanne Hayes, from Abbeydorney, 50 miles away, who became the focus of the investigation. Joanne - who had been pregnant - and members of her family were questioned and, by some remarkable process that has never been fully explained, statements were signed admitting involvement in the case of the Cahersiveen baby. But the case soon seemed to fall apart, when the body of Joanne's own baby was discovered on the Abbeydorney farm of the Hayes family.

Then, detectives theorised that Joanne had given birth to twins, one of whom was Baby John. But it was shown that Baby John's blood group was different to that of Joanne, her lover and to the baby found at the farm. Detectives persisted with a more outlandish theory of "superfecundation", to show Joanne had given birth to twins by different fathers. As one local man put it to me, the chances of that happening were like someone winning a lottery jackpot two Saturdays in a row.

The Hayes family withdrew confessions that they had made to detectives and, with the blood test findings, the murder charge against Joanne was dropped.

The subsequent 82-day Kerry Babies Tribunal, headed by Justice Kevin Lynch, which opened in Tralee on January 7, 1985, was widely seen as unduly harsh on Joanne Hayes, while the investigating detectives got off lightly.

With all the hullabaloo surrounding the tribunal and Joanne Hayes categorically not a suspect to any discerning eye, detectives then failed to follow up with a full and comprehensive investigation of who actually committed the crime.

Pat O'Driscoll, a farmer on the Co Kerry island of Valentia, said this week: "I don't think people down here ever believed that the two babies were connected. There was not a sign of it in the world."

Then, a year ago, it emerged that investigators were treating the killing of Baby John as a "cold case". If a final breakthrough in the Baby John case emerges, it is likely that it could come from DNA sampling, combined with thorough, old-fashioned detective work.

That DNA profile - a picture of Baby John's genetic make-up - offered more conclusive scientific proof that the Cahersiveen baby was not in any way linked to Joanne Hayes.

The genetic blueprint offers fresh potential avenues of inquiry that could be much more fruitful than any previous leads.

Supt Murphy says the collection of DNA in the area is ongoing. Members of the public are approached and asked to give samples on a voluntary basis. He says the number of samples of DNA taken in the area is in double digits.

The samples are analysed by Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) in Dublin.

Dr Geraldine O'Donnell, director of DNA at FSI, says mouth swabs are generally the most common type of sample taken. These are processed at the laboratories, DNA is extracted and a profile is generated.

Retired detective Alan Bailey, who spent years investigating cold cases, is hopeful that the use of DNA will lead to a breakthrough in the Baby John case.

"They are unlikely to get the father, or mother, of the baby from a DNA sample, but they could find a distant relative," says Mr Bailey. "That could lead them in the right direction."

DNA from relatives, whether they be siblings, aunts, uncles, or grandparents, could be used to pinpoint the boy's parentage. In a small community, that could be invaluable.

One option open to the investigators is to instigate a mass-screening of DNA in the area, where a large number of samples are taken across the community. This is allowed by law. A spokesman for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties said taking part in such a mass-screening is voluntary and individuals must give their consent in writing.

Until now, the sampling has been selective, according to Supt Murphy, and detectives are also relying on traditional lines of investigation.

In Cahersiveen itself, close to the beach where Baby John was found, few people want to talk about the case.

"People focus on it for a short time and then things go quiet," says local councillor Norma Moriarty, who was in school at the time of the killing.

"Whenever it comes up, it does not stay as a topic of conversation - people don't want to engage with it. It's not as if people want to ignore it, or forget it. They just want to afford privacy to whoever were the unfortunate people involved." The councillor says there has never been a sense of anger, or outrage, about what happened: "There is not a ghoulish interest in the ins-and-outs of it. That is underpinned by a sense of compassion."

People may be reluctant to talk publicly about what happened, but that does not mean the baby was ever forgotten. Initially, the grave was marked by a simple cross, but the undertaker Tom Cournane later replaced it with a more elaborate gravestone, with the inscription etched in gold lettering: "I am the Kerry baby, Baptised on 14-4-1984, named John. I forgive." On the present gravestone, the undertaker dropped the words "I forgive".

In an incident that may point to local involvement in the killing, the gravestone was destroyed in 2004 with a sledgehammer. It was not the first time the grave had been vandalised. The nature of the grave desecration may offer some guidance to who was involved.

"You have to ask if this was the perpetrator, because it was a very personal and vindictive act," says Mr Bailey. "It has to be someone with an interest, or connection, who would do such a thing."

When I visited this week, with hailstones raining down on the cemetery, the grave looked as though it had been cared for in recent months and had been decorated with Christmas flowers.

In investigating the case, detectives will look at the nature of the killing. "The fact that the baby was stabbed 28 times points to someone who was very disturbed - or had a fierce hatred of the child. They wanted, at all costs, to destroy the child and erase its memory," says Mr Bailey. Detectives will explore the likelihood that the mother may have been a victim in this case, rather than the perpetrator. It is possible that she was a victim of sexual abuse, rape, or incest.

Supt Murphy says: "We don't know the full circumstances of how the baby died four or five days after being delivered. We don't know the background context of the pregnancy and how it may have come about."

The man leading the investigation this week renewed his appeal to the mother to talk to detectives and also sought help from the wider community. He says: "We are asking the mother to come forward and she will be treated with compassion and sensitivity."

In September, the attention switched from Cahersiveen to Valentia Island, which lies a short distance offshore from the beach where the baby was found. Valentia had not been a major focus of investigation in 1984, but as part of the latest probe, a posse of up to 20 detectives arrived on the island and made door-to-door inquiries.

The island found itself the focus of much publicity and some locals felt that the community was being unfairly singled out. Detectives wanted to explore the possibility that Baby John could have been thrown into the Atlantic from Valentia before being washed ashore on the mainland at White Strand.

Farmer Pat O'Driscoll says he had little problem with detectives carrying out their investigation, but he had never heard any rumours linking the island with the killing. Other islanders were much more critical of the sudden arrival of detectives on the island, accompanied by the media.

One local fisherman says: "They arrived here 34 years too late. If they checked 34 years ago, they might have got somewhere. I know the tides in this area very well and I know that a baby would not have been carried in the direction of White Strand from here."

But Supt Murphy was unapologetic. "Valentia is off the coast of the mainland and inquiries took us in that direction," he says. "At the end of the day, there was a baby stabbed to death on a beach and if that happened anywhere in the country, there would be huge concern."

The leader of the investigation would not rule out other areas being targeted - if the need arose. The previous investigation may have ended disastrously, but 35 years on from the killing, Murphy is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of who killed Baby John.

"This is not going to go away," says the superintendent.

"The investigation team is totally committed to establishing the truth of the circumstances surrounding this death."

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