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Lost and found: Geoff Knupfer on the exhaustive search to find the Disappeared... and how locating the remains of Moors Murders victim Pauline Reade showed him why closure is vital for the families of the dead

The lead forensic scientist and investigator for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains tells Leona O'Neill that while the recent dig to find the body of Columba McVeigh ended without success, the search will continue

Geoff Knupfer on a searchfor Columba McVeigh in 2013
Geoff Knupfer on a searchfor Columba McVeigh in 2013
Moors Murders victim Pauline Reade
Columba McVeigh, who was 17 when he disappeared in November 1975
Archbishop Eamon Martin with Columba McVeigh’s family (from left) brother Oliver, sister Dympna Kerr and brother Eugene at a bog in Co Monaghan last year
Columba's mother Vera with a picture of Columba before her death in 2007
Captain Robert Nairac
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

He has looked into the eyes of murderers such as Myra Hindley and those behind some of the worst IRA killings in our dark and troubled history. But former policeman Geoff Knupfer wasn't interested in confessions or motivations, he simply wanted to know where the human remains are situated so families could bury their loved ones and move on beyond a painful past.

As lead forensic scientist and investigator of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains for the past 15 years, he has led the team searching for the Disappeared.

The 71-year-old, who lives in Manchester with his wife, former chief nurse Dorothy, says that in that time he has developed a close bond with the families and shares their pain and frustration when they are left without closure.

His work, he says, is the grimmest, but most rewarding of jobs.

"I was a detective in Manchester when the Moors cases started," he says.

"And as the years went by, I ended up as a senior investigator. And then I retained an interest in developing forensic archaeology as a tool for investigators. So I was involved in many aspects of it until I retired from the police in the late 1990s. I took an academic career, teaching in universities and colleges, and then more recently in 2005 I started working for the commission and that brought me to Northern Ireland.

"I was asked to come over to Northern Ireland and talk to the two Governments back in 2005," he says.

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"Initially it was to review what had occurred since 1999 and make recommendations to the Governments about how the commission's work could be taken forward in the future.

"It was a three-month contract, but in actual fact once I had written the report and presented it to the Governments I was then asked if I would take on the role of overseeing the process. And the rest is history. That was 15 years ago and here we are."

Geoff says he has been on a journey with the families of the Disappeared and has shared their tumult of emotions over the years.

"They are the basis of everything we do," he says. "Whatever we do, we try to ensure that it has their support and that they know every step of the way what we are doing so that there are no nasty surprises for them.

"If we are going to conduct a search for their loved one, they know in advance and we have a policy that there are no shocks from our end. They hear everything from us. They don't read it in the paper or hear it on the news."

He says the commission gets its information on the deceased from a variety of sources, but never ask what the motivation behind any of the killings was.

"We have intermediaries with former paramilitaries," he said.

"We make lots of appeals through the media. And we receive information from all sorts of different sources.

"But the bottom line of this is that our legislation means that any information we receive cannot be used in a court of law.

"It cannot be passed on to anyone or any organisation. It can only be used for the recovery and repatriation of victims. So it is a copper-bottomed guarantee that anyone who engages with us won't end up being prosecuted. And our track record speaks for itself.

"Over the years we have spoken to individuals who were personally involved in these events and they have provided absolutely impeccable information and detail for us which has resulted in the recovery of victims.

"We don't ask the question of what motivates them. But I think there is a mix. Some of them are doing it because they are asked to by the republican movement. Others come along of their own volition and talk to us. And I guess in some cases there will be a sense of remorse and they want their consciences cleared. But there is no hard and fast rule to this. We certainly don't ask for an individual's motivation.

"We just don't enquire into it for obvious reasons."

Geoff says that the process provides closure for the families. He says the job comes with a variety of sensitivities that they all have to be mindful of.

"Some of the families have been on this journey for 40-plus years," he says.

"It is closure for them and probably closure for some of those involved also.

"I think that the sensitivities surrounding this job are making sure that the families are protected. And dealing with individuals or information provided by individuals because that is also 40 or more years old. The terrain in a particular spot 40 years ago in probably very different today. One of the classics I remember is speaking to one individual and saying to him: 'Where in relation to the tree line do you think the grave was dug?'

"And he said: 'What tree line?' The trees didn't exist 40 years ago, and it is a mature forest. These are the sort of problems that crop up. And also, people have died in the intervening period.

"So we can't always find or get to people who have that unique and primary information."

It's a bleak but important mission, he says.

"It is grim, but it is also enormously rewarding," he adds. "Professionally and personally. To deal with the families and to see their relief and closure that this process brings is just worth its weight in gold. It is very fulfilling.

"We know all the families personally, very well indeed. We get to feel their pain, without a doubt. All of the cases are horrific, but the circumstances surrounding some of the cases are just appalling.

"For this to happen and then to be denied all those years. It is just horrific and awful.

"We have very good relationships with all the families and it is always a great occasion to meet them and to chat to them. We make sure that they know exactly what we are about. We meet on a quarterly basis formally with our commissioners, secretaries and other experts and just chat through where we are up to at any given point.

"So they are always kept informed and know what we are about. And they have a good idea of the progress we are making, or not as the case might be."

There is no doubt that the families of those lost victims are eternally grateful to him. He is putting some of their pain to rest.

"It is true in the successful cases," he says. "But unfortunately we are left with three outstanding cases where we are really struggling. We just concluded a search for Columba McVeigh two weeks ago. The families are just desperately disappointed at the outcome, and it's a question of where we go next.

"But we are not always sure where we go next, because we are an information-led and driven organisation.

"And if we have got the information we can do things, and if we don't we can't. It's as simple as that."

Geoff says that due to the lack of success in finding Mr McVeigh's body, he is of a mind that the remains could have been moved. Mr McVeigh, from Donaghmore, Co Tyrone, was kidnapped in November 1975.

"Certainly, the information has been passed to us in good faith, of that there is no doubt," he says. "We are sure that the information is valid or was valid.

"We have searched these areas, we have done over 21 acres, which is a vast expanse of peat bogland. It is very challenging in its own right to search. We are just beginning to wonder whether the remains could have been removed by someone unknowingly.

"In other words, the organisation doesn't know that they have been moved. Has someone gone back and moved them? We really are at a loss to explain it.

"We accept that what we have been told is valid, or certainly was valid, but the remains aren't there now.

"It is terribly frustrating. There are months and months of work which have gone into this and expense, of course. And to have a negative result at the end of it is really devastating for the families. Whether we like it or not their expectations are built up over the months. They are thinking we are going to find their loved one and at the end of it we have to go to them and say that we are sorry, we have done all we said we would do, but we haven't found anything.

"It is bitterly disappointing for us. Everyone within the commission team is awfully despondent about it all and just frustrated because we have done so much. I think we have got frustration where the family has got devastation. There is a difference."

Geoff says that there are still two more outstanding cases - that of Joe Lynskey (left) from 1972, and Captain Robert Nairac (right), from 1977, both murdered by the IRA. They are still seeking information on each of these cases.

"With regards Robert Nairac, we haven't got any information at present," he says. "There is a former soldier who used a psychic and she took him to a hillside in Ravensdale Forest, saying that the grave was there. Then a dog handler with a couple of dogs, who says that the dogs hit the same spot and that the grave or human remains were there. As a result of that we did an archaeological excavation a few weeks ago and sadly we didn't find any remains.

"It was pristine ground, there was no evidence of any incursions on it.

"There was no evidence of remains and no evidence of a grave ever being there.

"We don't respond to clairvoyant information, which we do get from time to time. That is standard police force policy."

Geoff is no stranger to the grimmest of killings that most of us only read about in our newspapers. He was involved in trying to find the last two bodies in the Moors Murders case.

"Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett were the two outstanding cases with regards the Moors Murders," he says.

"And they were being recorded as missing persons when we started reviewing this in 1985. Then, of course, in 1997 we found Pauline Reade. Sadly we never found Keith Bennett."

Not being able to locate the remains of victims, particularly children, "haunts him".

"I think the great enlightenment for me was, at the time we were searching for Pauline Reade, her mother had serious psychological problems because of all of this. She was in hospital, she was very poorly. We found her daughter and she got closure.

"Her health improved beyond anyone's expectations because of the closure, the ability to bury her daughter in the family grave and move on."

Geoff, who plans to retire soon, says that his job was a painful but necessary task and, looking back, it has been a worthwhile career.

"It is an enormously rewarding role," he says.

"It is frustrating beyond words on occasions. That we don't get information that can make our job easier, and also that we undertake searching for months and months, sometimes in all sorts of appalling conditions and don't always get the results we want.

"But then, on the occasions that we do get the positive result, it is just the most rewarding job in the world. It really is."

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