Category: Archive

Echo Focus: Into thin air

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“Statistics tell us that that child will not walk more than 100 yards in straight line, and will probably lie down in some particular area to sleep. The circle is 500 yards.”
In contrast, a fit adult male can be long gone before anyone notices. “It may be someone who just wants to move on,” Kenny said.
A teenage runaway, perhaps rebelling against parental authority or opting out of the care system, may not get so far the first time.
Four thousand people were reported missing to gardai in 2004. Almost all were found safe; a few were dead.
And about 20, some of them young immigrants to Ireland, were added to the Garda’s list of 100 or so long-term missing-persons files, a handful of which date back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Seven cases are particularly well known — those of six young adult women who disappeared between 1993 and 1998, and that of a 13-year-old boy who vanished in 1986 on his way to school in Rathfarnham, Dublin. All are presumed, to a near certainty, to have been abducted and murdered.
These unsolved cases, without any remains or a crime scene, were invoked again when an 11-year-old boy disappeared near Midleton, Co. Cork, on Jan. 4, 2005. But a week later, Robert Holohan’s body was found several miles from his home. A 20-year-old neighbor, an engineering student, has been charged with his manslaughter. Cell-phone signals helped focus the search for the victim and to identify the suspect.

Busy website
The case of Philip Cairns, though — the boy who failed to return to school after lunch almost 20 years ago — still baffles police and public alike. His parents keep their number listed in the hope that someone who has information about what precisely happened to him will call. (Every so often, a young Irishman arrested in Britain will give “Philip Cairns” as his name and each time, hoping against hope, a Garda officer must go to check it out.)
On the “Missing Persons” section of the Garda website (www.garda.ie), there’s an artist’s impression of what a 31-year-old Cairns might look like. He also appears on the Garda’s missingkids.ie website, which is linked to the U.S.-based missingkids.com, established by the National Center for Missing Exploited and Children, and to a network of sites in 15 other countries.
“It’s used by 17,000 police forces world-wide,” said Kenny, who this year will mark 30 years on the force. “It has 2.8 million hits a day. Anyone can access it.”
“One in every six kids featured on this site has been located,” he added.
He pointed to a recent case of suicidal teenage girl from Northern Europe featured on the Garda site who was found in a B & B in Dublin City.
Kenny, who is married with one daughter, said he derives the greatest satisfaction from the resolution of a case that was on Garda books for more than 20 years. “It was good detective work — [it took] a little bit of coaxing from other agencies,” he recalled. “This guy had assumed another identity. He turned up in a pub in London and contact was made with the family.”
The Garda Siochana has also established a database to store all reports of missing persons. It’s been helpful particularly in cases of young people who’ve disappeared more than once. “We’ve moved from a paper-based to an electronic-based system,” Kenny said.
Two officers from the bureau were recently in the United States for specialist training in age-progression and other advanced techniques, spending a week with the FBI in Quantico and another week with the NYPD Missing Persons Section. The personal connections made have been hugely important.
“We’re in close contact on a daily basis,” Kenny said.
British police expertise, notably in the area of profiling, has also been invaluable, he said.
Campaigning and a generally higher profile by relatives has been a growing factor also in the issue. Pressure has led to the setting up a state-aided National Missing Person’s Helpline, a non-police avenue for people to offer information.

Sensitive approach
Five years ago this week, a young Limerick City man disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Aengus Shanahan left a pub on St. Joseph Street at 11:30 p.m. He approached the front door of a friend, then apparently changed his mind and walked in another direction. His family has not seen him since. A cousin, a Dublin-based priest, established a website (www.missing.ws) publicizing the circumstances of his case. The Rev. Aquinas Duffy’s website now has numerous other, similar stories.
“The Garda Siochana now has an excellent website, too,” said Duffy, and he praised generally advances in police techniques, as well as the more sensitive approach to what can be an unfolding human tragedy for families.
“Years ago, if a young man was missing, a family might be told: ‘Sure, he’s probably in Barbados right now, enjoying himself.”
Kenny said that nowadays someone filing a report is taken into a room. “It shouldn’t be done at a counter,” the superintendent said.
Duffy and other campaigners, though, believe that the Garda’s Missing Persons’ Bureau is not sufficient. They argue that there should be a special investigative unit tracking missing persons.
Kenny, who has other responsibilities in criminal policy, directs a small full-time staff that acts as a resource for investigations conducted at district level. It advises and keeps track of investigations, and contacts charitable organizations, adoption agencies and police forces abroad. “We put great store by the local,” he said, speaking before the Holohan disappearance and death.
And indeed, in the East Cork case, the local superintendent was in charge of the case, but from the beginning forensic and criminal expertise was available from Dublin. As the search progressed, Assistant Commissioner Tony Hickey, who has a track record in murder cases, took a bigger public role.
Hickey was involved with Operation Trace, set up in 1998 after the sixth mysterious disappearance of a young woman in Leinster. “It was to look at commonalities,” Kenny said. It would also reexamine several murders of young women whose bodies were found in shallow graves.
Gardai don’t believe, however, that Long Island native Annie McCarrick, who disappeared in 1993, and the five other missing women were victims of one man.
RTE crime correspondent Barry Cummins reports in his book about the cases, “Missing,” that that there were prime suspects known to the women in some of the disappearances, but the lack of a body and a crime scene made prosecution problematic.
Operation Trace, with the help of a specially adapted Offenders, Victims and Incident Database (OVID) — which contains the names of 7,500 names — did make a lot of progress generally.
Cummins writes that many women approached the team directly. “These were women who had never made a complaint but had been the victim of sexual assaults, or attempted assaults, or attempted abduction.”
He adds that people with a “professional involvement also contacted the gardai with their concerns about certain individuals.”
And the breakthrough and conviction in a 1979 murder has, Cummins reports, given added impetus and vigor to the investigations in the 1990s cases.
Said Kenny: “There’s probably someone incarcerated at the moment for one or other crimes that probably has something on their conscience that they haven’t felt like sharing with us yet. That’s what I suspect.”
Nonetheless, the abduction and murder of the missing women has been troubling, the superintendent said, in a country where relatively harmless acts of misbehavior are usually spotted and noted.
“You’ll always have somebody there that’ll know you, just when you don’t want it,” Kenny said. “The flip side of that coin is with missing people. Just how the ground can just open up and swallow somebody just amazes me.”
Annie McCarrick was last seen getting on a bus in Dublin. Another victim was taken in broad daylight, walking home from a shopping trip in a local town.

Police family
Kenny was born in a rural Garda station and lived in a series of them throughout his childhood. His mother was one of three sisters from County Clare who married sergeants. His late father, a Mayo native, eventually retired at the rank of inspector.
Kenny had a six-year stint as a dog-handler and he was liaison officer with the Irish soccer team. He then spent a number of years training recruits in Templemore, Co. Tipperary. Among them were people who’d seemed destined for jobs with greater remuneration or who’d completed doctoral degrees. They invariably told him: “I always wanted to join the guards.”
“There’s just incredible variety,” he said, explaining the job’s appeal.
In class, Kenny routinely told trainees: “A missing person report is a possible homicide from the minute the report comes to you.”
Kenny said: “I’d much prefer to go over the top at the beginning. You can never get back information you don’t get at the beginning.

But inevitably, dealing with single people, who live in towns, time is lost.
Sometimes, a person isn’t missed until he or she fails to show at a family occasion.
But people disappear all the time for their own reasons. Fr. Duffy’s website has a special section called “Lost Contacts” for tracing men and women who’ve never been officially missing, but whose whereabouts, particularly in Britain, is not known to siblings and parents in Ireland. So far, it’s been successful in 99 cases. Given that a certain percentage of people are inclined to take off without notice, determining personal circumstances before a disappearance is part of the art of police work.
“What goes on behind the hall door in a house is a very difficult thing to establish 100 percent,” Kenny said. “Things are not always as they seem, and I’m not saying that as a general comment, not for one minute, that that’s a common theme. But families are very intricate mechanisms,
Gardai can find useful links by “scratching below the surface.”
More generally, he said, liaising with close relatives is crucial.
“It’s something we have addressed,” Kenny said.
Sensitivity is also vital, particularly when foul play is suspected. “The turmoil and trauma that they go through is unbelievable,” Kenny said. In fact, one would have to go through the experience to properly empathize with someone in that situation, he added.
In the past, certain red flags point have pointed to a crime: Relatives and friends will stress how a disappearance is entirely out of character; Christmas presents had been bought, or perhaps tickets for a concert; there had been clear plans for the immediate future; things generally were going well.
If old-fashioned police work is still key, Kenny said newer methods are constantly being developed. On a trip to Belgium, he was shown a film about wasps that have been bred to detect human remains. Kenny pointed also to the European Union satellite that photographs every square inch of Europe and can detect when soil has been disturbed.
And if the old must combine with the new, then the local is linked even more closely to the international. The Garda substation in rural Ireland has always been tied to the imposing and impressive Garda Headquarters, once known as the Constabulary Depot. Now new technologies are increasingly linking it to Scotland Yard, to One Police Plaza and to Interpol Headquarters in Lyons.

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