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UNSOLVED MYSTERY – 8 missing. 3 killed. But who is behind Ireland’s ‘vanishing triangle’ women?

Nick Harding

29 Aug 2021

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, on a cold winter’s day in November 1995, 21-year-old Josephine “Jo Jo” Dullard left Dublin to return to her hometown of Callan, County Kilkenny, to start a new job in a restaurant.

She never arrived. After travelling by bus and car as far as a village called Moone, 46 miles from Dublin, where she’d worked in a pub for two years, she called a friend from a payphone to say she was going to hitchhike to the town of Carlow, another 12 miles away.

She had friends there she could stay with, before finally getting home. During that call, a car pulled up and the driver offered Jo Jo a lift – she has not been seen or heard of since.

Presumed dead, her remains have never been found, but her family has never stopped looking for her.

Her sister Kathleen Bergin, 57, tells Fabulous: “Jo Jo’s disappearance was absolutely devastating. Our lives were turned upside down. We are still trying to make sense of it all today.

“There are so many mixed emotions. Initially we felt helpless, then angry because we weren’t getting anywhere with finding out what happened to her.

“It was a different Ireland back then, in many ways. A lot of people hitchhiked and there were no mobile phones, no way of contacting family.

“Jo Jo was the baby of our family – I can’t bear to think about how she died.” Shockingly, Jo Jo is just one of eight women who vanished in a triangular-shaped area in the Irish province of Leinster around the ’90s.

It’s believed by police and their families that some were murdered by a serial killer, or people they knew, or even a few different serial killers, and their remains are likely to be buried in remote fields, bogs and forests.

In the three years preceding the disappearances, another three women were also murdered within the triangle. No one has been charged with these crimes either.

Despite the number of victims and the terrible toll the disappearances have taken on their families, the mystery is not well-known outside of Ireland, and even within the country it is not common knowledge.

Writer Claire McGowan investigated the cases for her book The Vanishing Triangle, available on Audible. She believes a culture of secrecy and victim-blaming played a role during initial investigations.

“Ireland was going through huge social change at that time,” she explains. “Attitudes to women were still backwards, comparable to what they would have been in the ’50s and ’60s in England.”

In November 2020, on the 25th anniversary of Jo Jo’s disappearance, a review of the case was launched and it was upgraded from a missing person to a murder inquiry, with new detectives sure Jo Jo had met a violent end.

The publicity has led to new leads currently being investigated.

Antoinette Smith’s, 27, body was discovered in the Wicklow Mountains, April 3, 1988 30-year-old Patricia Doherty’s body was discovered in the Wicklow Mountains, June 21, 1992

“We must keep hoping now that they will get that break,” says Kathleen, a part-time charity worker who lives in Callan. “Jo Jo’s out there somewhere, in a shallow grave, and after all these years she deserves to come home.”

The youngest of five, Jo Jo’s early years were marred by tragedy. Her father John passed away suddenly before she was born and her mother Nora died of cancer in 1983, when Jo Jo was just nine.

Kathleen was 19 at the time of their mother’s death and still living at home, so raised her little sister, with help from their other siblings, Mary, who died of cancer in 2018, aged 68, Nora, now 70, and Tom, who passed away in 2005 aged 55.

“Jo Jo experienced such hardship in her short life, but was a very kind-hearted, beautiful girl,” Kathleen recalls. “It took me a long time to accept that she was no longer with us.

“You try to hang on to the ‘what if’, but eventually you have to be realistic and accept it. It’s hard to believe that we’re still here now looking for answers. It’s weighing down on our shoulders.”

While it’s believed by police and the victims’ families that at least three of the 11 women knew their attacker, the multiple disappearances suggest more than one serial killer may also have been operating in the area between 1988 and 1998.

In 1998, an investigation called Operation Trace was launched by the Gardai – Ireland’s national police force – to relook at the cases.

The first woman to go missing and never be seen again was American Annie McCarrick, 27, who was working in Ireland after having studied in Dublin. She vanished on March 26, 1993 and was last seen en route to the Wicklow town of Enniskerry.

In September last year, private investigators hired by Annie’s family announced they had uncovered new evidence that could potentially lead to a breakthrough, but there have yet to be further updates on the case.

In July 1993, Eva Brennan, 39, went missing after a family lunch in Dublin. At the time she’d been suffering from depression and, while her disappearance was not included in the Operation Trace inquiry, her family have long suspected foul play and she is widely considered to be one of the Vanishing Triangle victims.

On January 3, 1994, Imelda Keenan, 22, said she was going to the post office in Waterford. She was spotted crossing the road by witnesses, turned a corner – and was never seen again.

Details of her case were privately analysed by detectives from Operation Trace, but there was no firm evidence that she might have been the victim of a crime.

Like Eva Brennan, Gardai had initially deemed her disappearance unsuspicious – and failed to put any substantial efforts into finding her.

Jo Jo was the next to vanish, followed in August 1996 by Fiona Pender, who was 25 and seven months pregnant when she went missing from her flat in Tullamore, County Offaly.

In April 1997, three women and two men were arrested and questioned, but all five were released without charge 12 hours later.

Her distraught family believe they know the identity of her killer, but police have never been able to obtain enough evidence to convict the individual.

Tragically, four years after she disappeared, her heartbroken father Sean took his own life, aged 50.

The next victim, Ciara Breen, 17, disappeared from her family home in Dundalk, County Louth, after she snuck out of a window in the early hours of February 13, 1997 to meet a local man, who is believed to have killed her.

He was arrested in 1999 and 2015, before dying of a heroin overdose in 2017.

He previously admitted kissing the teenager but, despite witnesses claiming they had been in a long-term relationship, he denied it and refused to answer questions while under arrest.

Then, in February 1998, came the vanishing of 19-year-old Fiona Sinnott, mum to an 11-month-old daughter, Emma. She disappeared after a night out with friends in Broadway, County Wexford. She was reported missing after she failed to show up for coffee with her family days later.

Her sister, Diane Sinnott, 44, from Wexford, explains that the family have never given up hope of finding out what happened to Fiona. They have organised several searches in areas of interest, and are awaiting permission to investigate two new sites.

“There have been so many let-downs over the years,” Diane tells Fabulous. “It’s a living nightmare. It’s agony. We just want answers. We know there are people with information that could help us.” Like Jo Jo, Fiona was also the youngest of five siblings.

“We were all best friends. We’d meet up every Friday as a family and I’d spend time with her at the weekends, too, we’d go to a disco or to see a live band. She wanted to be a chef and was going for interviews before she disappeared,” adds Diane.

After the disappearance, baby Emma went to live with her father and the family lost touch with her. In 2004, Fiona’s father Pat died of what his family describe as a broken heart and in 2017, Fiona’s eldest sister Caroline, who was nine years older, passed away suddenly, aged 47.

Diane continues: “The impact on the family has been huge. It has changed all our lives. The police are really frustrated. Like us, they just want someone to come forward with any information.

“We’re still looking for answers and are desperate to give her a proper burial. It’s been way too long. We think about her the whole time. She should be here with us.”

Five months after Fiona Sinnott vanished, Deirdre Jacob, 18, disappeared in broad daylight from the gate of her home at Roseberry in Newbridge, County Kildare, on Tuesday, July 28, 1998.

In addition, the other women murdered in the same region during this time include Antoinette Smith, 27, whose body was discovered in the Wicklow Mountains on April 3, 1988, nine months after she went missing.

Then on June 21, 1992 the remains of Patricia Doherty, 30, who’d been missing since Christmas 1991, were discovered in a shallow grave in the same mountains. Two years later, the body of Marie Kilmartin, who disappeared aged 35, surfaced in a watery grave in a bog in Borness, Mountmellick – yet no one has ever been convicted.

Unbelievably, the crimes never seemed to be big news, and Claire McGowan, who grew up in Northern Ireland around the time of the disappearances, says she was only made aware of them after she started writing about missing people.

“I was surprised to find out about them. The news at the time was dominated by politics,” she says.

Indeed, ’90s Irish politics, social change and culture created a perfect environment where crimes against women could often go unsolved and unpunished.

The country was still deeply conservative, women had few rights and were expected to play the role of mothers and homemakers.

Abortion was outlawed in the country at the time, contraception was only legalised in 1980, under severe restrictions, and divorce only allowed after a narrowly won referendum in 1995.

“The police dismissed some of the disappearances and thought the victims had run off with a man or had taken their own lives, even when there was no evidence,” Claire says.

“There was a lot of misogyny. Assumptions were made about the women, for example if they’d had children before getting married.”

Journalist and author Barry Cummins investigated the cases and wrote a book about them, Missing: The Unsolved Cases Of Ireland’s Vanished Women And Children.

He believes it is possible that some of the cases are the crimes of one man, or maybe two men working together.

“When you look at the numbers and cases in detail, it would be likely that some were the work of a serial killer,” he says. “The cases of Annie McCarrick, Jo Jo Dullard and Deirdre Jacob may be linked to the three cases where bodies were found.

“The terrifying alternative is six killers, all in the same part of Ireland, did the same horrific crime in a 10-year timespan, got away and could do it again.”

Worryingly, as all these cases remain unsolved, there is a chance the individuals responsible for them could strike again

Barry Cummins

He points to several possible culprits, including Robert Howard, who was convicted of killing Hannah Williams, 14, in Kent in 2001 and had lived in Ireland at the time of the disappearances.

He died in prison in England in 2015, and in July this year a coroner ruled he was responsible for the death of County Tyrone schoolgirl Arlene Arkinson, who went missing in August 1994 after a night out in Donegal.

“It might not have been him, but someone like him who was able to move around,” says Barry.

“We are not short of suspects, but we are short of answers.”

Worryingly, as all these cases remain unsolved, there is a chance the individuals responsible for them could strike again.

Meanwhile, the families of the victims carry on searching and praying. “Somebody decided to take Jo Jo’s life away and that person is still out there,” says Kathleen “I hope to god they never do this again, but it’s always there in the back of your mind that it could happen.

She’s been missing for more than 25 years, but we will never give up trying to find out what happened to our baby sister – she has no one to speak for her now except us.”

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