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Sunday 11 December 2016

30 years on, none of us who searched for Philip could believe this twist

I knew Eamon Cooke - known as 'Alpha Seven' to gardai - was weird, but I never expected stunning link to Philip Cairns case

Eamon Cooke is taken into court by officers in 2006
Eamon Cooke is taken into court by officers in 2006

It's 30 years since Philip Cairns went missing while walking to school in Rathfarnham.

I worked on the case, which is surely the country's most high profile disappearance. But, like the dozens of my colleagues who doggedly investigated it, I could never have foreseen the developments of recent days.

On October 23, 1986, the 13-year-old schoolboy was reported missing by his family. He had left his home at Ballyroan Road at 1.30pm that day to return to Colaiste Eanna, a short distance away. He was never seen alive again and his body has never been found.

His disappearance sparked off one of the biggest manhunts in the history of the State. The fact that a young boy could disappear in such circumstances, to vanish into thin air, traumatised the city and indeed the country.

On October 24, I was assigned to the garda team based at Rathfarnham station to investigate his disappearance.

It was one of the most thorough and comprehensive inquiries that I have been involved in. For weeks and months, more than 50 officers worked the case around the clock.

Discovery

Hundreds of lines of enquiry were pursued and hundreds of witnesses interviewed. Every scrap of information was followed up. The discovery of Philip's schoolbag in a laneway near Colaiste Eanna six days after he went missing provided some hope.

But the breakthrough never came. The years passed and the Cairns case remained open. Appeals continued to be made. Every new lead was followed up and investigated.

But despite all the work, Philip's disappearance remained a seemingly unsolvable mystery.

Until the extraordinary events of recent weeks, that is.

It's now emerged that a victim of paedophile Eamon Cooke, a pirate radio DJ, recently came forward with new information from the day of Philip's disappearance.

The witness was only nine years old at the time. She told gardai she saw Cooke strike Philip with an implement in his radio studio in Inchicore.

She said she saw the boy bleeding and unconscious on the floor. She fainted and when she woke, his body was gone and she was in a car being driven by Cooke.

As a former detective, my first thoughts on hearing of this development was that, at last, the suffering of the Cairns family could be coming to an end. This is the strongest lead yet in the case.

Cooke died two weeks ago but not before he was interviewed by gardai in his hospice bed. It's reported that he corroborated some details of the witness's account but did not admit to abducting and murdering the schoolboy.

This is an extraordinary twist in the case. Eamon Cooke was never a person of interest or a suspect in the original investigations or any subsequent reviews. The claim that Cooke was involved initially surprised me. I knew Cooke, having first come across him in Dublin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a motorcycle garda at the time, attached to the Crime Task Force.

As bizarre and strange as it now seems, Eamon Cooke was, at that time, well known in garda circles for pseudo-vigilante activities. He patrolled the streets of Dublin's south inner city in a battered green Jaguar Mark 1.

Code

He even used a blue light on the top of his car, to appear like an unmarked garda car, and deployed a CB radio to communicate with garda Command and Control section in Dublin Castle. Incredibly, he was even given the code sign 'Alpha Seven', an official garda code designation in the city's 'A' district.

Cooke always 'patrolled' at night, often pursuing stolen vehicles and calling in burglaries and assaults.

Personally, I thought Cooke was a weird character, an oddball. At that point, his child abuse was obviously not known of. As it now turns out, he may not only have been a paedophile but also a child killer.

With Cooke dead and in the absence of any remains or crime scene, the investigation will now to turn to the schoolbag. It can only be hoped that DNA analysis of this item can link it to the DJ. Clearly this would corroborate the witness's story and put Cooke in the frame.

As a detective who worked on this case, and in light of this compelling new witness evidence and Cooke's later paedophile convictions, it's clear that there's now a strong case that the DJ abducted and murdered Philip Cairns.

For the sake of justice, and the Cairns family, I hope it can be proven.

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