Ireland's 'Vanishing Triangle'

For more than a decade, there's been a deepening mystery around Dublin: a growing number of young women have disappeared. But finally, the investigations may be yielding some answers.

The frightening disappearances began in 1993, with American Annie McCarrick, a 26-year-old from upstate New York, who had gone to college in Ireland, returned their intent on absorbing the country's history and her family's heritage.

She shared an apartment with two female roommates in Sandymount, a quiet residential section of Dublin. In March 1993, Annie was eagerly awaiting a visit from her mother.

On Friday, March 26, just days before her mother was due to arrive, Annie didn't show up as expected to pick up her paycheck at work. On Saturday, when her friends arrived at her apartment for a previously arranged dinner party, there was no sign of Annie.

Annie's father, John McCarrick, said he knew immediately something was terribly wrong when her friends in Dublin called him to say they didn't know where Annie was. "She was always reaching out and touching someone. … She would never have gone a day without talking to someone. … We were very, very concerned," he said.

The McCarricks left immediately for Ireland, where the hunt for their daughter became one of the largest searches in Ireland's history.

In their fear and desperation, the family also turned to seasoned investigator Brian McCarthy, recommended by officials at the American Embassy.

"There were very difficult days, those days, to live with the McCarrick family and see day after day the anguish that they had, the terror of what they felt might have happened to their only child," McCarthy recalled.

The last thing anyone knows for sure about Annie McCarrick is that on the morning she disappeared, she'd run errands at the local bank and grocery store. What happened after that, police can only guess. One witness claims to have seen Annie later that day on a No. 44 city bus. The bus' route ends in the classic Irish small town of Enniskerry, where Annie frequently visited.

Witnesses next place Annie around 9 p.m. that night at Johnny Fox's pub, 3 miles outside Enniskerry, nestled at the base of the Wicklow Mountains. It's another spot stepped in Irish tradition and popular with both locals and tourists.

What makes the testimony of witnesses at Johnny Fox's more frightening is the fact that they say Annie, who had no apparent boyfriend at the time, was seen with an unidentified man. A police composite sketch of Annie's alleged companion was distributed around the country. And authorities began an exhaustive search of the countryside around Johnny Fox's.

Soon after they had arrived in Ireland, Nancy and John McCarrick saw firsthand the friendship and feelings their daughter had engendered. Still, it was small comfort on a day when police were searching for their daughter's body.

A Sorrow That Would Hit Other Families

The McCarricks' dedication in the search for their daughter engendered respect and compassion all over Ireland -- particularly from families of other young women who had gone missing.

Collette McCann recalls watching the McCarricks' grief on her local news, not knowing she would soon be experiencing a similar tragedy, when her sister vanished.

"I remember seeing her father on the television in Ireland and I remember seeing the sorrow and the sadness and the anguish on that family's face. And I remember thinking to myself, 'God bless them.' I couldn't imagine anybody going through that. But then it was a very short 12 weeks later that we were going through the exact same thing with Eva," said McCann.

Her sister, Eva Brennan, vanished after she left a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon.

"I felt despair as to what could have happened to these girls. Annie was missing, and Eva Brennan went missing. To me, it was like a bad dream reoccurring," investigator McCarthy said.

And as it turned out, the nightmare was only beginning. Just months after Annie McCarrick vanished from Dublin, there was another case from the Irish suburbs that would turn out to have disturbing similarities to Annie's.

At first, no one made a connection, and no one suspected that the number of missing women would continue to grow.

Just as with Annie, the search for Eva yielded no answers. And there were other similarities between the cases, according to Geraldine Niland, a journalist writing a book on Ireland's missing women.

Both women, Annie McCarrick and Eva Brennan, were visible one moment and then gone. And Eva was just like Annie. She was quite close to her family and maintained contact. It wasn't -- it wouldn't be like her to kind of vanish or disappear.

From the start, both families worried that their loved ones were victims of foul play. And as time went on, the possibilities of what may have happened became more profoundly disturbing.

And the questions surrounding the disappearances became even more chilling as the sadness and the terror spread. Annie McCarrick and Eva Brennan disappeared in Dublin's closest suburbs. Then, the mystery moved out into the quiet countryside. In November 1995, 21-year-old JoJo Dullard went missing.

"JoJo lived with her sister in a small town in County Kilkenny. Thursday, Nov. 9, she met with friends in Dublin, and she was supposed to catch a bus and return by Thursday evening. However, she got slightly sidetracked chatting with her friends, and she missed the last bus," said Niland.

JoJo chose what was then a common transportation alternative for women in Ireland: hitchhiking. Her first ride took her halfway to the little town of Moone. "She phoned her friend from a phone box there. And she told her friend that she was hitching a ride, and waiting for another ride to come along. Then, suddenly, when she was talking with her friend, she said, 'Oh, a car is coming, and I have to go now.' And she put down the phone. And that is the last we head of JoJo Dullard," Niland said.

JoJo had been raised by her older sisters who worried when she'd left for the larger world of Dublin to become a beautician.

"I gave her a little ring and a little bracelet, and I'll always remember in the room, she says to me, 'Mary, when I finish my beauty course in Dublin, you know, I'll come home to you and I'll do your hair and I'll have you looking nice.' And I never saw her again. It's terrible," said her sister Mary Phelan.

Life at Mary Phelan's rural farmhouse took on one focus, pressuring authorities to keep JoJo's case alive.

Funds were raised to erect a small monument for JoJo, placed next to the phone booth from which she made that final call. Mary's tireless actions were inspired, she says, by a man who became her role model: Annie McCarrick's father.

"When Annie disappeared, I admired her dad. I saw him on the television, and I thought, 'My God, what is this man going through? What is he really going through?' That's been a great help to me. If John can go out there and do so much for Annie, then why can't I do it? He was a great influence on me," she said.

Annie and Jojo were united in a way -- authorities placed their missing posters, less than a block apart, on Dublin's busiest street.

The Vanishing Triangle

As time went on, so many young women disappeared that an area around Dublin would became known as the Vanishing Triangle. And just recently, there have been headlines suggesting a chilling answer to the mysteries there.

The Vanishing Triangle begins in Dublin where McCarrick and Brennan disappeared, then goes southwest to Moone, where JoJo Dullard vanished. From there, that sad geometry heads north, to the seaside town of Dundalk, where 17-year-old Ciara Breen went missing.

On Feb. 13, 1997, Ciara and her mother talked late into the night. "She said, 'Well, I'm tired, mom. I'm going to bed.' She gave me the, the kiss and the hug, and she says, `Good night, mom. See you in the morning. I love you.' And that was it. That was the last, and that's really what I have to hang on to now, that the last thing she said to me was 'I love you,'" her mom recalls.

Police believe Ciara left the house on her own later. Her window latch was open from the inside. It's tragic and unbelievable enough when only one woman so completely disappears. But in the Vanishing Triangle, Ciara Breen was not the last.

In February 1998, 19-year-old Fiona Sinnott disappeared, after leaving a pub in Wexford. Earlier, in the town of Tullamore, 25-year-old model Fiona Pender went missing. As the numbers mounted, the Irish press was proposing a chilling possibility, one the police were beginning to take more seriously -- the disappearances could be tied to a serial killer.

"You have the same profile, young, attractive females, who have all disappeared inside a very close geographical triangle. The common denominator is there's no evidence left behind, there's no evidence at all. No shoe, no belt, no purse, no watch, nothing," McCarthy said.

In July 1998, fears of a serial killer reached a peak with the disappearance of an 18-year-old student teacher, Deirdre Jacob.

As with Annie McCarrick, the last things known for sure about Deirdre's whereabouts were captured by security cameras: the local bank, the post office and passing by on the main street of Newbridge, where she lived. Police established that after doing errands and visiting her grandmother in the middle of town, Deirdre was returning home along a country road she'd walked all her life.

"Neighbors saw her about 200 yards from her home. And then, suddenly, she was gone. She literally was standing at the side of the road, about to cross over into her home, and then, she was gone," Niland said.

Deirdre Jacob's shocking disappearance in broad daylight crystallized fears that a serial killer may be roaming the Irish countryside. Police responded to the increased barrage from the press and public by forming a special task force, Operation Trace.

For the first time, the information on all the missing women was gathered in one place. Six cases were targeted for review with a fresh eye by detectives not involved with the original investigations.

Only the most basic characteristics unite the missing women. They are all between 17 and 39 and they all disappeared within an 80-mile radius of Dublin.

The Trace operation marked a new commitment to investigate mysteries the missing women's families still live with every day.

Under the strain of their ordeal, John and Nancy McCarrick divorced five years after Annie disappeared.

It's now 13 years later, and the grip of that mystery has not loosened.

The passage of time has brought no conclusion about what happened to Annie McCarrick after she left her Dublin apartment on a Friday afternoon. But just recently the Irish press posed a chilling answer. Headlines linked Annie to a man known as the Werewolf; his real name is Robert Howard.

"Robert Howard is a known sexual deviant, a killer, a rapist, murderer. Robert Howard is the personification of evil in Ireland," said Jilly Beattie, a reporter.

At 61, Howard is currently serving a life sentence in England for the 2001 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl there.

And now he's of interest in several cases in and beyond the Vanishing Triangle.

"Robert Howard was connected with Annie McCarrick's case, Jojo Dollard's case and various other cases in Northern Ireland and in the south of Ireland and in England," said Beattie.

Howard's got a string of sexual convictions, including an attack on a 6-year-old girl and the rape of a 58-year-old woman.

"We understand from our own contacts that he was in and out of the area, around the time that Annie was enjoying life in Ireland," said Beattie.

"All the while he relied on his quaint Irishness as a man who wore tweed jackets and just looked like an ordinary man, to encourage people to trust him," she added.

Investigators say Annie felt very safe in her Irish neighborhood and had the kind of outgoing innocence to be easy prey for a man like Howard.

Police in Dublin will say nothing on the record as to what may or may not be any interest in Robert Howard and these cases. Reportedly, the clues linking Howard are his presence in the area when the women vanished and his long history of abductions.

But Jilly Beattie says her contacts imply there may be more.

She said some of her sources "would put their life savings on the fact that Robert Howard was involved in these murders. And it's crippling for them as investigators, as professional men and women, that the clues are there, but the evidence isn't there to back it up," she said.

"We don't have a crime scene. We don't have a body. That obviously creates its own difficulty. And it makes it harder for the investigator to utilize new technology," said John O'Mahony, who now oversees these cases. And while Irish police never make public comments on possible persons of interest, O'Mahony did confirm the serial killer theory was in play.

Another Possible Suspect?

While the notion that a serial killer was at work in the vanishing triangle seems ever more likely, there are conflicting theories over who it might be.

Geraldine Niland said she's got a different possibility.

The Wicklow mountain area outside of Dublin is the last spot witnesses place missing American Annie McCarrick.

Investigators now believe, even if she didn't disappear there, it's where she might be buried.

Seven years after Annie vanished, a rape case in the same area set off alarms. The man involved was a 36-year-old carpenter named Larry Murphy.

"[He]very much looks like the boy next door, and he had no criminal record, until he came to light in February 2000 when he abducted a young businesswoman who he had been stalking," Niland said.

It happened in the town of Carlow, within the area now known as the Vanishing Triangle.

Murphy waited one day in the parking area near her office, his car parked in slot five. When she walked by he jumped out, hit her in the face hard enough to break her nose and forced her into his car trunk.

He sped off, drove nine miles to a secluded spot and raped her. Then forced her back in the trunk.

"He then drove another 14 miles to another location where he then took her out of the boot of the car and raped her again. And this second location was in the woods … in County Wicklow," Niland said.

By some pure coincidence, the life of this woman was spared. "Literally, out of nowhere, two men appeared. And this obviously spooked Larry Murphy. He panicked and sped off in the car," Niland said.

Murphy, easily identified by the woman and the hunters, was quickly apprehended by the Irish police, known as the Gardai.

Reports quickly noted that a surprise attack by a total stranger was a profile that could fit the Vanishing Triangle cases.

There were plenty of questions. Did he bear any resemblance to a police sketch made after witnesses said they saw a man with Annie in a Wicklow area pub? There was a lot of circumstantial interest.

The victim in the Carlow rape case was the same age as Annie McCarrick. It turns out Murphy lived a few towns away from where JoJo Dullard disappeared. And he was working as a carpenter near where Deirdre Jacob vanished.

Interesting for reporters, but not enough for police to make a case.

Murphy was sentenced to 15 years in the rape case. Officials say since his conviction the disappearances have stopped. But now, ironically, under Irish law, while he's in prison for one crime, he cannot be questioned about any other without some convincing clues.

Before news of a Vanishing Triangle spread across Ireland, young women felt safe enough to hitchhike on country roads.

But that string of disappearances shook the whole country's sense of safety, and derailed the lives of individual families.

While police were forming a special unit to investigate these cases, a candlelight mass for all of Ireland's missing was held in the town of Moone. Families were acknowledging together what they separately feared -- that their loved ones were never coming back.

After years of fundraising by the families, the monument Mary Phelan envisioned became a reality.

"For Mary, this is how she coped with the disappearance of JoJo," said Niland. "Her great efforts culminated in a wonderful garden in Kilkenny Castle with this monument to missing people.

The design is based on the notion of hands reaching out to the missing, with the casts for the hands taken from the families of the vanished.

"Because we don't know where they are. They could be scattered around Ireland. It'll be nice to think that this is where they are. This is the monument we made to them," said Collette McCann, whose sister, Eva, is one of the women who went missing in Ireland's Vanishing Triangle.