Expert report casts doubts over handing of Limerick man’s disappearance

Denis Walsh at his home in Caherdavin shortly before he went missing on March 9, 1996.

A PRELIMINARY report produced by a UK police expert has raised serious questions about the State’s handling of the 1996 discovery of the remains of Caherdavin man Denis Walsh Jnr and their eventual identification 25 years later.

The 35-page report which was commissioned by Denis Walsh’s father, Denis Walsh Snr (83), is critical of how Gardaí and the Forensic Science Laboratory handled the case.

Denis Walsh Snr has instructed a solicitor and senior counsel to sue the State for what he claims were serious shortfalls in the investigation into the discovery of his son’s remains.

The 23-year-old was reported missing by his family on March 10, 1996.  However, unknown to his family, who were searching for him for 25 years, his partial remains were recovered by Gardaí 28 days after he went missing.

The remains, which included a partial skull with flesh and hair, torso, arms, and hands, were found on the shoreline at Inis Mór on April 7, 1996, but were not identified until February last year.

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Mr Walsh’s parents had been in the Galway area the previous day handing out flyers of their missing son, including at Garda stations.

The police expert’s preliminary report supports Denis Walsh Snr’s view that, based on available evidence, his son’s remains should have been identified sooner.

A day after the remains were found, they were taken to University Hospital Galway for a post mortem on April 8, 1996. The post mortem ruled out foul play and no cause of death was recorded.

Unknown to the Walsh family, their son’s unidentified remains were stored at the hospital’s mortuary for 18 years before being eventually buried in a communal grave at Bohermore, Co Galway, in March 2014.

Mary and Denis Walsh with a photo of their son Denis who went missing in 1996.

The expert report offers a view that from the outset, when the remains were found, Gardaí did not consider the possibility of homicide.

“It would appear that, other than a search, no form of crime scene management was undertaken,” the report states.

It adds that there is no evidence in documents relating to the case, which were supplied to them by Mr Walsh’s lawyers, that that Gardaí took photographs of the remains either at the scene or at the mortuary.

“The required standards of crime scene management were not met when the corpse was discovered, and forensic potential may have been squandered that could have assisted in the identification of the deceased”.

The report also raises questions about Garda policy in 1996 “regarding the attendance of Scenes of Crime officers at the scene of a discovered body”.

“Certainly in the UK in 1996, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) would have been in attendance, where a corpse was discovered in unexplained circumstances.

“It is very difficult to understand how Gardaí failed to link the discovery of the corpse with Mr Walsh (Jnr), because of the timescales and geographical proximity.

The report also noted that it appears that Gardaí “did not routinely check the outstanding missing persons for the area” and that the information available from the pathologist at the time was that the corpse was “male, aged 25 to 35 years, with brown graying hair, who had been in the sea for four to six weeks”.

If these “elimination features” – including monitoring recent missing person reports – were checked, “it is likely that the corpse may have been potentially identified as Mr Walsh (Jnr)”.

If details of Denis Walsh Jnr were reported as a missing person to Garda stations nationwide, “there is no acceptable reason why Mr Walsh Jnr should not have been immediately linked to the discovery of the corpse on Inis Mór on 7th April 1996.

“Even if provisional linkage was made, it would have accelerated the DNA identification process when the technology became available in the Republic of Ireland.”

A letter from the then Minister for Justice Nora Owen to the late Labour Party TD Michael Ferris in May 1997 stated that Garda authorities confirmed that they had completed a missing person’s report for Denis Walsh, including circulating the initial report by telex and via national and local media.

The letter stated that Interpol had also been informed and that local enquiries were made of friends and at locations familiar to Mr Walsh Jnr.

Minister Owen said Gardaí informed her that a limited search of the River Shannon was also undertaken by the Limerick Marine Search and Rescue Unit.

Former Justice Minister Nora Owen

Tissue samples were taken from Mr Walsh’s body in 2007 and forwarded to the Forensic Science Laboratory.

However the expert report found “no explanation for the delay of 11 years in securing these samples or specifically what they were”.

Gardaí have said the bodily samples were examined on dates in July 2008, March 2011, and June 2017, with negative results.

Gardaí eventually took DNA saliva samples from Denis Walsh Jnr’s parents in February 2011, fifteen years after he had disappeared and his unidentified remains recovered.

The report reiterates what was heard at the April 2021 inquest into Mr Walsh’s death, that “the national forensic laboratory failed to compare their samples with that garnered from their son in 2007 because of apparently insurmountable operational challenges, which as the Coroner admits was a ‘missed opportunity’”.

Galway West Coroner Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin told the inquest that in 2007 there was “no (DNA) database and the software was not available to operate a search” for DNA profiles of unidentified remains.

“Each sample would have to be paired individually, which is an enormous time consuming operation and there was not a sufficient number of staff available to conduct a search of this magnitude,” he explained.

He said a database of DNA samples, taken from unidentified bodies, was set up in 2015 “but it only compared with samples taken from living persons after 2015.

“There was no look back for comparison with samples taken prior to 2015” and so the tissue samples taken from Mr Walsh’s body in 2007 were “missed”.

“Had the look-back included existing DNA samples, the identity of (Mr Walsh’s) remains would have been discovered,” he added.

Dr MacLoughlin recorded an open verdict and recommended that all human remains found in the future would be identified “in a timely fashion”.

He said this should be done through the creation of a “list of all human remains in the custody of Coroners in the State, to be circulated among Coroners, Gardai and the Forensic Laboratory”.

He recommended this list should be “updated every three to six months, or with the use of modern communications can be updated immediately”.

“It should be mandatory that DNA samples be taken from all unidentified remains as a national policy and maintained on a database in the National Forensic Laboratory,” Dr MacLoughlin concluded.

Retired Galway West Coroner Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin.

Gardaí said positive identification of Mr Walsh Jnr’s remains was not possible until 2021 when advances were made in DNA technology.

They added that the remains found in 1996 did not include teeth and, because of decomposition of the remains, “fingerprinting was not an option”.

Gardaí who attended the scene in 1996 provided statements in 2021 for Mr Walsh’s inquest.

One Garda said the body included two arms and two hands, while another Garda said there was one arm.

Both Gardaí said a partial skull was recovered, however the “clear recollection” of a doctor who was called to the scene, and who also gave a statement in 2021, was that there was a “torso with no head attached”.

A letter sent from Gardaí to the Wash family on February 10, 2021, acknowledged they had been left with “lots of justifiable questions on how it took so long to identify Denis”.

The letter, signed by a  Garda inspector, states that a Garda who attended the scene had remarked that the remains were “treated with dignity, the body was blessed, and a doctor attended the scene”.

There was no mention in the letter of the scene being sealed off or treated as a potential crime scene.

The letter writer added: “I can assure you that foul play was not suspected, as if it was, the Gardaí in Galway would have been notified at the time and a criminal investigation opened. This was not the case.”

There was a further twist in the case when Denis Walsh Snr provided Gardaí with a letter sent on May 14, 2021 and addressed to the Walsh family, which alleges Denis Jnr was murdered by a named man in Limerick at a named location.

When asked about this, a Garda spokesman said that Gardaí “do not comment on specific lines of enquiry” but that “Gardaí in Limerick continue an active missing persons investigation into this case”.

This reporter asked Gardaí on Friday, 14 October, if any persons had been questioned about the letter received by Denis Walsh Snr and is still waiting a response.

Denis Walsh’s solicitor has sought the Garda files into the disappearance of Denis Jnr and recovery of his body, but this request has been refused.

Gardaí have cited GDPR for the refusal, stating that they could not release the information because Denis Jnr is dead and so is not in a position to agree to the disclosure.

Denis Walsh’s coffin carried to his funeral Mass 25 years after he went missing.