Nicola Tallant: ‘Why DNA evidence could solve the ‘Kerry Baby’ murder case’

The baby’s remains were back in the ground before anyone knew that new DNA samples had been taken following an exhumation of the Caherciveen plot.

he forensic anthropologists and the Garda present no doubt showed Baby John more respect than he had in his five days of life back in April 1984.

It’s extraordinary to think how far science has come since the newborn washed up in a fertiliser bag on White Strand beach in Kerry with 28 stab wounds and a severed spine, far more violence than it would have ever taken to kill an infant.

It’s even more amazing that we are still seeking answers to his mystery birth and death in a place where a dark secret has been long kept.

But it seems that the tiny little traces of what was once a life will untangle this mystery and that Gardai are very close to identifying the family of Baby John.

With advancements in forensic science and in particular the use of trace DNA cold cases are being solved across the world and killers who believed they had got away with murder are having to face up to the sins of their past.

This year a 1989 murder of a 14 year old girl in Las Vegas was solved with a tiny amount of the suspects DNA which had been kept safe since Stephanie Isaacson was found dumped on a Nevada roadside.

It was matched using genome sequencing and public genealogy data which has been collected in abundance across the US since finding ancestors became fashionable.


White Strand, centre, where ‘Baby John’ was found on in 1984. Photo: Don McMonagle

Famously the so called Golden State Killer was unveiled as Joseph James DeAngelo (72) in the same way.

DeAngelo was a former policeman and his arrest was so sensational it has made it to TV a number of different times. Cops had used a sample of DNA from a crime scene to track his relatives from a genealogical site and then worked backwards from there to identify him.

Since then at least 40 cold cases have been solved across the US in a similar fashion with many more to come.


Former policeman Joseph DeAngelo who was identified as the Golden State Killer

The use of ‘familial’ DNA to help solve cases was first used in the UK in the hunt for the suspect who murdered and raped pensioner Gladys Godfrey.

Jason Ward was identified despite not being on the National DNA database when scientists from Birmingham found a close relative and were later able to hone in on the killer.

The case of Baby John is slightly different in that the only DNA available is from the victim and not the perpetrator.

However, identifying the family and circumstances of his birth could eventually lead Gardai to the unidentified person who stabbed him to death.


Superintendent Flor Murphy launching the new investigation into the murder of ‘Baby John’ in 2018. Photo by Michelle Cooper Galvin

When cold case detectives from the Serious Organised Crime Bureau started to look at the case again in 2018 they realised that a tiny amount of DNA had been sitting in a freezer in the labs of Forensic Science Ireland.

It was old but intact and they were able to get a profile from it.

Then they asked people to come forward and they controversially did some door to door enquiries on Valentia Island which was seen as ‘blackening’ a community that lives there.

The Kerry Baby’s case has always been caustic and throws up huge emotions every time it is mentioned.

Bad policing in the early days has marred the investigation to this day and continues to take the focus from the crime.

Baby John was murdered in a savage attack.

Twice the knife penetrated his heart and when he was cast adrift into the wild Atlantic he should never have been heard of again but instead the wind and the tide conspired and when a farmer went looking for his cattle he found him like a piece of driftwood on the rocks.

The Garda’s ‘elite’ murder squad quickly took over the investigation, arriving from Dublin with all their experience in matters of death.

But instead of carefully picking through the evidence and the facts for the truth they heard a story about a local woman who’d been having an affair, a woman who’d been pregnant but had no baby.

Joanne Hayes told them she’d given birth in a field. Her baby, she said, was a still born.

By the time they dug up her dead infant the officers had already extracted detailed murder confessions from Joanne and her family and what resulted was an 81 day Tribunal that saw her cast as a villain and quizzed in detail about many personal and intimate matters.

As the years wore on the treatment of the Hayes family and the reluctance by the State to apologise to them weighed heavy on the Kerry Babies case and for the second time many wished that the victim at the heart of it, Baby John, would just fade into oblivion.

Instead at his grave in Caherciveen cemetery a headstone told of his fate while his murder and identity remain unsolved.

Most experts believe that the answers to who Baby John is lie within the community around White Strand and 100 DNA samples have been tested against the sample from the Forensic Science Ireland freezer.

Last month, quietly, the infants remains were exhumed and a second sample was taken which it is hoped will create a full profile – a more exact match which could be used to identify the parents and not just relatives.


The grave of Baby John in Holy Cross cemetery

If that is successful detectives will finally get a chance at conducting a murder hunt for his killer.

‘Why new DNA evidence could finally solve the ‘Kerry Baby’ murder case is available on the Crime World podcast.

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