She still remembers the 19-year-old’s smile captured in the last photo ever taken of her son as he set off on his adventure in France. It was the summer of 1987 when Trevor O’Keeffe disappeared. This July had been a time of celebration for the Irish in France. Stephen Roche had just won the Tour de France and Trevor spontaneously decided to tour the country.
for years Eroline O’Keeffe had been extremely protective of her children. Until they were 18, they waited at the end of their drive in Naas, Co. Kildare for them to come home from the late night discos.
When her “hilarious and mischievous” son – the fourth of five – told her he wanted an adventure, she supported her.
Before he left, she took one last picture. Trevor wore a knit hat, headphones around his neck and had a large backpack on his back. His smiling face was the last thing she saw as she waved goodbye to him.
This weekend, Eroline laments the shortage of cell phones in 1987. “There weren’t any. That was a big handicap compared to today. When he left, we waited for the landline to ring,” she said.
Three weeks passed, but Eroline wasn’t worried about Trevor: “We didn’t have a bad feeling. We just assumed he was having a great time.”
Unnoticed by the family, Trevor had strayed into the hunting grounds of a sadistic killer while hitchhiking through northern France. A friend had taken him to the motorway in the Marne region. There he began dialing an elevator, and somewhere along the route — “wrong place, wrong time” — as Eroline puts it, he climbed into a white Volkswagen van driven by former French commando Pierre Chanal.
Now, even all these years later, Eroline still feels that it was partly her fault that he got in that van on August 8th.
“I still blame myself a lot. We all looked into elevators years ago. Public transport wasn’t the same back then, and I used to tell him, ‘If you can, take someone in a uniform. Then you know you’re safe. I didn’t know Chanal was going to be a soldier.”
Chanal was a distinguished army veteran. He was super fit and an expert in hand-to-hand combat. Even for those closest to him, there was no sign of a dark side. His work was described by superiors as “exemplary” and he received the French Medal for Bravery in 1985 for his service in Lebanon.
But in truth, he was a sadistic serial killer believed to be responsible for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of several young men in the so-called “Mourmelon Triangle of Death.”
Five days later, Trevor’s body was found in a shallow grave in a wooded area 100 km from the Triangle.
He had been brutally beaten, raped and strangled. The cord used was knotted using a method used by French commandos. Next to it was his sister’s business card. She’d given it to him to have the charges reversed if he ever got into trouble.
It took a week for word to reach the family and when the call came they were still unsure if it was Trevor’s remains that had been found.
Eroline recalls those early days as “an absolute nightmare. I slept on the kitchen floor so I could hear the phone when it rang.”
She asked French authorities for a description of her son’s body, but was told it was too decomposed to identify. “Which was a lie,” she says.
Eroline traveled to France, but authorities had buried her son in a black plastic bag in a cheap wooden coffin in a pauper’s grave hours before her arrival. The exhumation of the body took six weeks, during which a mechanical excavator broke up the coffin.
Devastated and clueless, she returned home, determined to bring her son’s killer to justice. It occupied her every waking moment.
“If I saw someone walking down the street in Trevor’s long Crombie coat, I always thought it was him,” she said.
Months passed before she received a letter from a French woman telling her that she had found Trevor’s things in a forest.
The woman had given the bag to the police, but she told them to keep the backpack, tent and documents with his contact details, so she wrote to the address. Eroline borrowed from her credit union and traveled to Paris to put pressure on the French police.
But they seemed uninterested. Leads were not followed and evidence was lost or destroyed.
A year after Trevor’s murder, the family’s fortunes took a turn. Two officers patrolling came across a white Volkswagen van parked at the other end of a cul-de-sac in the countryside. They approached Chanal and asked him why he was so excited and why he was walking around with a shovel.
Peering through the window, they saw a terrified Hungarian hitchhiker, Palazs Falvay, in the back of the van. Bound, chained and naked, he underwent a 20-hour ordeal videotaped by Chanal. He was about to be strangled and Chanal was looking for a place to bury him when police arrived at the scene. Falvay later told police that the more Chanal pleaded for mercy, the more he enjoyed the torture.
Eroline then went through sleepless nights for years. “I would see Trevor if I didn’t see him. I would go through what I should have done and what I could have done if there was nothing I could have done,” she said.
In 1990, Chanal was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Eroline was sure that this was her son’s killer. It was later revealed that seven of Chanal’s victims were conscripts stationed in camps near his duty. Authorities initially refused to investigate, and army officials told her parents they probably deserted.
It wasn’t until 1993, while behind bars, that thanks to Eroline’s work, Chanal was finally charged with the disappearance of the draftees and – a year later – with the murder of Trevor. He was due to be released in 1994 but was held in prison for an additional year based on an evidence dossier assembled by Eroline.
He was released in 1995 after six years in prison for “good behavior”. He lived freely in the south of France, but Eroline said: “I never thought of giving up. I figured if I could get a gun I’d shoot him if he got away with it.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that advances in DNA technology were able to identify hairs found in his van and link them to three of the murdered men – including Trevor. Dirt on a shovel found in the van also matched the bottom of Trevor’s makeshift grave. Chanal was charged with the three murders but is believed to have killed at least five others. These proceedings were dropped due to lack of evidence.
During detention, Chanal repeatedly warned that if he went to trial, he would take his own life. Hours after his October 14, 2003 trial, under armed guard, he took a razor blade, which he appeared to have hidden in the label of his trousers, and slit a large artery in his thigh. Eroline was devastated.
She sued the French state for botching up her son’s investigation, “serious error” and “denial of justice”.
Today, Trevor is never far from Eroline’s thoughts. On the 35th anniversary of his death, when I asked her how she felt about the anniversary, she corrected me. “It doesn’t get around. It’s every day,” she said.
Approaching her 80th birthday next year, she is selling the house in Naas from which Trevor made his final journey. She will keep his childhood toys – Action Men – and clothes safe.
Her daughter Judy, who is with her during the interview, said her mother never allowed the tragedy to cloud her mind.
“She gets her hair and nails done every week. She is as glamorous as ever and plans to take our family on a Caribbean cruise later this year.”
Judy’s advice to families of missing loved ones is to “be angry” if authorities don’t come up with new answers.
“Challenge them,” she said. “Don’t just trust them because they are the ones in power. Say, “I want answers.” Fight for what you think is right.”
Eroline agreed, adding, “Never give up hope. Keep searching and never take no for an answer.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/if-police-say-they-cant-find-any-new-evidence-about-your-missing-loved-one-never-ever-accept-it-41910230.html “If the police say they can’t find new evidence of your missing loved one, never accept that.”