She can still remember the 19-year-old’s smile, captured in the last photo ever taken of her son as he set out on his French adventure. It was the summer of 1987 when Trevor O’Keeffe went missing. That July had been a time of celebration for the Irish in France. Stephen Roche had just won the Tour de France and on a whim, Trevor decided to tour the country.
or years, Eroline O’Keeffe was extremely protective of her children. Until they were 18, at the end of her ride she waited in Naas, Co Kildare, until they got home from nightclubs.
When her “happy and mischievous” son – the fourth of five children – told her he wanted an adventure, she supported her.
Before he left, she took one last photo. Trevor wore a knit cap, headphones around his neck, and a large backpack on his back. His smiling face was the last she saw as she waved him goodbye.
Eroline spoke this weekend and laments the lack of mobile phones in 1987. “There weren’t any. That was a big handicap compared to today. When he left, we were waiting for the landline to ring,” she said.
Three weeks passed, but Eroline wasn’t worried about Trevor: “We didn’t feel bad. We just assumed he was having a good time.”
Unbeknownst to the family, Trevor had entered the hunting grounds of a sadistic killer while hitchhiking home through northern France. A friend had given him a lift to the highway in the Marne region. There he started giving a lift, and somewhere along the route – “wrong place, wrong time” – as Eroline puts it, he got into a white Volkswagen van driven by former French commando Pierre Chanal.
Now, even all these years later, Eroline still feels it was partly her fault that he got into that van on August 8.
“I still blame myself a little bit. We all gave a lift years ago. Public transport wasn’t the same then and I always told him, ‘If you can, take a ride from someone in uniform. Then you know you’re safe.” I didn’t know Chanal was going to be a soldier.”
Chanal was a decorated army veteran. He was super fit and an expert at hand-to-hand combat. Even for those closest to him, there were no signs of a dark side. His work had been described as “exemplary” by superiors, and he had been awarded the French Military Medal of Courage in 1985 for his service in Lebanon.
But in reality, he was a sadistic serial killer, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of multiple young men in what would come to be known as the “Mourmelon Triangle of Death.”
Five days later, Trevor’s body was found in a shallow grave in a forest, 100 km from the triangle.
He had been brutally beaten, raped and strangled. The cord used is knotted according to a method used by French commandos. Nearby lay a business card from his sister. She’d given it to him to roll back the charges if he ever got into trouble.
It took a week for the message to reach the family, and when the call came, they still didn’t know if it was Trevor’s remains that had been found.
Eroline remembered those first few days as “an absolute nightmare. I slept on the kitchen floor so I would hear the phone when it rang”.
She asked French authorities for a description of her son’s body, but was told it was too decayed to identify him. “Which was a lie,” she says.
Eroline traveled to France, but authorities had her son buried in a black plastic bag in a cheap wooden coffin in a pauper’s grave hours before she arrived. It took six weeks to exhume the body, with a mechanical excavator breaking the coffin.
Devastated and clueless, she returned home, determined to bring her son’s killer to justice. It occupied her every waking moment.
“When I saw someone walking down the road 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 belongings in a forest.
The woman had given the bag to the police, but they told her to keep the backpack, tent and documents with his contact details, so she wrote to the address. Eroline took out loans from her credit union and traveled to Paris to put pressure on the French police.
But they seemed uninterested. Directions were not followed and evidence was lost or destroyed.
A year after Trevor’s murder, the family’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Two patrol officers found a white Volkswagen van parked at the end of a dead end country road. They approached Chanal and asked him why he was so excited and why he was walking around with a shovel.
As they peered out the window, they saw a terrified Hungarian hitchhiker, Palazs Falvay, in the back of the van. He was bound, shackled and naked and subjected to a 20-hour ordeal, which Chanal had filmed. He was about to be strangled and Chanal was looking for a place to bury him when the police arrived. Falvay later told police that the more he begged for mercy, the more Chanal enjoyed the torture.
Eroline then had sleepless nights for years. “I’d see Trevor if I didn’t see him. I would go through what I should have done and what I could have done when I couldn’t have done anything,” she said.
In 1990, Chanal was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Eroline was sure that this was her son’s killer. It would later turn out that seven of Chanal’s victims were conscripts in camps near where he served. Initially, authorities had refused to open an investigation, with army officials telling their parents that they had likely deserted.
It wasn’t until 1993, when he was behind bars, that Chanal was finally investigated for the disappearances of the conscripts and – a year later – for the murder of Trevor thanks to Eroline’s work. He was supposed to be released in 1994, but because of a file of evidence compiled by Eroline, he was detained for another year.
He was released in 1995 for “good behavior” after serving six years. He lived free in the south of France, but Eroline said: “I never thought of giving up. I thought – if I could get a gun – I’d shoot him if he got away with it.”
It wasn’t until 1999, when advances in DNA technology were able to identify hairs in his van and link them to three of the men who had been murdered — including Trevor. Dirt on a shovel found in the van also matched the ground at Trevor’s makeshift grave. Chanal was charged with the three murders, but is believed to have killed at least five others. Those cases were dropped for lack of evidence.
While in custody, Chanal repeatedly warned that he would commit suicide if he went to court. Hours into his trial on October 14, 2003, while under armed guard, he took a razor blade that he apparently had hidden in the tag of his pants and cut a large artery in his femur. Erolin was devastated.
She filed a lawsuit against the French state for messing up her son’s investigation, “serious error” and “denial of justice.”
These days, Trevor is never far from Eroline’s mind. On the 35th anniversary of his death, she corrected me when I asked how she feels when the birthday is approaching. “It doesn’t ‘get around’. It’s every day,’ she said.
Next year, nearing her 80th birthday, she will sell the house in Naas from which Trevor made his last journey. She will give his children’s toys – Action Men – and clothes for safekeeping.
Her daughter, Judy, who is by her side for the interview, said her mother never let the tragedy cloud her mind.
“She gets her hair and nails done every week. She is as glamorous as ever and she 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 the authorities don’t find new answers.
“Challenge them,” she said. “Don’t trust them simply because they are those in power. Say, “I want to answer.” Fight for what you think is right.”
Eroline agreed, adding: “Never give up hope. Keep looking and never take no for an answer.”