Killings in French Alps leave police searching for motive
IT WAS about 3.50pm on Wednesday when a British cyclist, a former British Royal Air Force member, approached the car park on an isolated forest road in one of France’s biggest national parks.
The road to the car park, a popular starting point for mountain hikes, was on a hill; he had taken it at his own pace. On the way up, he later told police, he had been overtaken by another cyclist.
What the RAF veteran saw first was an injured girl lying in a pool of blood beside a BMW car with its engine still running. “He saw a little girl by the car still alive. He went to her aid,” public prosecutor Eric Maillaud said yesterday. “He then broke the driver’s side window and he cut the ignition. He saw three dead people in the car: a man in the driver’s seat and two women behind.”
Seeing that she was still breathing, the British cyclist put the girl in the recovery position and called the emergency services. He then spotted the body of the cyclist who had overtaken him on the road just minutes before. It wasn’t until later that evening, when a local woman showed up at the police station to report that her husband hadn’t returned home, that officers identified the dead cyclist as Sylvain Mollier, a 45-year-old father of three who worked for a company in the area. He had planned to take a new route that day, his wife told police.
Officers arrived at the crime scene at about 4pm. They placed a wide cordon around the area, called in a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment and summoned a forensic team from Paris. It wasn’t until midnight, however, after holiday-makers at a nearby campsite reported there were two girls in the family, that police realised there was a survivor in the car.
The four-year-old girl had remained silent and motionless, curled up under the bodies in the back seat. While physically unscathed, she was “completely in shock and completely frozen”, the prosecutor said.
“She was clearly happy to be taken into the arms of the person who brought her out of the car. She smiled and started to speak in English. Almost straight away she asked where were her family.”
Pressed by reporters on how they could have missed the girl for eight hours, police said she was not visible from outside and that officers were under orders not to disturb the scene until the forensic team arrived. They did not want to compromise the ballistics investigation by opening the car doors, because some of the windows had cracks left by the bullets.
The seven-year-old, meanwhile, was brought by helicopter to hospital in the city of Grenoble, where she was placed in a medically-induced coma and operated on. She had suffered “very serious head fractures” and had been shot in the shoulder, Mr Maillaud said, but her condition was “slowly improving” yesterday. Both girls were placed under police protection in hospital.
The four-year-old – the only one to escape unharmed – was being cared for by a child psychologist, and police said they hoped to “gently question” her later.
As darkness fell, police carried out door-to-door inquiries at the 70 homes in Chevaline, the hamlet that lies within the boundaries of the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges near Lake Annecy, a picturesque region popular with tourists.
By yesterday morning, with a 60-strong team assigned to the investigation, police had already begun to piece together the sequence of events. The car was a British-registered BMW belonging to an Iraqi-born British national named by French media as Saad al-Hilli (50) from Surrey in southern England. The victims in the back seat were believed to be his wife and his mother, who had a Swedish passport. They had arrived at a campsite at Saint-Jorioz, 8km from Chevaline, on Monday and were due to leave at the end of the week.
Three of the victims had been shot in the middle of the head by what police believe was a semi-automatic pistol. Some 15 bullet casings were found at the scene, but only the windows of the car had been shot at, suggesting the firing may not have been indiscriminate.
Mr Maillaud played down suggestions of “professionalism” in the attack, however: “I won’t say it was professional, what I will say is it was tremendous savagery. And what is certain is that somebody wanted to kill.”
Officials admitted, however, that the circumstances surrounding the killings remained mysterious. No arrests had been made as of last night, nor did police report the discovery of any weapon at the scene. Some witnesses reported seeing a car speeding away from the area around the time the attack took place, and police identified tyre marks near the crime scene, but they have not established a firm link.
There were reports of an attempted armed car-jacking later on Wednesday just 50 miles away, but officials said there was nothing to suggest a connection.
And then there’s the most perplexing question of all: the motive. At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Mr Maillaud said the inquiry team had hypotheses but these were “just conjecture at the moment”. “We don’t know who could have done this. We have no idea.”