Buried by indifference in Mourmelon Triangle
A suspected serial killer at last faces trial in France for murdering Irishman Trevor O'Keeffe in 1987 - due largely to his family's battle against official incompetence, writes Lara Marlowe
From the moment they arrived in Saint-Quentin, north-eastern France, in mid-August 1987 to take Trevor O'Keeffe's body home to Ireland, his mother, Eroline, and his aunt, Noeleen Slattery, were ignored and lied to.
Interpol had tracked down the 19-year-old Irishman's family to tell them that he'd been found, strangled to death, on August 8th. The French police knew the shocked, grieving women were on their way; they even booked their hotel room. But the police nonetheless buried Trevor the day before O'Keeffe and Slattery arrived. The sisters had to identify his tortured body from photographs.
Eroline O'Keeffe asked to see the magistrate assigned to investigate the murder of her son while he was hitch-hiking home from a summer holiday. "She refused to meet us; she was too busy, hadn't the time," O'Keeffe recalls.
She asked Capt Alain Skoczylas, an officer in the paramilitary gendarmerie, to release her son's body. "He kept saying: 'It could be tomorrow.' We waited for 10 days, and he finally said we should go home, because it would take weeks."
Six weeks later, O'Keeffe and Slattery returned to Saint-Quentin for the exhumation. They were told they could not take their loved one's decomposing remains until they paid the undertaker.
"I called the Department of Foreign Affairs because I didn't have enough money," O'Keeffe says. "The young man laughed at me on the telephone. He said: 'Do you realise how many Irish people die in France? If we help you, we'll have to help them all!' "
O'Keeffe managed somehow.
The exhumation, on a cold, bleak day at the end of September, was like a horror film, Slattery says. "There were just two of us in the graveyard, and the gravediggers. They had buried Trevor in a paupers' field, in a plastic bag and a makeshift coffin. They dug it up with a digger and they broke the boards."
The only words of comfort came from Capt Skoczylas, who promised O'Keeffe he would find the man who murdered her son. But though she wrote to the officer several times, taking care to have her letters translated into French, she never heard from him again. She still carries his card.
Eroline O'Keeffe owns a driving school in Naas, Co Kildare. Noeleen Slattery is a specialist in Chinese medicine in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. Neither speaks French. They have spent tens of thousands of euro of their own money, and braved crassness, sloppiness and negligence of mind-boggling proportions, to obtain justice.
That Pierre Chanal, a former warrant officer in the French army, has at last been charged with killing Trevor O'Keeffe and two others, with the trial scheduled for next year, is due to the stubborn courage of these two Irish women.
Chanal, now 56, served six and a half years of a 10-year sentence for kidnapping and raping a Hungarian student. He is suspected of killing at least eight young men between 1980 and 1987. Years of official bungling mean there is only sufficient evidence to try him for three murders.
In the early 1990s, Eroline O'Keeffe heard that seven other young men had gone missing near Mourmelon, 100 kilometres from where Trevor had been found. She asked the Irish embassy in Paris to collect newspaper articles for her, and contacted Dominique Rizet, now a journalist at Le Figaro.
Rizet had reported extensively on "the disappeared of Mourmelon". Through him, she found a lawyer who suggested she file a lawsuit as a civil plaintiff. Amazingly, five years after her son's death, no one had told her about the procedure, the only way for a family to pursue the killer of a loved one in France.
The French families of "the disappeared of Mourmelon" were treated as shabbily as O'Keeffe and Slattery. The mothers of Serge Havet and Pascal Sergent, who vanished in 1981, went to the judiciary police, who told them to stop "looking for a needle in a haystack".
More than 7,000 French conscripts were deserting every year, and the army assumed every soldier who disappeared had run away from his obligatory military service.
Five conscripts went missing between 1980 and 1982, when the first body was found. All were aged around 20. All were last seen hitch-hiking in the "Mourmelon Triangle" on a Thursday or Friday evening. None had a motive for deserting. On a visit to the Mourmelon army base, the defence minister, André Giraud, called speculation that a serial killer was at large "a ridiculous joke".
A two-and-a-half-hour television documentary, entitled Bring in the Accused; Pierre Chanal and the Disappeared of Mourmelon, recently broadcast on France 2, chronicles the failure of the army and justice system to listen to the families or look for the murderer.
In the documentary, Palasz Falvay, who is Hungarian, tells how, on the evening of August 8th, 1988, he waited next to a tollbooth with a sign saying "Lyons". He was about to give up when a man with sunken cheeks, a square jaw and cold eyes stopped in a green van. "He said: 'I'm going to Lyons,' " Falvay recalled.
The two drove in uneasy silence. Chanal left the highway at Macon. "He claimed he was lost. I said 'go back', but we continued. I should have jumped from the vehicle and left my bag. I didn't realise how dangerous he was."
Chanal stopped in a dark, isolated place and went twice to the back of his van, for a torch, a map, a piece of fruit. "The third time, he surprised me from behind, choking me with a strap around my neck and pulling very hard," Falvay said. "I tried to free myself, but he pulled so hard I couldn't breathe."
Each time Falvay resisted, Chanal choked him. He bound the student's hands and feet and sodomised him in the back of the van for 20 hours, videotaping his own crime. Falvay believes Chanal intended to kill him the following night.
When two gendarmes approached the van, Chanal moved to the driver's seat, still holding the chain to choke Falvay. "I knew my nightmare was over," Falvay said.
Gendarme Christian Jeunet saw Falvay, bound and chained, through a gap in the curtains. "We're homosexuals," Chanal explained. "It's just for fun." The gendarmes were about to leave when they heard Falvay scream: "Save me! Save me!"
Chanal's military identity card showed he had been stationed at Mourmelon for nine years. "The penny dropped," Jeunet said.
Falvay is convinced he was not Chanal's first victim. "He had prepared everything in advance," he said. The mattress in the back of the van had railings on either side, so that Chanal could slide his chained victim back and forth as he raped him.
"I can't say he killed all the others, but I think so," Falvay said.
Jeunet telephoned Jean-Marie Tarbes, a fellow gendarme based in Reims who stuck with the Mourmelon case despite his colleagues' lack of interest. From the moment he met Chanal, Tarbes felt certain they had found the serial killer. For more than 46 hours, he and his boss interrogated Chanal.
"We underestimated his strength," Tarbes told France 2. "He did commando training and he knows all the techniques for resisting pressure. At times, we had to overpower him to prevent him hurting himself.
"To stop himself answering questions, he banged his head on the desk, smashed his fist into the metal cupboard, lay on the floor, completely rigid, with his jaw locked shut."
In 1992, Tarbes tracked down a former barmaid in whom Chanal had confided: "The disappeared - it's me. But they'll have to prove it." A psychiatric profile of Chanal - one of 14,500 documents amassed in the investigation - says he needs to humiliate and commit deviant acts to obtain sexual excitement, that he feels sadness and shame but never guilt.
Chanal was the fifth of 16 children. His father was an alcoholic who fell asleep next to a wine bottle every night, after insulting Chanal's mother. When he was growing up, Chanal slept on the stairs. At the age of 18, he escaped to the French army, where he earned high marks but was a loner. No one in his family or entourage knew he was a homosexual. His only romance, with a young woman at his parachute club, failed because he was incapable of having sex with her.
At his trial in 1990 for the kidnapping and rape of Falvay, Chanal looked like a hunted animal. Yet he changed when he recounted the details of his crime, as if it had been a military exploit. Grotesquely, Chanal claimed that Falvay initially consented. "I was terrified to be in the same room with him," Falvay said. "Everyone was watching me, to see if I was a homosexual."
The journalist Isabelle Horlans was scandalised by the defence tactic. "Poor Palasz Falvay, who testified with great courage, as a victim, was practically accused of having provoked the violence of Pierre Chanal."
For the families of the "disappeared of Mourmelon", watching Chanal's videotape in court was hell; they assumed their own sons were strangled after the same torture. In 1993 - five years after his arrest - Chanal was placed under investigation in the Mourmelon affair. But for the first half of the 1990s, Chanal was in prison and judges simply stopped working on the case.
French police told Joelle Charnel, the woman who came across Trevor O'Keeffe's haversack in a forest, to keep it in her garage. It was only because she wrote to the Irish address in the bag that it was identified. Eroline O'Keeffe does not know what happened to her son's towel and other things she packed. Incredibly, while Chanal was in prison, the army asked his sister to take what she wanted from his room, then burned everything else.
Chanal applied repeatedly for parole. Judge Charles Marien promised O'Keeffe and Slattery that he would not free the convicted kidnapper and rapist. The Irish women travelled to France for every hearing, and collected hundreds of signatures on petitions demanding that Chanal be kept in jail.
But in June 1995, O'Keeffe missed a court session because Marien notified her too late; the judge freed Chanal in her absence, three and a half years early.
O'Keeffe was so enraged that she filed a complaint, and Judge Marien was replaced by Judge Pascal Chapart. Chapart discovered material evidence that had been - literally - left on the shelf for eight years, including 600 hair samples. In February 1996, relatives of the eight missing and dead men gave blood, so their DNA could be compared. The tests confirmed that hair found in Chanal's van belonged to Patrice Denis and Patrick Gache - both missing - and Trevor O'Keeffe.
Chanal's lawyer claims the DNA tests are not conclusive, and that there is no other evidence against his client. But soil on a shovel in Chanal's van was identical to that in the shallow grave where Trevor O'Keeffe was buried with a technique taught to paratroopers. Eroline O'Keeffe identified one of 32 pairs of men's underwear found in Chanal's van as Trevor's, and Patrice Denis's father identified his son's jacket. Every time a young man disappeared from Mourmelon, Chanal was in the area. When he left, the disappearances stopped.
Will this be enough to convince 12 jurors at the trial next year? Chanal claims it is impossible for him to receive a fair hearing in France. In the only two interviews he has given, he vowed to commit suicide if convicted of murder. In 1993, he slashed his wrists in prison.
Eroline O'Keeffe maintains a cheerful facade, but she is bitter that she had to struggle so long to bring her son's alleged killer to justice.
"If Patrice Denis, Patrick Gache and Trevor had been cabinet ministers' sons, there would have been a trial a long time ago," she says.
She nonetheless looks foward to the verdict. "It will be like closing a book," she says. "I'll be free then."