A former policeman questioned for three days about the Al-Hilli massacre in the French Alps was provisionally cleared by investigators today – leaving the quadruple murders as profound a mystery as ever.
Eric Devouasoux, 48, will remain in custody until tomorrow morning when it is understood he will be formally accused of trading illegally in World War II weapons.
He has, however, convinced French investigators – for the time being - that he had nothing to do with the murder 18 months ago of three members of a British-Iraqi family and a local cyclist on a forest track near the village of Chevaline above Lake Annecy.
The Annecy prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, said this morning that the four day arrest of Mr Devouasoux for questioning about the Chevaline murders had been lifted one day early. He would face no further action at this stage.
In an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro Mr Maillaud implied , however, that investigation of Mr Devouasoux would continue.
“If no link between the former policeman and the killings has been found for now, that does not necessarily mean that it will not be found in the future,” Mr Maillaud said. “If we are talking about a random killing, it is almost inevitable that investigators cannot establish a motive.”
Mr Devouasoux, and a 42 years old friend, who has yet to be named, will be placed under formal investigation this morning – one step short of a charge – for “conspiracy to trade in weapons”.
Since the weapons in question are more than 70 years old and intended for collectors, this accusation is not as grave as it sounds. It does, however, mean that gendarmerie detectives may continue to dig into his background and past activities.
The whole episode of the arrest of Mr Devouasoux – initially described off the record as an “important breakthrough” – will nevertheless appear as an embarrassment for the Chevaline investigation. After 18 months, he was the first person to be arrested in France for questioning about the murders.
The local newspaper, le Dauphine Libere covered the story today under the mocking headline “collectors, not killers”. More than 40 old weapons, including grenades and a shell, were found at the homes of the two men.
Investigators say that troubling circumstantial evidence against Mr Devouasoux – especially his supposed resemblance to the identikit image of a motorcyclist seen close to the killings – made it essential to interrogate him. The Annecy prosecutor Mr Maillaud insisted from the beginning that he was an important possible “ witness” but not necessarily a “suspect”.
On the afternoon of 5 September 2012, in a forest laybay near the village of Chevaline, Saad al-Hilli, 50, a satellite engineer from Claygate, Surrey, his wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were shot repeatedly in their BMW estate car. A local cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, was found lying dead nearby, also shot several times in the head and body.
Seven years old Zainab al-Hilli was found alive outside the car, beaten savagely about the head and wounded by one gunshot in her shoulder. Her sister, Zeena, aged 4, was found eight hours later, unharmed but terrified, hiding under her dead mother’s legs.
The only other person to be arrested during a joint French-British investigation of the murders is Mr Al-Hilli’s older brother, Zaid. He was questioned by Surrey police last summer. Surrey police announced last month that his bail conditions had been lifted and there was no evidence to justify further action.
In an interview today with the newspaper Le Figaro – conducted before the release of Mr Devouasoux – the Annecy prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, said that the investigation now needed a “stroke of luck or a small miracle”. He said that 30 gendarmerie detectives would continue to work on the case full time for the rest of this year.
If there is no breakthough by the end of 2014, the murders would be down-graded to a cold case, investigated only by a “small group of three or four people”, he said.
All seven “pistes” – or lines of inquiry – identified by the investigators would continue to be actively examined, he said. These included, he said, a “family quarrel” and a random attack by an “isolated killer”.
The case has provoked intense interest in France and Britain and spawned wild conspiracy theories on the internet. A joint French-British inquiry has examined possible leads in Britain, Iraq, Switzerland, the United States and Sweden.
Mr Devouasoux was arrested on Tuesday after 12 weeks of surveillance, under official hypothesis four (H4) -that the murders were the work of a lone, random and local killer. The Annecy Prosecutor, Mr Maillaud – not the leader of the investigation as often reported but its official spokesman – told a press conference on Wednesday that the former village policeman had an “interesting” H4 profile.
He resembles the identikit image of a motorcyclist seen close to the murder scene, who has never come forward. He collects, and maybe deals in, old weapons. The Al-Hilli murders were carried out with a P06 Luger, made for the Swiss army in the 1920s and 1930s.
His mobile phone records suggest that he could have been “within a few hundred metres or several kilometres” of the massacre scene on 5 September 2012, Mr Maillaud said. The murders happened at the top of a winding road, which is 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Menthon Saint-Bernard where Mr Devouasoux worked as a policeman at the time. His in-laws live nearby.
As village policeman, Mr Devouasoux had been accused on several occasion of making racist remarks, said Mr Maillaud. He had also been accused of behaving violently – usually verbally but on one occasion physically – towards foreign tourists. The Al-Hilli family, who were caravanning beside Lake Annecy, was British of Iraqi origin.
All this circumstantial evidence justified the former policeman’s arrest and the search of three houses, including the home of his wife’s family near Chevaline, Mr Maillaud said.
Yesterday, in a statement, Mr Maillaud said that nothing had emerged from Mr Devouasoux’s questioning or the police searches to link him to the Al-Hilli murders.
Mr Devouasoux, a father of three, resigned in June last year after 15 years as the sole member of the “municipal” police force in Monthon Saint-Bernard. He had earlier been suspended after being accused of using municipal petrol in his own car. He has since worked as a security guard for a Swiss firm.
On Thursday his lawyer Marc Dufour said Mr Devouasoux denied that he anywhere near the murder scen on 5 September 2012 and “ contested any suggestion” that he was linked to the massacre.