Hopes were dashed on Wednesday of a rapid resolution of the 18-month saga of the massacre of an Iraqi-British family in the French Alps. Despite a series of intriguing, circumstantial connections, investigators said there was no clear evidence to link the shootings to a former policeman and antique weapons enthusiast arrested on Tuesday.
The 48-year-old man – not officially identified but named by local media as Eric Devouasoux – faces formal accusations today or tomorrow of illegal trafficking in Second World War weapons, including shells and grenades. A friend, also 48, who was arrested on Tuesday night as he tried to flee the area, faces similar charges.
But the Annecy state prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, told a press conference that there was no clear evidence “so far” linking either man to the slaying of three members of the Al-Hilli family and a French cyclist on 5 September 2012.
“There is no case against him at the moment but that may change,” Mr Maillaud said. “This man bears a strong resemblance to someone we know to have been close to the scene of the crime.”
It appears that magistrates will take advantage of the weapons-dealing accusations to prolong the initial four-day arrest period. Mr Maillaud said Mr Devouasoux had a record of making racist remarks and had also verbally “attacked” foreign tourists in the past. His mobile phone records showed that, on 5 September 2012 – when he was still a municipal police officer in a nearby town – he was close to the scene of the murders near the village of Chevaline.
The phone records suggest he “could have been present” but offer no proof, Mr Mailaud said. Bullets similar to those used in the killings were found in raids on two houses owned by Mr Devouasoux near Lake Annecy on Tuesday.
The prosecutor said the former police officer also bore a strong physical resemblance to a motorcyclist seen near the murder scene, who has ignored all appeals to come forward.
On the other hand, there was no firm evidence so far tying the former policeman to the killings. An antique Luger revolver found in one of the houses was not the one used by the killer. He had no known connection with the al-Hilli family or the French cyclist who was also murdered.
“As I speak, the slaughter at Chevaline is not yet explained,” Mr Maillaud said. “Nothing points to the fact that we have perhaps found the murderer. The investigation must continue.”
The theory of a random crime by an “isolated, local” gunman was being taken seriously, he said. But all other lines of investigation, including a quarrel over a will within the al-Hilli family, were open. Zaid al-Hilli, elder brother of Saad who died in the shootings, was still considered a possible suspect, he said.
Mr Devouasoux had been under surveillance for several weeks before he was arrested. A number of residents had tipped off gendarmes about his resemblance to an artist’s sketch of the biker seen close to the massacre. Forestry workers told gendarmes at the time that they saw a beefy, bearded man on a private road in the mountains just above the crime scene, wearing a rare type of motorcycle helmet.
Just after he was seen, a gunman attacked the al-Hilli family in their maroon BMW estate in a lay-by at the end of a steeply winding forest road. Saad al-Hilli, 50, a satellite engineer, of Claygate, Surrey, his wife, Iqbal, a 47-year-old dentist, and her mother Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were shot repeatedly. A French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, was found lying dead beside their car, shot several times.
The al-Hillis’ seven-year-old daughter, Zainab, was found alive outside the car, beaten savagely and wounded by a gunshot to her shoulder. Her sister Zeena, four, was found eight hours after the killings, unharmed but terrified, hiding beneath her dead mother’s legs.