A handful of blood-stained leaves. Fragments of shattered car window glass. A deep furrow in a woodland embankment, as if a car had been parked carelessly. Or as if the driver had reversed into the bank in panic and terror.
All was startlingly beautiful, and almost normal, yesterday at the "car park" high in the French Alps where four people were clinically slaughtered on Wednesday afternoon. But the term "car park" is deeply misleading. The massacre happened in a mere widening of the road – a lay-by hewn from the hillside with space for at most five cars. A forestry reserve sign warns of "wild animals" and "hunters".
A stream gurgles beside a pot-holed road which winds steeply up from Chevaline, the nearest village. "Chevaline" means horse butcher.
From the village's handful of chalet farmhouses you look down past peacefully grazing brown and white Alpine cattle to the turquoise waters of Lake Annecy.
This is an especially magical corner of one of the most spectacularly beautiful and peaceful places in Europe. What hunters, what butchers, what wild animals climbed the twisting mountain road for two miles beyond Chevaline to this spot just before 4pm on Wednesday? Did they lie in ambush for their prey? Or did they track them up the "route forestière de la Combe d'Ire"?
Until yesterday afternoon, the "crime scene" was closed to press and public. To visit the place where four people were executed with such cold brutality is chilling. It deepens the understanding of what happened but it also compounds the mystery.
Could a random murder, a car hijacking gone wrong, have happened at such a remote spot? How could a targeted attack on a British-Iraqi family, on a caravan holiday in the valley below, have occurred here?
You wind for two miles up a deeply pitted road. Broad-leaved and ever-green forests cluster on each side. You cross and re-cross a brightly gushing stream on rough bridges.
The misty slopes of the massif of the Montagne de Charbon tower above the treeline. This is an Alpine forest from a guide-book or a fairy story. Heidi could be living around the next corner.
Finally, after walking the last half mile at the insistence of the gendarmerie, you discover that the murders did not happen in a car park, as the world has been led to believe. The crime scene is in fact a widened area of road, some 50ft by 10ft, carved into the forest side. A few feet away stands a red-and-white barrier forbidding the public to drive further.
Another question comes to mind. Why did the Al-Hilli family come to this wild place, with two small children, wearing smart "town" clothes?
The Route forèstiere de la Combe d'Iré is a favourite resort for outdoor pursuits, for hikers and cyclists. Beyond the red and white sign, the track peters out into rough mountain tracks.
Little remained at the scene yesterday to bear witness to the slaughter. Dark bloodstains were visible on leaves and twigs littering the lay-by. Larger bloodstains had been covered with soil. There were fragments of car window glass, from the windows shattered by the bullets which had been fired at point-blank range at the victims.
There was also a clear indentation made by the Al-Hillis' car in the embankment. It looked as if the estate car had reversed so hard into to the forest side that the rear had climbed a couple of feet up the steep slope. There was also a gash in the car park, roughly filled with pebbles by the gendarmerie.
This fitted the aerial pictures of the BMW published yesterday. The back of the car is seen hard against the embankment, with one of its rear wheels sunk deeply into the ground. A poor piece of parking? Or a desperate attempt to turn the car and flee in terror? A senior gendarmerie officer said yesterday that the marks in the car park were an "important part of the investigation". He added: "The marks have been studied carefully. We can all speculate. I cannot say any more."Reuse content