France glued to saga of the fugitive

Accused of murdering a lesbian couple, Jean-Pierre Treiber posted himself out of jail and has remained at large ever since. John Lichfield reports on a man determined to prove his innocence

They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Jean-Pierre Treiber bears little resemblance to the daring, aristocratic Scarlet Pimpernel. He is a former forest worker and game-keeper, accused of the brutal kidnapping and double murder of a young, lesbian couple in 2004.

Like the fictional Pimpernel, however, he is defeating all efforts by the French authorities to capture him. Fifty days ago tomorrow, Treiber escaped from prison in Auxerre in Burgundy. He hid inside a cardboard box in the prison workshop and had himself "delivered" to the outside world as part of a consignment of tools.

Despite seven weeks of intensive searches using helicopters, dogs, hidden cameras, heat-seeking equipment and up to 400 officers at a time, he has evaded – and on one occasion made complete fools of – the French police and gendarmerie.

While on the run, Treiber has written letters to his family, his girlfriend, and to former fellow jail inmates. He even wrote to the food expert of a French news magazine, enclosing his prison identity card and protesting his innocence. He pledged to turn up for his trial next April after gathering evidence on the "real culprits".

Treiber's fondness for letter-writing almost proved his downfall. After a tip-off earlier this month, scores of police from the elite RAID squad lay in ambush in a forest east of Paris. They staked out an oak tree carved with a heart, which Treiber had been using as a "letter-box" to exchange letters with his girlfriend, Blandine.

The escapee turned up soon after 10pm but spotted the police presence and somehow managed to evade his pursuers in the mist and darkness.

With near escapes and letters protesting his innocence, the Treiber saga is beginning to resemble The Fugitive, the TV series which gripped audiences on both side of the Atlantic in the 1960s. In 1993, Harrison Ford starred in a full-length film version of the same story – that of Richard Kimble, a doctor who goes on the run after being wrongly accused of murdering his wife.

If Jean-Pierre Treiber, 47, is no Scarlet Pimpernel, he is no dashing Harrison Ford either. He is a wiry, dour-looking man with one damaged eye and prominent ears, who walks with the help of a cane. According to investigators, there is overwhelming evidence that he kidnapped and murdered Géraldine Giraud and Katia Lherbier in November 2004 and buried their bodies in the grounds of his house. His wife describes him as "violent, unpredictable, perverse and manipulative".

Friends and acquaintances in the village of Bréau in Seine-et-Marne, east of Paris, where Treiber lived for more than 10 years, insist that he is an innocent man. The police, using heat-detectors, all-terrain vehicles, dogs and helicopters, have repeatedly searched the immense Forest of Bombon nearby, where Treiber used to work as a nature warden and gamekeeper.

The authorities suspect that he is – or was at one point – being sheltered by the villagers. Some local people scarcely bother to deny it. Jean-Paul Raphael, a local hunter, said: "He is the victim of a conspiracy. We know he is innocent. In Bréau, no one would hand him over to the police, including me. If I saw him, I would give him money to buy food."

A few days before his night-time escape in the forest, hidden police cameras took pictures of Treiber limping down the village street with a sack over his back. The authorities were furious when these pictures were later published by Le Figaro magazine. They were equally livid, and embarrassed, when a France 3 television crew visited the tree carved with a heart a few days after his escape and found another letter from Blandine hidden between its roots.

Government ministers and officials have accused the media of, in effect, helping Treiber by flooding the search area with reporters and cameras. The chief public prosecutor in Auxerre, François Pérain, said the blanket media presence had "seriously disturbed the investigation".

"You can no longer count the number of journalists per square metre in the forests of Seine-et-Marne," he said.

Like the 1970s French "celebrity" criminal and fugitive, Jacques Mesrine, who was recently the subject of two thriller movies, Treiber has tried to turn the media interest in his escape to his advantage. A letter which he sent to Marianne magazine, enclosing his prison card as proof of identity, received wide coverage in the French press. Bizarrely, Treiber sent the letter to the magazine's food correspondent, Périco Légasse, because, he said, he approved of Légasse's "tirades" in defence of traditional patterns of farming.

"I have not escaped," Treiber wrote in the letter. "I have merely taken back a small part of what the murderers, 'the real ones', have stolen from me. I could no longer stand being inside and I was close to suicide..."

He said that the investigation of the double murder had been unfairly skewed towards proving his guilt and that the investigators had ignored evidence which pointed to the possible involvement of "old flames" of "Géraldine", one of the dead women. "I therefore decide to escape... as the only way of getting my side of the case heard before my trial, which I will attend."

One of the murdered women, Géraldine Giraud, 36, was an actress and the daughter of a popular French actor, Roland Giraud. The other victim was Géraldine's lover, Katia Lherbier, 32.

The two women disappeared in November 2004. Their bodies were found on 9 December that year – after prolonged searches – buried beneath stones at the bottom of a well in the garden of Treiber's home at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in Burgundy.

Apart from the hiding place, investigators say that they have overwhelming evidence of Treiber's guilt. They say that he used the credit cards of both women in the period after they disappeared.

Treiber has always denied killing the women. Géraldine Giraud's aunt, Marie-Christine Van Kempen, was placed under investigation for "complicity" in the murder of the two women in 2005. The accusation against her was later abandoned as unfounded.

Treiber's wife, Marie-Pascale, published a book earlier this month in which she described her "15 years with a man who was unpredictable, manipulative and extraordinarily perverse... who took pleasure in persecuting me and destroying me".

She said that, in July 2004, her husband – "amidst a homophobic and racist tirade" – told her that he knew a "lesbian couple, an aunt and niece". Later that year, she said, she had received a call from Treiber in which he said that he had "completed a well-paid piece of work which would make him financially secure for some time".

Treiber's girlfriend, and prison visitor, Blandine Stassart, paints a completely different picture of the fugitive. She told Paris Match: "He's a generous, kind, thoughtful man, a thousand leagues from this 'man of the woods' that people imagine."

The search continues...

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