France gripped by disappearance of missing beauty queen and her mother following suicide of former legionnaire father

He made ‘I am innocent’ video plea then took life - but it emerged that his former Brazilian mistress disappeared in similar circumstances nine years ago

France is gripped by the mystery of the summer – the disappearance of a woman and her 19-year-old would-be beauty queen daughter, who left the family home in Perpignan three weeks ago, never to be seen again.

Marie-Josée Benitez’s Spanish-born husband, Francisco, committed suicide on Monday after sending a video to Paris-Match magazine, and leaving a letter in which he pleaded his innocence. But in the latest twist, which has refocused suspicion on the legionnaire, it emerged that his former Brazilian mistress disappeared in similar circumstances nine years ago.

Nothing has been heard from Mrs Benitez, 53, and the couple’s daughter, Allison, since they left home with a suitcase on 14 July. Before leaving, they sent a text message to Mrs Benitez’s daughter from a previous marriage, saying: “I am going to Toulouse with Allison.”

Allison had earlier lunched with other candidates taking part in the forthcoming Miss Roussillon beauty contest before being driven home by her father, who has said he then discovered his wife had packed and left.

According to her boyfriend Alexandre Durand, apprentice hairdresser Allison “dreamed of becoming Miss France”.

The two missing women have not withdrawn any money or used a credit card, and have not used their telephones since 14 July.

According to today’s L’Indépendant newspaper in Perpignan, Mrs Benitez had previously gone missing for four days, and the married couple were reported to be estranged. But Mr Benitez, who only reported his wife and daughter as missing on 22 July, has sworn to family members that he would never do anything to harm Allison. He hung himself at his Foreign Legion barracks, saying that he could not bear the suspicions against him. In the Paris-Match video, filmed by one of his stepdaughters, he is seen choking back tears as he says: “My daughter would never disappear like that, without keeping in touch. It’s impossible.”

The TV pictures were seen by the family of Mr Benitez’s former mistress, Simone de Oliveira Alves, 28, who disappeared in 2004 from Nîmes, where Mr Benitez’s family was stationed. Her brother-in-law, Mario, told Le Parisien that he felt the police had “not done their job properly” in investigating the case and had been “hoodwinked” by Mr Benitez. The police “told me off”, he said, for suggesting the possible involvement of the legionnaire because of his sterling military reputation. According to Mario, Mr Benitez was with Ms Oliveira Alves when she left home for the last time.

But questioned by police as a witness, Mr Benitez denied he was the last person to see Ms Oliveira Alves alive and said that she had sent him a text message ending their relationship after an argument.

Ms Oliveira Alves, who was “very much in love” with the man she called “Paco”, discovered in 2004 that he was married “and took it very badly”, according to her younger sister Ivana.

She believed that her sister attempted suicide on one occasion and may have been pregnant with Mr Benitez’s child when she went missing in November 2004.