French former drag queen arrested over murders of 18 men

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A 68-year-old former transvestite cabaret artist is being questioned in eastern France about the murders of up to 18 people, mostly gay men, over 20 years.

If found guilty of all the deaths, Nicolas Panard would be among the most prolific serial murderers in French history. But French authorities said at present, he was being questioned about six murders, committed between 1983 and 2000.

M. Panard and a former lover, a suspected accomplice in some of the crimes, have denied the accusations. M. Panard was arrested in dawn raid on his home in Mulhouse, near the French-Swiss border, on Tuesday.

Local newspapers claim he is suspected of being involved in a total of 11 murders in Alsace, four in the Franche-Comt region of eastern France and three in the Paris area in the period 1980-2002. In almost all of the cases, the victims were homosexual men who were struck violent blows on the head and stabbed dozens of times.

Jean-Marc Gervason, the deputy public prosecutor in Montbliard, near Mulhouse, said that the investigation was limited to six murders. Links with the other 12 unsolved killings were "premature".

M. Panard's arrest follows a two-year investigation by a police officer in Montbliar, who noticed startling similarities between a string of unsolved murders while searching a computer data-base for information on another crime. The officer also noticed that M. Panard's name came up as a friend or associate connected with several of the victims over many years. M. Panard has several convictions for burglary. He often visited gay bars and, when younger, worked as a transvestite "hostess" in clubs in Alsace and Germany. His alleged accomplice, and former lover, Slim Fezzani, 43, is already serving a 20-year sentence for the murder of a gay insurance agent in Riedis-heim, Alsace, in 1999.

The newspaper, L'Alsace, says all thevictims were killed with a savage blow to the head, then stabbed many times. Their faces were covered but their bodies were partly undressed.

A dozen other people connected with M. Panard have also been arrested. Five are still being questioned.

Many of the files on the murders had been closedfor lack of conclusive evidence. The unnamed police officer in Montbliard had been checking a new police computer database called Salvac ( Systme d'analyse des liens de la violence associe au crime), created in 2002 with technology developed by Canadian police.

French police investigations had often been hampered by the failure of local forces to exchange information, and the absence of a central, computerised source of information on past or unsolved crimes.

Mulhouse was also the home of another serial killer, arrested last year. Yvan Keller claimed that he had killed 150 people mostly elderly women in eastern France since 1989. He committed suicide in custody. Police believe he killed at least 25 people.

The worst serial killer in recent French judicial history is Marcel Petiot, guillotined in 1946 after admitting 63 murders. Francis Heaulme, 48, is serving life for 20 murders between 1984 and 1992 and faces prosecution for two others.