French gunman leaps to his death from police HQ

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A desperately embarrassed French government launched a high-level inquiry yesterday after the man responsible for Wednesday's council massacre killed himself by jumping from a fourth-floor skylight at Paris police headquarters.

Richard Durn, 33, a humanitarian activist and gun-lover who murdered eight members of Nanterre council in the western suburbs of Paris, forced open the window while under questioning by two detectives. Despite efforts by the officers to drag him back by his legs, Durn climbed on to the roof of the building at the Quai des Orfèvres – the French equivalent of Scotland Yard – and hurled himself into a courtyard below, narrowly missing a woman passer-by. He died a few minutes later.

His death, which means that the massacre in the suburban council chamber may never be fully explained, caused consternation in France. How could the most senior police station in the country permit the suicide of a man who had repeatedly warned that he wanted to "finish with life"?

After Wednesday's shootings, police found a 13-page letter at Durn's home in which he said he was disgusted with himself and with Nanterre and that he wanted to be killed by the police.

Despite the presidential election in three weeks' time, mainstream politicians resisted the temptation to point the finger of blame after themassacre. But there were no holds barred yesterday in blaming Lionel Jospin's centre-left coalition government for Durn's suicide. "Something is truly awry in France," said François Bayrou, a centre-right candidate in the presidential election. "Every French person, hearing this news, will ask, 'how is that possible?'."

One criminologist predicted, however: "One question will never be posed, because we never pose it enough in this country. That is, 'how competent are our police?'."

The justice and interior ministries immediately launched a joint investigation. The Interior Minister, Daniel Vaillant, said there had been a "serious breakdown" at the police station. A police statement said Durn had been asked to stand to look at a document. He suddenly jumped at the skylight, opened it and began to climb out. "The two officers tried to hold him by his legs but the sheer determination of this deranged man, whose body was already mostly outside, made their efforts useless," the statement said.

But the deputy mayor of Nanterre, Lucien Batard, said: "How can you kill yourself at police headquarters? I didn't think that someone at criminal police headquarters would have so much liberty of movement that he could jump out of a window."

A number of other disturbing questions remain about Wednesday's massacre.

Why was Durn, who had had psychological problems since his teens, allowed to buy and license three guns in 1998? In the same year he pointed one of the guns at a psychiatrist during an examination in Paris. He fled from her office without shooting but the incident was not followed up by the authorities.

The gun licences expired two years ago but no attempt was made to inquire whether Durn, an ecological activist and treasurer of the Nanterre branch of the League of Human Rights, still had the weapons.

Before his suicide, Durn told police he had planned the attack for several months. He was a familiar face in the Nanterre council chamber but rarely spoke to anyone. He was the last person in the public gallery when the meeting ended in the early hours. Without a word, he started shooting council members in the back.

His Slovenian-born mother, Stephania, with whom he lived in a small house in Nanterre, told journalists that her son had often spoken to her of killing people. "He felt he was a vegetable, dirty, rotten, a failure," she said.

"Death had become the only solution but he did not want to die alone. He wanted to kill as many people as possible."