French prosecutor orders investigation into scandal of missing women

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France was facing an enormous judicial scandal yesterday after its most senior public prosecutor ordered an investigation into the unexplained disappearance of up to 24 young women in northern Burgundy over the past 30 years.

France was facing an enormous judicial scandal yesterday after its most senior public prosecutor ordered an investigation into the unexplained disappearance of up to 24 young women in northern Burgundy over the past 30 years.

The investigation follows the revelation that almost all of the records of criminal investigations started and dropped by the prosecutor's office in Auxerre between 1958 and 1982 – including many cases of missing women – had been stolen or destroyed. The case arises from a belated inquiry into the fate of seven mentally handicapped women who disappeared in 1977 and 1979 in the Yonne département in northern Burgundy, 100 miles south of Paris. Although the women were dismissed at the time as runaways, evidence in the past year indicates they were sexually abused and murdered.

Official investigations into dysfunctions in the local welfare, police and justice systems already hinted at a pattern of cover-ups and incompetence. French newspapers have compared the case to the "Dutroux affair" in Belgium, in which the alleged paedophile ring operator and child murderer Marc Dutroux appeared to have benefited from official protection.

A year ago the bus driver who took the seven missing women to a day centre for the handicapped was arrested. He confessed to killing them and burying their bodies on a river bank. After extensive searches, the bodies of two women were discovered. The man – Emile Louis, 66 – has since retracted his confession and claims he has evidence the women were abducted by a "prostitution ring". More than 10 years elapsed before a formal invest-igation began, so Mr Louis may never be tried for murder. The highest French appeal court will decide next month whether the statute of limitations should apply in his case.

Fresh evidence now points to many other unexplained and barely investigated disappearances of young women in the Yonne over 30 years. A confidential report this month from Marie-Susanne Le Queau, the public prosecutor in Auxerre, states that almost all of the files of investigations dropped by her predecessors between 1958 and 1982 had disappeared, includinng the cases involving six of the seven missing girls and at least 10 similar cases.

In her report, leaked to a local newspaper, L'Est Republicain, Ms Le Queau also raised the question of up to 12 disturbing cases since 1982 for which the files had survived. In one case, in December 1987, Isabelle Laville, 17, disappeared on her way to school.

The gendarmerie reported the following month that there was little chance she had run away. She had probably been abducted or murdered. But the prosecutor's office in Auxerre ordered the investigation to be closed three days later.

Ms Laville's family called yesterday for a judicial inquiry into her "kidnapping" and into "obstructions of justice". Jean-Louis Nadal, the chief prosecutor in the Paris appeal court appointed two magistrates to investigate the behaviour of the Auxerre prosecutors.

A book written on the affair suggests Mr Louis, who was arrested a year ago and is still in prison, may have been part of a wider conspiracy to abduct, sexually abuse and then murder young women.

Four of the original seven missing girls were last seen in his company and yet – despite the almost obsessive investigations of a single gendarme, Christian Jambert – the public prosecutor's office in Auxerre refused to start a formal inquiry.

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