Pathologists wait for chef's corpse to defrost for autopsy

France is gripped by the macabre case of the acclaimed cook, his wife, and her freezer

As one of the most admired chefs in a gastronomically obsessed city, Jean-François Poinard was known for the freshness and originality of his food. He, of all people, would not have expected to end his days in a freezer.

Mr Poinard's common-law wife has admitted to police in Lyon that she killed the retired chef, 71, during a violent quarrel 18 months ago. Police who raided her jumbled apartment last week found a freezer in the bed-sitting room containing his perfectly preserved, and still clothed, body. Guylène Collober, 51, a former waitress, denied responsibility at first. Then she admitted to punching Mr Poinard in the stomach during one of their many quarrels. She said that he fell awkwardly, struck his head, and died.

After leaving the body in the bathroom for three days, she said she had the idea of buying a freezer. She placed it next to their bed and stowed Mr Poinard's body inside. For 18 months, no one noticed that the retired chef had vanished. He had quarrelled with the rest of his family after starting the relationship with Ms Collober, who was described by investigators as a "loud and exuberant" woman.

Finally, it was Ms Collober who revealed her secret to her daughter from a previous marriage during a drunken conversation earlier this month. After agonising for several days, the daughter approached the police.

When they arrived at Ms Collober's flat last Tuesday she refused to let them in. A locksmith was called. She opened the door but shouted to the officers: "Don't come any nearer!" When they entered the flat, they found what they described as "terrible disorder" and a freezer hidden behind a large pile of washing. Ms Collober said: "You are going to find something." They did.

Investigators initially accepted Ms Collober's story and intended to accuse her formally of "violent behaviour causing a death by accident". Finally, however, she has been placed under formal investigation for "aggravated manslaughter". Under French law, the manslaughter of a husband, or common-law husband, is regarded as more serious than the manslaughter of a third party.

Investigators say that they have ruled out the possibility of a premeditated crime for financial gain. Mr Poinard, who once owned two restaurants, one in Lyon and one north of the city, was a wealthy man. Police found that Ms Collober had continued to claim his €1,100 (£900) a month pension but had not touched his bank and savings accounts.

Neighbours have told police that they often heard violent quarrels between the couple. Mr Poinard had been seen on several occasions with scratches and signs of bruising on his face. "There seems to have been some kind of pathological relationship between them," said Marc Désert, the Lyon public prosecutor. "She is certainly responsible for her actions. She has a narcissistic, possessive, violent character."

Mr Poinard's family, including a son who is a chef in Florida, complained to investigators that Ms Collober had deliberately created a rift with his closest relatives. They had, therefore, not been surprised at his long silence. Before continuing with the investigation, detectives are waiting for Mr Poinard's body to defrost to allow a full autopsy.

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