The al-Hilli massacre: A murder mystery unsolved?

The arrest of a local policeman in the brutal slaughter of three members of a British-Iraqi family was hailed as a breakthrough for French investigators – but now it appears there is no evidence to tie him to the killings

Menthon Saint-Bernard

Little remarkable happens in Menthon Saint-Bernard, a beautiful village beneath a craggy Alpine ridge on the shores of Lake Annecy. This week, in the space of two days, Menthon, for good and ill, made the news twice.

The 1,800 villagers would be glowing with pride and joy if they were not still in a state of shock.

On Wednesday, a son of the village, Alexis Pinturault, 22, won an Olympic bronze medal for France in the giant slalom at Sochi. Another young man from a nearby village, Steve Missillier, won the silver.

“We are all very proud of Alexis. Normally, that’s all we would be talking about. But then there is this other terrible thing,” said Michel, 65, a customer in the village’s only café-bar. 

On Tuesday, Menthon Saint-Bernard’s former village policeman – a glorified traffic warden, whose main job was to help children cross the road and stop cars parking in the wrong places – was arrested for questioning about a brutal quadruple murder. Eric Devouassoux, 48, had shepherded the future Olympic medal-winner to school many times.

Could this man – still a policeman at the time – have been involved 18 months ago in the brutal slaughter of three members of a British-Iraqi family and a local cyclist near the village of Chevaline, at the other end of Lake Annecy? The arrest of Mr Devouassoux on Tuesday morning appeared finally to clear the Alpine mists that have cloaked the “Chevaline”, or “al-Hilli”, massacre since 5 September 2012. Investigators spoke off the record on Tuesday of an “important breakthrough”. They spoke too soon, it appears.

After three days of questioning, DNA tests, searches at three houses and the seizure of several caches of Second World War weapons, the investigators admit that they have no evidence to link Mr Devouassoux to the murders.

Murder victim Saad al-Hilli Murder victim Saad al-Hilli (Getty Images) Under French law, he must be released tomorrow unless new facts emerge to persuade an independent judge to allow another period of “garde à vue” – interrogation under arrest. This period was extended for another two days, but cannot be rolled over indefinitely.

The investigating magistrates and senior gendarmerie detectives leading the inquiry could decide to keep Mr Devouassoux, and a second man, in custody for the alleged illegal trafficking of old weapons. Alternatively, they could place both under formal investigation for the relatively minor weapons offences and then let them go.

If so, the al-Hilli massacre will become once again a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Investigators say that all seven official lines of inquiry, numbered from H1 to H7, remain under active investigation.

They include an al-Hilli family quarrel; some connection with Iraqi politics; a professional hit linked to industrial espionage; or an attack on the French cyclist.

At around 3.30pm on 5 September 2012, in a forest lay-by near Chevaline, Saad al-Hilli, 50, a satellite engineer from Claygate, Surrey, his wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother, Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were shot repeatedly in their BMW estate car. The cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, was found lying dead nearby, also shot several times in the head and body. 

Seven-year-old Zainab al-Hilli was found alive outside the car, beaten savagely about the head and wounded by one gunshot in her shoulder. Her sister, Zeena, aged four, was found eight hours later, unharmed but terrified, hiding under her dead mother’s legs.

The case has provoked intense interest in France and Britain and spawned wild conspiracy theories on the internet. A joint French-British inquiry has examined possible leads in Britain, Iraq, Switzerland, the United States and Sweden.

Eric Devouassoux, who was arrested this week Eric Devouassoux, who was arrested this week Mr Devouassoux was arrested on Tuesday after 12 weeks of surveillance, under official hypothesis four (H4) – that the murders were the work of a lone, random and  local killer. As the Annecy prosecutor, Eric Maillaud, was at pains to point out on Wednesday, the former policeman had an  “interesting” H4 profile.

He bears an uncanny resemblance to a motorcyclist seen close to the murder scene, who has never come forward. He collects – and maybe deals in – old weapons. The al-Hilli murders were carried out with a P06 Luger, which  was made for the Swiss army in the 1920s  and 1930s.

His mobile phone records suggest that he could have been “within a few hundred metres or several kilometres” of the massacre on 5 September 2012, Mr Maillaud said. The murders happened  at the top of a winding road, which is 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Menthon Saint-Bernard where Mr Devouassoux worked. His in-laws live nearby.

As village policeman, Mr Devouassoux had been accused on several occasion of making racist remarks, said Mr Maillaud. He had also been accused of  behaving violently – usually verbally but on one occasion physically – towards foreign tourists. The al-Hilli family, who were caravanning beside Lake Annecy, were British of Iraqi origin.

All this circumstantial evidence justified the former policeman’s arrest and the search of three houses, including the home of his wife’s family near Chevaline, Mr Maillaud said.

Circumstantial evidence is one thing. Real evidence is another.

Nothing had emerged from Mr Devouassoux’s questioning or the police searches to link him to the al-Hilli murders, said Mr Maillaud. It was “extremely unlikely” at this stage that he would face a formal accusation  of murder.

A Luger found in one of the searches was not the same kind as the one used in the killings, the prosecutor said. Two traces of DNA from persons unknown found at the murder scene – which may or may not belong to the killer – did not match a sample taken from Mr Devouassoux.

Only one bullet of the kind used in the killings – a 7.65mm parabellum – was found in the police searches. Investigations continue to see if it comes from the same large batch as the 21 bullets fired at the lay-by.

Motorbikes and helmets found in the searches did not match those used by a biker who was seen by forestry workers on a private forestry road 20 minutes before the murders. The biker was sent down the mountain  towards the scene of the massacre.

He is, at the very least, a key witness. Mr Devouassoux insists that he was not that biker.

Local people in Menthon Saint-Bernard do not paint a flattering picture of  their former village policeman but almost universally dismiss the possibility that he could have been the Chevaline killer.

Mr Devouassoux, a father of three who lives in the next village, resigned in June last year after 15 years as the sole member of the “municipal” police force in Menthon Saint-Bernard. He had earlier been suspended after being accused of using municipal petrol in his own car. He has since worked as a security guard for a Swiss firm.

Michel, a retired lawyer and businessman who sometimes chatted to Mr Devouassoux, in the village bar, said: “He was never the same person two days in a row. One day he would be friendly, the next day aggressive.”

Michel used the word “lunatique” – a milder word in French than in English, meaning a person subject to abrupt swings of mood.  “Yes, he sometimes made racist remarks,” he said. “But there are lots of racists and not all of them are murderers.”

Alain, a former police officer, said that he doubted whether Mr Devouassoux would have been either wicked enough or clever enough, to have carried out the murders, “Killers are usually intelligent,” he said. “No one here believes that it could have been him. He is  too stupid.”

The sense of shock which has fallen on Menthon Saint-Bernard is palpable all the same.  Until now, people who live on the beautiful shores of Lake Annecy believed that the Chevaline murders were an intrusion from a darker world.

“We thought that this was wickedness from elsewhere,” said Sylvie, aged 74. “Even if the policeman is innocent, and I think that he is, we have been forced to confront the possibility that the murderer is living among us.”

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