Fear stalks a rural paradise

The expatriate community in south-western France is traumatised by the savage murder of four Dutch residents
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ALL IS QUIET now at La Boupillere. The shutters are closed; the lawn is overgrown. The roses in the garden still have name and price tags flapping in the breeze. On three sides, there are fields of stooping sunflowers. To the east, there is a pleasant, but hardly startling view of the valley of the river Arrats.

Gers, in south-western France, is that kind of departement; one to drive across, or to live in, rather than to visit. The people who draw up the Michelin maps are generous with their green borders of scenic merit, but they award hardly any green lines to the roads around here.

Artie and Mariane Van Hulst did not care. To them, Gers was the promised land. Unlike their native Netherlands, the countryside was empty and silent, hilly and warm. "They loved the sun. They thought the sun was the good Lord himself," said Bruno Zorzan, the farmer who sold them the large, cheese-coloured farmhouse last November for pounds 70,000.

On the night of 20 to 21 May, the idyll ended, savagely and incomprehensibly. Artie Van Hulst, 51, a small-businessman and liberal politician from Oss, near Nijmegen, in the central Netherlands, was shot four times at close range with a sawn-off shotgun, three times in the back and once in the heart. His wife, also 51 and also a local politician in Oss, was tied up and gagged with industrial sticky tape and stabbed in the chest. Her throat was cut, four times. Her sister, Dora Vandam, 62, suffered an almost identical fate. Dora's husband, Jowan Nieuwenhuizen, also 62, was stabbed in a dozen places.

Afterwards, the shutters of the house - at least a score of them - were carefully closed. The three cars were moved out of sight into the garage. The red chain was drawn across the entrance to the drive. It was made to look as if the Van Hulsts had gone home: the crime was not discovered for nearly two days. The quadruple murder was both unnecessarily vicious and in its own way, exceptionally cool and organised. The public prosecutor for Gers, Guy Etienne, spoke of "savagery, extreme savagery".

All that was taken from the house were eight credit and bank cards, a wallet and a few pieces of jewellery. The attacker, or more likely attackers, turned the house upside down, ripping apart a couch, as if looking for something precious; or important. Something specific. Documents had apparently been burned in the hearth.

Two months later, although a chief suspect has been in custody for five weeks, even judicial investigators confess that the massacre at the La Boupillere farmhouse remains largely unexplained. Both the French and the Dutch press have expressed doubts about the evidence against Kamal Ben Salah, 35, a Tunisian-born gardener and jobbing builder, who had been working with Mr Van Hulst on the house on the night of the murders.

Could this mild, slight man, with only a minor criminal record - a man liked and accepted in a neighbouring village, despite his immigrant background; a man who grew cucumbers in his garden - have committed such acts of calculated barbarity alone? Could he have committed them at all?

His lawyers compare his arrest to the celebrated case of Omar Raddad, the Moroccan gardener jailed in 1994 for murdering his elderly employer at Mougins in Provence and pardoned and freed last year. Kamal is "too perfect" a suspect, the lawyers say: he was working on the house; he has a criminal record; he is North African.

The Gers killings also recall previous, seemingly motiveless, French rural murders, such as the still unexplained massacre of a British family, the Drummonds, in Provence in 1952. They bring to mind the original version of the movie, The Vanishing, about Dutch tourists disappearing into the unfathomed depths of la France profonde.

For several weeks, the Van Hulst murders produced a state of psychosis in Gers, especially among the many other northern Europeans - Dutch, British, Germans and Belgians - who have bought holiday or retirement homes here.

The fears were compounded by a police warning that the slaughter might be the work of an escaped German murderer, Dieter Zurwehme, suspected of committing a similar triple killing near Koblenz in March. The hue and cry for Zurwehme became so intense that he was "seen" all over the French south-west; several innocent German tourists were arrested. In Erfurt, Germany, police shot dead a 62-year-old man last month because they mistook him for Zurwehme.

The French press, meanwhile, produced other theories about the Gers massacre. Could it be connected with Mr Van Hulst's business (making security equipment)? Might the Van Hulsts - lovable, quiet people though they seemed - be Dutch drugs smugglers?

It now appears that all these rumours, even the Zurwehme connection, were fomented by the gendarmerie and the public prosecutor's office. A suspect had been placed under surveillance. His phone was being tapped. The investigators wanted him to think that he was in the clear so that he would condemn himself.

The suspect was Kamal Ben Salah. He had come forward the day after the bodies were found to say that he had been at La Boupillere, decorating, until 11.30pm on the night of the murders. Mr Van Hulst had worked with him; the others had gone out to a restaurant. Mr Ben Salah said that he knew no more.

The gendarmerie thought otherwise. More than three weeks of surveillance and phone-tapping produced nothing. None the less, a month after the killings, the handyman was arrested and placed under formal investigation for "murder accompanied by acts of barbarism".

On the surface, the evidence against him is persuasive enough. His fingerprints are all over La Boupillere; a hair matching his own was found on the sticky tape binding one of the victims; a spot of his blood was found in the house. He spent 7,000 francs (pounds 700) in cash at a mall near Toulouse on the day after the murders (before the bodies were found). On the same morning, pounds 200 was withdrawn from a cash machine in the same mall, using a bank card stolen from the house.

On the other hand ... Mr Ben Salah had been working at La Boupillere for weeks, using the same sticky tape to protect woodwork while he painted. He says he cut his hand while removing old paint. He claims to have earned the cash that he spent near Toulouse from small-time cannabis dealing. His companion and the mother of his small child, a young Frenchwoman, backs him up in every detail. He vigorously protests his innocence.

Before they arrested Mr Ben Salah, the gendarmerie said such killings could not be the work of one man. They now hint that he may have been helped by friends from a public-housing estate in the nearby town of Auch. And yet the savagery of the murders, the signs of methodical search, and the coolness of the cover up, scarcely fit the hypothesis of a robbery by small-time hoodlums.

"Kamal may not be an angel but he seems a gentle man. Friendly. Always smiling," said one of his neighbours last week. "It is difficult to believe that he could do something so violent to people who had been kind to him. The Dutch couple, they also, it seems, were gentle people. To everyone around here, what happened that night is a mystery, unthinkable."

A survey last week poignantly endorsed the Van Hulsts' decision to buy a retirement home in Gers. The study found that, in one respect, the departement outstrips any other in France. It comes top in life-expectancy.