It was around 6.30pm last Saturday that something snapped in Eric Borel's head. "I've had enough," the 16-year-old had told his classmates earlier that week. "I shall commit suicide. But not before I kill two or three people."
And so he did. By the time this unremarkable boy turned a murder weapon on himself under a cypress tree the following morning, 13 people lay dead, including his mother, stepfather, stepbrother, and only friend. The other victims of a tragedy that has united two tranquil Provencal villages in grief had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No one knows precisely what precipitated Eric's mission of doom, but it is a fair bet that he did not much like his stepfather, Yves Bichet. After the divorce of his parents 13 years ago, the boy was brought up by his grandparents in Pau, in the south-west of France. Eric came to live with his mother and her new husband only three years ago, and never got on with his stepfather. They had frequent rows, and Bichet is believed to have beaten his stepson on occasions. On Saturday night, the stocky Corsican was the first to die, killed in the kitchen of his own home by his own weapon - a .22 calibre, long-range sports rifle used for target practice. Eric shot him in the head and then smashed his skull with a blunt instrument, probably the hammer found nearby.
Jean-Yves, Eric's 11-year-old stepbrother, met a similar fate in the living-room: shot and bludgeoned to death. Then the killer waited patiently for his mother to come home from church. She returned at about 8.30pm. As she entered the kitchen, she was killed by a single bullet to the head. She was spared the hammer.
The house, nestling at the foot of a verdant hill at the edge of the village of Sollies-Pont, was now devoid of life. The stepfather's parents, who lived in a flat next to the Bichet home but enclosed by the same tall brick wall that surrounds the house, were out, as were two older stepbrothers.
Eric tidied up, hiding the corpses under sheets, closing the shutters and locking up the steel gate. Into a bag he packed some biscuits, money, a raincoat, a handgun that fires harmless rubber bullets, and a map of Limoges, the significance of which was to elude investigators for two days. Stuffing his pockets full of ammunition and armed with the rifle that had wiped out his family, Eric set off on foot northwards, dressed in black.
His exact route may never be known. He may have followed the contours of the terraced orchards and vineyards just above the valley, resting in a deserted farmhouse or under the stars. Or, fearing detection, he may have climbed far above the fig trees, the lone umbrella pines and the shrubbery, into the arid wilderness beyond the ridge that rises to the west.
Behind him lay the village he could no longer call home, a once pretty community ravaged by the 20th century, where the high street tapers into an ugly industrial estate and a string of featureless hypermarkets. His destination was Cuers, four miles away, a more prosperous place whose wine still sells and whose inhabitants still try to look after one another. Whereas Sollies-Pont was to shrug off the ensuing tragedy, Cuers is yet to emerge from deep mourning.
When Eric entered Cuers just after 7am, no one batted an eyelid. Just another kid out hunting birds with his dad's gun, the villagers thought. Eric called at a block of flats at the edge of the village and rang the bell of Alan Guillemette, aged 17.
Alan was Eric's only pal. They attended the same class in Toulon, where they were studying to become electricians. They travelled to school on the same bus and hung out together after school, and sometimes Eric played the drums in Alan's rock band, the Black Dolphins. Theirs was an unequal relationship: Eric, a shy boy who did not look others in the eye, confided in Alan, but Alan, more self-assured, moved effortlessly in a wider circle of friends. He hardly ever mentioned Eric to his friends.
Alan was still asleep when Eric turned up. His mother came to the door, then went back to wake her son. The conversation between the two boys was very short. It seemed to those who half witnessed it from afar that Eric asked the questions, Alan replied and then Eric abruptly took aim and shot his friend in the head. Alan died on the way to hospital.
After that there was no longer any method to the killer's madness. He strode along the narrow road towards the village square, pumping bullets into anyone who caught his eye. He calmly took aim at the head, rested the butt of the rifle against his shoulder, squeezed the trigger, pulled a bullet out of his pocket, reloaded and took aim at a new target. His hands stayed steady, his expression blank. "It was like a Hollywood movie," says one witness. "He fired the way one shoots at pigeons," was how another witness recalls the most terrifying moment of his life.
First, Eric shot a retired couple through their window, killing the wife and injuring the husband. Their neighbour, opening her shutters at that moment, was next. Then another pensioner, who had arrived in the village the previous evening, was shot dead while drinking coffee on a patio. Further up the street, a 15-year-old boy out buying the morning baguettes was killed instantly. The next two victims, retired farmworkers, survived the ordeal, unlike the pensioner out walking his dog among the acacias in the park where he was due to play boules later that day.
On the village square Eric fired five more shots, killing four people and injuring one. By now there was pandemonium. The mayor and council officials, discussing at the mairie on the corner of the square arrangements for the day's Senate elections, watched in horror as residents ducked into doorways. The fire brigade arrived unarmed, and stood by helplessly. Eventually, the gendarmes turned up, forcing the killer to flee towards the vineyards about 300 yards away. He didn't make it. Encircled in front of the school less than an hour after his fateful encounter with Alan, Eric calmly pressed the barrel of the gun against his forehead between the eyes and pulled the trigger.
As the two stunned villages sought an explanation for the inexplicable, the gendarmes, clutching at straws, eagerly sewed up the snippets, and a profile of Eric the lovesick gun freak began to take shape. Thus Eric was a neo-Nazi loser, obsessed with violence, his mind fatally unhinged by the recent loss of his father - to brain cancer - and the rupture of his relationship with his girlfriend, Caroline. It all began to make sense when Alan entered the frame as Caroline's new lover, and the French press scented a crime de passion with a macabre twist.
Alas, the theory held only for two days. That is how long it took the gendarmes to discover that Caroline was a figment of Eric's imagination, as was the death of his father. Mr Borel is very much alive, working as a manager in Limoges. He had not seen his son for 13 years and had no desire to meet him. But Eric, who it seems felt unloved at home, was desperate to make contact, and planned an escapade to Limoges. Alan was invited to come, and his refusal cost him his life.
And the guns and the extremist violence? "He was a young man interested in war literature. He had in his room some posters and graffiti with the swastika emblazoned on them. But there is no evidence that he was interested in politics of any kind," says Colonel Marcel Kapfer, who heads the investigation. Eric also had in his room videos of Terminator and The Silence of the Lambs, much like many other normal 16-year-olds, one suspects. Yes, he was interested in guns and the armed forces. His natural father had once served in submarines. The oldest stepbrother, whom Eric worshipped, is in the army.
That Eric knew how to use guns is beyond dispute, but it still does not explain why he would have wanted to inflict this terrible skill on his family and total strangers. Baffled experts hide behind self-serving diagnoses such as "complete alienation from family and society" and a "life of explosive isolation". The main witnesses, all dead, cannot argue. Neighbours say they heard nothing, had no inkling of what went on in that house, and barely knew the Bichets who, like the son, kept to themselves. "They were a normal family," says a helpful gendarme, "though not very exuberant."
If there are any answers, they lie behind those walls, where the grandparents still live, entombed. "He was mad," explains Jean Bichet, a frail old man with a frail old wife by his side. The name Eric never passes his lips; instead he spits out the word "murderer" whenever he speaks of Borel. "My son took him in, raised him as his own. You tell me why the murderer did it."
Were there any strains in the relationship between the boy and his stepfather? "No." Was Eric a difficult boy? "No," he concedes. "He was mad."
It is an assessment that the inhabitants of the two Provencal villages twinned by blood are happy to accept. After all, what other rational explanation could there be?
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