Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Almost a year ago in the French Alps

September 5, 2012, almost a year ago,  a British family (of Iranian descent) were on a family holiday in Chevaline,  near Annecy, in the Savoy region close to the French Alps. The father Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother, Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, were shot dead, mid-afternoon in their parked BMW station wagon at point blank range in a lay by on a country road. Their daughter Zainab, then aged seven, was shot in the shoulder and beaten unconscious on the head in the attack while outside at the pull off area while another daughter, Zeena, four, escaped unhurt after hiding on the floor of the family's BMW station wagon under the skirt of her dead mother for eight hours.
(*The black dot is the family's campsite, the red dot is the murder location.)
A passing cyclist, Frenchman Sylvain Mollier, 45, a father of three who lived nearby, at first the police believed, appeared to have stumbled across the scene, was also shot and murdered in the attack, his body found at the rest stop by the BMW's front wheels.

In the timeline of these murders on the country road, only several minutes (investigators believe) went by before a French hiker - who'd heard shots from a hiking path - discovered the scene and immediately called in Emergency on his cell phone. Bret Martin, a British man, a former RAF pilot, resident of
the area, was driving on this road, briefly saw a motorcycle zoom ahead and then the BMW with a man lying shot on the ground by it's wheels.
Martin pulled off the road by the BMW and discovered the daughter Zainab, outside on the ground bleeding, and attempted CPR. By the time the local police arrived Martin looked in the BMW and saw three victims: her father, mother and grandmother dead. The local police cordoned off the area, called in the police from the region HQ. In turn the regional police HQ who visited, were loathe to 'contaminate the scene', and called Paris - requesting a crime scene squad and homicide investigators. This quartet of murders was beyond their expertise and according to later reports they stood by afraid to investigate and paralyzed by ensuing orders from Paris to wait. When the Paris teams arrived it had been hours before any investigator had looked into the BMW and when the bodies were being taken out four year old Zeena was discovered on the back seat floor hidden under her dead mothers skirt cowering and traumatized after eight hours.
Mr al-Hilli, 50, was a Baghdad-born satellite engineer, who had moved to Britain with his parents when he was a boy. French police were initially adamant that Mr Mollier, the cyclist who was discovered dead at the scene, was simply an innocent passer-by, and that the key to the murder lay with the al-Hilli family and their background.
However, the fact Mollier had worked in a metal factory which produced components for the nuclear industry, in the following months of the investigation prompted increasing police speculation that it was he who was in the assassin’s sights.
Later reports in French newspapers disclosed that Mollier was found with seven bullet wounds — more than any of the other victims – and, it was claimed, was also the first to die. But upon questioning by British and French police the colleagues of both men, al-Hilli and Mollier, have denied that either were involved in any secretive work. And besides, it would seem unlikely that Mr al-Hilli would take his whole family to such a potentially sensitive rendezvous.
Nonetheless, initial French police reports pointed strongly towards the murder being a professional 'hit'. In particular, since Mr al-Hilli, his dentist wife Iqbal, 47, and his mother in law Suhaila, 74, were each killed with a so-called double tap of two bullets to the head each — a classic hit man’s touch.
But it was revealed shortly after the murders that the murder weapon, a Luger PO8, thought at first to be a First World War relic — was liable to jam, comparatively easy to trace, and not the first choice of professional assassins. The gunman also left behind spent cartridges – a gift to detectives – and did not kill all the witnesses, as both daughters survived the attack.
Likewise, if the family were lured to the remote forest site - they were camping at a village not far away, it seems unlikely that they would drive circuitously around the winding lanes, doubling back on themselves and stopping to photograph the scenery. Photos recovered from a family digital camera found at the scene show the group smiling in front of a pretty flower-covered stone farmhouse.
The British police from Surrey, where the family lived, came to France and 'worked' on the investigation together with the French police, sharing information or so it was said to the press. A few weeks later another theory suggested that the death of Saad al-Hilli was connected to an inheritance dispute. Khadim al-Hilli, Saad’s father, had died a year before, leaving a £1 million home in Claygate, Surrey, plus cash in a Swiss bank account.
Mr al-Hilli was reported to have changed the locks on his doors before he left, and frozen his father’s estate — blocking his brother Zaid from accessing his share of the inheritance until lawyers resolved the dispute.
But Zaid al-Hilli immediately handed himself over to Surrey police for questioning once his name was mentioned, and vehemently denied having anything to do with his brother’s death. In June of this year, Zaid, was taken in again and held for questioning in the investigation and then released.

Chevaline, where the murders took place, is just 40 miles from the Swiss city of Geneva. The Luger P08 was later discovered to be standard issue for the Swiss army between 1900 and 1945. So authorities at one time worked on the angle that it was Swiss related. In the past year, the combined French and British investigation has gotten nowhere. Theories have been investigated ranging from an Iranian hit squad to a lone pyschopath, to the possibility of Mollier's heiress partner's vengeful family.

Police inquiries into the case spread to a number of other countries including Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Switzerland. The motorcycle Martin remembered seeing (as he said for a brief second) before he saw the BMW and the sprawled body of Mollier, has still not been identified or discovered. The two girls were in the care of a foster family which French investigators at first suspected was a contract killing. Just last month, the girl's aunt has gained custody over her nieces. Zainab, recovered from a coma after several months in hospital had suffered trauma and amnesia and being then seven years old only remembered part of the events. At one time attention was being focused on the possibility the gunman was a lone psychopath, rather than a professional hitman hired as a result of a financial dispute or international espionage. The combined forces were investigating three lines of inquiry, focusing on Hilli's work, his family and links to his native Iraq.
Mollier remained to investigators the 'unlucky cyclist' while they said that no stone was being left unturned yet the focus had remained on the al-Hilli family, and whether they were victims of an inheritance-related dispute, as opposed to Mollier.
However Mollier, a divorced father of two, was also involved in 'a bitter dispute' over a two million Euro inheritance, belonging to Claire Schutz, his partner 16 years his junior, and the mother of their child born just three months before the killings. Her family reportedly disapproved of the way Mollier was living off of her money and reportedly increasingly concerned about Mollier's potential claims over her inheritance.
Prior to the killings, Mollier also arranged to take time off work at a nuclear metal works factory, Cezus, for what French media described as paternity leave, but was also reportedly expected to last three years.

Family and friends in Ugine, the small Alpine town where Mollier lived and worked, said such theories were “nonsense”.
Like the rest of the Mollier family, many in the region are beginning to doubt that they will ever really find out what happened on the afternoon of September 5, high above Lake Annecy in the remote forested car park.
Eric Maillaud, the French prosecutor leading the inquiry, says that all theories are still being explored. But investigators appear still to be far from defining a motive, let alone an intended victim, and all the possible scenarios mooted so far have their flaws. Around 100 police officers in Britain and France have been investigating the killing of the family. French investigators came to the UK and searched the Hilli family home in Claygate, Surrey, in the wake of the deaths.
 Eric Maillaud, said last year that there would be no "quick solution" in finding the killers. But it's been a year and all they have are theories.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. Thanks for that update Cara. It was big news over here for weeks and then all went quiet. I think it might pass into history as one of those tragic incidents where the truth might never be known. Sadly.

  2. It gets curiouser and curiouser. Sounds like a perfect scenario from which to write a piece of crime fiction. Lots of possibilities for the author.

  3. Thank you for the excellent summary and update. This is very close to where I live, so we've been following the news... such as it is. I have the feeling that there will never be enough evidence to convict anybody. Sadly, real life is not always as satisfactory as crime fiction.

  4. What a story. It seems as if there must be a simple solution, the most difficult to ever grasp until revealed by the master, Aimee Leduc.

  5. Truly sad and unresolved to this day. Marina, what do the locals in your area think?

  6. Sounds like the script from a TV "crime drama." The only thing that's missing is the unsurprising "surpise twist" ending. Thanks for the summary, Cara. Another in a long series of sad stories we humans weave.

  7. Maybe that's why we like crime fiction-because there is a resolution, and a sense of justice which too often is not obtained in real life.

  8. I believe the family was of Iraqi and not Iranian descent. Otherwise a good summary.

  9. Good summary of official output yet containing some important errors and omissions I would suggest. Martin also reported he saw a 4x4, never identified. He didn't "immediately called in Emergency on his cell phone", in fact he said he tried but had no signal. There is disagreement whether Zaid al Hilli was covered in blood or bleeding profusely. Mollier wasn't lying in front of the car as can be seen from the blood stains on the ground adjacent to the car and from Martin's evidence though for some reason he was moved. Presumably the local police didn't open the car for EIGHT hours because they were ordered not to not because they were afraid to. Nor has it been explained why local specialists from Lyon were not drafted in. You make no mention of the Peugeot 206/306 leaving the scene dangerously or the BMW x5 seen approaching at 3.20 or that the French statement that the tyre skid marks were made by the Al Hilli car which is clearly impossible. There is no obvious reason why Maillaud ruled Mollier out so insistently when there is so much evidence to rule him in or why after even a year none of the outstanding questions were answered at the news conference. Clearly there is much more to this case than meets the eye.

  10. Tim, Have a look at this. I think it clearly shows that the AH's car left these skid marks.
    There is, as you say, a lot of unanswered questions. Not least about the total silence regarding the well dressed man who had a heated conversation with Saad AH the day before the murders. Not even a whisper of it from the Panorama program. Very strange