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Sunday, May 15, 2016

L'affaire De Chevaline: the Annecy quadruple murder

Brett Martin is a retired RAF pilot with a love of bicycling and a holiday home in Lathuile. On a clear autumn Wednesday in 2012, he was biking up a hill in the village of Chevaline, France.  At the top of a steep, remote street, he pedaled upon the unthinkable: a 7-year-old girl, shot, beaten, and bloodied, laying in the parking lot at the top of the mountain path.
Nearby lay another local cyclist - Sylvain Mollier, aged 45, shot five times - two in the head and thrice in the chest. In a burgundy BMW SUV with British plates was the rest of the young girl's family - her mother (Iqbal al-Hilli), father (Saad al-Hilli), and grandmother (Suhaila al-Allaf, Iqbal's mother) -- all shot dead. Bullet casings littered the ground.
Brett rushed to the girl to provide first aid and called for help.
French gendarmes swarmed the scene. This was a rural area that saw maybe one or two easily-solved homicides per year. This case was handled with kid gloves. So much so, in fact, that it wasn't until 8 hours later that specialists discovered the lone unhurt survivor - 4-year-old Zeena, who had escaped harm by hiding underneath her mother's skirts. She had remained hidden the entire time.
The scene they found was strange, but told a clear tale: The SUV had made its way up a desolate and dangerous mountain road, though the family inside were not dressed in hiking attire, and rested in the parking lot at the top of the mountain, which the road dead-ended into. A sort of scenic overlook, if you will. The SUV had been reversed sharply into an embankment beside the car park, leaving gouge marks that were still visible two days later. When Martin arrived, the car was still in reverse with the wheels spinning and the doors locked. Clearly, Saad had seen danger and tried to get away.
Investigators surrounding the al-Hilli's vehicle.
WARNING: The next two images will show a (pixellated and poorly visible) dead body.

The SUV with Sylvain Mollier's body beside it.  You can see the tire marks where the SUV reversed.

Another shot of the SUV and body.

As the investigation got under way, it turned out that both the family and the cyclist had tantalizing troubling backgrounds. Iraqi-born Saad was a freelance mechanical engineer currently working for a satellite company. Sylvain Mollier was on a three-year leave of absence from his job at Cezus, which primarily crafted fuel rod housings for nuclear reactors. Tabloids went nuts with potential theories - including that the two were actually forming a plot in cahoots with each other.
Was al-Hilli a terrorist with possible connections to Iraq? Tabloids at one point burst with headlines declaring that al-Hilli's father had smuggled money out of Iraq for Saddam and hidden it in a Swiss bank account. While the senior al-Hilli, Kadim, did have money in a Swiss account, it was not Saddam's; in fact, it emerged that Kadim's brother had been kidnapped and tortured by the secret police and sustained brain damage. Shortly thereafter, he took his family and fled to England, where Saad and the rest had stayed. Nor did Saad have access to any classified secrets or anything satellite-related that would be of interest for a terrorist cell.
Mollier was a divorced father of three: two children with his ex-wife and an infant daughter with his live-in girlfriend of two years, Claire Schutz. Like al-Hilli, his tantalizing connections fell apart under scrutiny: he was a welder at the nuclear plant, and did not have access to anything that would be of interest to atomic-minded criminals. Nor had he ever had contact with al-Hilli before: there was no trace of any connection between the two men (or anyone else in the al-Hilli family), apart from the ending of their lives.
The al-Hillis had driven to France on a vacation. Saad, the father, had visited there several times before, and may have been looking for a job as he liked the location and brought with him his computers and thumb drives from work. They towed a white B├╝rstner camper behind their BMW and stayed at Le Solitaire du Lac, a campground on the shores of Lake Annecy. On Wednesday, September 5, 2012, he asked his daughter Zainab what she would like to do that afternoon: did she want to go shopping, or go for a walk in the woods? Zainab wanted to take a walk in the woods.
Saad didn't know the area that well, and asked the campground owner for directions. He won't say where he sent them, but it may have been up that dirt road, or he may have taken a wrong turn; once you turn onto the uphill road, there is no turnaround for 3 kilometers - not until it dead-ends into the parking lot at the top.

A photo of the al-Hilli family taken just minutes before the attack.

Sylvain, too, may have gotten lost. He had asked his girlfriend's father to recommend a route, but it likely hadn't included the uphill path. His girlfriend called him shortly before he reached the top, but he was panting and said he wanted to reach the end of the road first.
Once there, he disembarked his bike. He may have been talking with Saad, who was gregarious and outgoing. Saad liked bikes, and they may have been discussing Sylvain's racing bike, which was not particularly suited for a bumpy, pothole-filled road such as the one up the mountain.
Each of the victims was killed by two shots to the head - execution-style, making it look like a professional hit. 21 shots were fired. However, the weapon used was a 7.65-millimeter Luger - an antique. Also, it appears that Zainab was pistol-whipped because the killer ran out of bullets- perhaps after shooting her in the shoulder. The model of the gun is known because a piece broke off in her skull.
The most promising suspect appears to be Patrice Menegaldo, a periphery acquaintance of Claire Schutz, Sylvain's girlfriend (I haven't found information on how she knew him). Police called Menegaldo in as a witness for a routine hour-long interview. Two months later, Menegaldo, a former French Foreign Legion soldier, shot himself in the head. He left behind a seven-page suicide note, the majority of which has not been revealed - except for the fact that he said, "I could not handle being a suspect in a murder."
But he wasn't a suspect. He wasn't even a witness. He was being interviewed because there were no other leads.
On the other hand, it could be that neither Sylvain Mollier - shot more times than anyone else, and possibly the first person shot, though this hasn't been confirmed - nor Saad al-Hilli were the subject of the murders. Both seem to have gotten lost, and no one could've known that either one was going to be in the parking lot. It could have been a random act of violence.
Zainab al-Hilli survived the brutal attack and made a full recovery. She and her younger sister, Zeena, now live in England with their maternal aunt and uncle, as well as another cousin. They had initially been in foster care following the murders. Because Zainab may have seen the murderer's face, they were placed under armed guard in 2013.
The murder remains unsolved.

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