THE only sound that generally disturbs the peace and quiet in the tiny hamlet of Chevaline near Lake Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps is the tinkle of cowbells ringing as herds are led down to milking.
Nestling within a National Park close to the borders with Switzerland and Italy, the surrounding landscape is picture-postcard beautiful; a haven of meadows, pine forests and sheer, white mountain faces. More than 100km from the nearest big city, Lyon, it is a refuge for holiday-makers anxious to avoid the package holiday crowds; its woods are regarded as safe enough for local teenagers to camp at night.
Yet last week, the beauty spot was besieged by police officers, forensic experts, British Embassy officials and journalists, and Chevaline was struggling to come to terms with its new claim to fame as the scene of one of the most gruesome and baffling murders the country of recent times. Yesterday, French detectives arrived in the UK in the glare of global publicity to question members of the British victims’ extended family and search their home in the Surrey commuter belt.
As yet, there are no clear motives and no suspects for the brutal killings of four adults – three members of the Al-Hilli family and a local French cyclist – and the orphaning of two young girls during a late summer holiday in one of Europe’s most beautiful regions.
Events began to unfold at around 3.40pm on Wednesday, when the Al-Hillis, who had been holidaying at the nearby Saint Jorioz campsite, were gunned down in a savage attack. Hours earlier, the family – Saad and Iqbal, their daughters Zainab, seven, and Zaina, four, and Iqbal’s 77-year-old mother – had been relaxing, picking apples and playing games. But as they made their way along a tourist route in their BMW estate car, they found themselves the victims of what appears to have been a professional hit. Within the space of 30 seconds, the three adults had all been executed, each hit by three bullets, at least one of which was in the head. Zainab was hit several times with a blunt instrument and shot through the shoulder, while a passing cyclist Sylvain Mollier died when he was shot five times after apparently stumbling on the scene.
Moments later, a second cyclist, who had been overtaken by Mollier as they pedalled their way uphill, arrived at the layby where the BMW sat, its engine still running. Tyre marks in a bankside indicated that Saad had desperately tried to reverse out of danger and perform a U-turn in the single-track country road as the killer – or killers – closed in.
The British cyclist, who wants to remain anonymous, spotted Zainab collapsing on the road. He put her in the recovery position and phoned the emergency services. But it wasn’t until the RAF veteran with a house in France broke the front window of the car to turn the engine off, and saw the bloodied bodies of the other victims, that he realised the scale of the carnage.
Yet perhaps the most shocking part of the drama had still to unfold; at midnight, almost eight hours after the attack, and an hour after police had discovered from fellow campers that the family had a second daughter, Zaina emerged, physically unharmed from under her mother’s legs. After police took the decision to “freeze” the scene until officers from the National Gendarmerie’s Criminal Research Institute arrived, she had lain there traumatised and mute, “unable to tell the good guys from the bad”. Lifted clear of the victims and the wreckage, she gave a little smile, as she realised she was safe at last. As the only ones to survive the attack, she and her sister, who suffered a fractured skull, and was on Friday still in an induced coma at a hospital in Grenoble, are currently detectives’ best hope of getting new leads to pursue. They have been placed under police protection until such time as they can be properly questioned, although Zaina, also in hospital, has already been able to confirm she was travelling with her parents.
That French detectives appear frustrated by the pace of progress is unsurprising; not since Madeleine McCann disappeared from her holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007 has a foreign police force been under such pressure to wrap up a case involving British nationals. Not only do the authorities need to reassure tourists the area is indeed safe, but they have to shore up their reputation which has taken a battering over the delay in finding Zaina. Though public prosecutor Eric Maillaud has explained the car wasn’t searched earlier to preserve the integrity of the crime scene and that a helicopter sent up with thermal imaging equipment couldn’t locate her because she was clinging so tightly to her mother they showed up as “one mass”, there are those who believe the delay was a massive bungle. Had she been shot like the others, it could have meant the difference between life and death.
French commentators have also criticised the eight hours it took for forensic experts to arrive on the scene from Paris, saying it highlights an organisational breakdown within the National Gendarmerie. “There is a very important regional forensics team based in Lyon, one hour’s drive from Chevaline. Why wasn’t it sent to at least carry out preliminary investigations?” asked journalist Alain Hamon.
The task of unravelling the mystery of who would want to slaughter the Al-Hilli family and why is proving complex, not least because of the number of jurisdictions involved.
Although Saad, 50, was a British citizen, Iqbal – who is believed to have trained as a dentist in Baghdad – held an Iraqi passport, while her Iraqi-born mother, held a Swedish one. The French police are also having to steer a course through a minefield of rumours, conflicting reports and wild conspiracy theories, including the suggestion that Saad was a spy who had recently visited Tehran and the massacre was a hit by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency implicated in attacks on Iranian scientists.
These allegations have been fuelled by the fact that Saad was company secretary for Wiltshire-based aerial photography company AMS 1087 and owned SH Tech – a company which dealt with computer-aided design work for the civil aviation industry – and by a neighbour, who claimed that, in 2002, Special Branch used his drive to mount a surveillance operation on the Al-Hillis’ £1 million mock Tudor house.
Most of those who knew the family well, however, insist Saad, who came to the UK in the 1970s with his parents when his father fell out with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and attended Pimlico Comprehensive, was westernised and highly-respected within the community. In addition to owning SH Tech, he worked on a freelance basis for Satellite Technology Company in Guildford. Friends say he was the kind of man who would come to their aid at any time of the day or night and that Iqbal would often host dinners where she would serve up traditional food.
Another neighbour – former journalist Jack Saltman – provoked more speculation by suggesting that before he left, Saad had confided he feared for his own safety in connection with “a personal matter” before taking his family on holiday. Certainly French police – who have been dismissive of suggestions Saad was known to intelligence services – now seem to be concentrating their efforts on allegations Saad was involved in a dispute with his brother Zaid over an inheritance – including several properties in Europe – left by their father Kadhim, a wealthy businessman who died last year.
Neighbours have said there were also tensions between the two over the Al-Hillis’ £1m house in Surrey – which had been in their mother’s name, but was, apparently, left to Saad. According to Saad’s accountant, Julian Stedman, Zaid had been removed as company secretary of SH Tech and replaced by Iqbal around two years ago. Family friend Dr Zaid Alabdi said the relationship between the two had broken down to the point they were communicating only through solicitors.
French officers said they wanted to talk to Zaid, who lives in Kingston-upon-Thames. But before they had the chance, he walked into a London police station and denied any family rift or any involvement in the killing. They now want to question him at length.
At the family’s Claygate home, the investigation seems to outside observers to be moving at a snail’s pace; although a police officer has been posted on the gate since Thursday, no-one appears to have searched the property.
This may be because the French officers have their work cut out just coping with the forensic evidence. With no firearms discovered, and only the children as witnesses they have had to analyse skid marks, the position of the bodies and 25 spent bullet cases they have found in an attempt to establish the exact sequence of events, the number of killers, the exact model of the weapon(s) used and what other vehicles were at the scene, although they have said it looks more and more likely the family were “ambushed” by more than one person.
As the search for clues moved to the UK, investigators back in France were trying to trace a green 4x4 vehicle seen speeding – by the British cyclist – towards the scene of the massacre moments before it took place. A local housewife, Sylvie Lecouer, 49, has also come forward to claim that she saw a white car being driven “extremely quickly” by a man in a black shirt along the same road towards her village moments after the shooting.
It is likely pressure on French investigators will be heightened by lingering memories of a similar massacre which was carried out near Lurs 60 years ago; then a British biochemist, Sir Jack Drummond, his wife Ann and ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth were killed when they stopped at the side of the road while travelling through the Alpes de Haute Provence in their Hillman Imp.
The adults were shot with a rifle, while the daughter was hit on the head with the butt of the gun. Though rumours Drummond had been a member of the Special Operations Executive during the war or that he had been involved in industrial espionage were rife, 75-year-old Gaston Dominici – one of a family of Franco-Italian peasant farmers living nearby – was convicted of the murder and sentenced to the guillotine. But the death sentence was commuted amidst criticism of the investigation and the trial and he served only a few years before being released.
The police service may also be haunted by the botched investigation into the death of four-year-old Gregory Villemin who was found dead in the Vologne River in the remote Vosges mountains in eastern France with his legs and arms bound in 1984. When charges against the prime suspect Bernard Laroche were thrown out because of failures in the investigation, the boy’s father Jean-Marie Villemin shot him dead. The case has left a scar on the French psyche.
With the French team in the UK and the investigation stepping up a gear, Maillaud and the National Gendarmerie will be hoping the case can be solved quickly and the surrounding area can restore its reputation as a rural idyll. «
Was it a professional hit? Saad al-Hilli left Iraq 20 years ago but it is believed he may still have had connections and had been under surveillance by British secret service. His company worked in the area of satellites and his connections could have made him a target. However if it was a professional hit, it does not explain why his family were also targeted.
Was it a family feud? It is claimed Saad al-Hilli and his brother Zaid, who is co-operating with police, were in dispute over money and the family home following their father’s death. It has also been suggested the hit was carried out by someone aware of the family’s plans. However, investigators question whether a relative could order the massacre of an entire family. Zaid denies a rift.
Was it a car-jacking that went wrong? Investigators say it is possible the Al-Hillis were followed by car-jackers, who started shooting when they resisted. The area has seen car-jackings in recent years by gangs who target tourists. It is possible the cyclist interrupted the crime and attempted to intervene. However, the ruthless nature of the crime makes it unlikely to be the work of a local gang.
Was the family in the wrong place at the wrong time? It is possible the target was the cyclist, 45-year-old Sylvain Mollier, and the family got in the way. However, there is no evidence to suggest why Mollier should have been targeted. It is also possible the family stumbled on a crime in progress and were murdered as witnesses, or were the random targets of a deranged gunman. However again, there is little evidence to support this. «