Feature

Murder in the Alps: Who killed the al-Hilli family?

Investigators are struggling to find out the cause of a gruesome and strange murder near the village of Chevaline.

It’s a gruesome murder mystery, said Marion Van Renterghem in Le Monde (France). “Every aspect is extraordinary in this scene of collective carnage.” A British man cycling through the Alps near the village of Chevaline came upon a dead cyclist, shot in the head. Nearby was a British-registered BMW with shot-out windows and the motor still running, containing the bodies of three adults, also shot in the head, and a severely wounded 7-year-old girl. Though no one knew it for hours, an unharmed 4-year-old girl was hiding underneath the bodies. Now we know that the dead are Saad al-Hilli, an Iraqi-born British aeronautical engineer; his wife, Iqbal; her mother, who had a Swedish passport; and French cyclist Sylvain Mollier. The al-Hilli daughters, Zainab and Zeena, are now in the care of relatives and French authorities. But there is much we don’t know. Was Saad al-Hilli the primary target and everyone else just eliminated as witnesses? Is it mere coincidence that the man who discovered the bodies is a former member of Britain’s Royal Air Force? Most important, who killed them?

We may soon find out, said Celine Rastello in Le Nouvel Observateur (France). While little Zeena, who cowered under her mother’s legs, did not see the attacker, Zainab may have. Now out of her medically induced coma, she has begun speaking to investigators, who say they will question her very slowly and “with great sympathy.” Experts in juvenile interviewing have been called in. They know not to ask leading questions or even yes or no questions, but “to let the child tell us what happened.”

The French are committing their best talent on this case, said Adam Sage in The Times (U.K.). They’ve appointed one of the country’s “most high-flying detectives,” Col. Marc de Tarlé of the National Gendarmerie. His involvement shows that France is treating these murders as an international incident. The investigators have already made progress on the ballistics front, said John Lichfield in The Independent (U.K.). Al-Hilli, the driver, was the first to be shot, followed by the two women, and finally Mollier, the French cyclist. All 25 shots were fired from the same 7.65 mm automatic pistol, smaller than those usually used by professional assassins. And other tourists vacationing in the area have been questioned. They said al-Hilli was “acting strangely” before his death, “leaving his family alone several times each day and switching campsites at short notice.”

Was it a family feud? asked Harriet Alexander and Robert Mendick in The Sunday Telegraph (U.K.). Rumor has it that al-Hilli and his brother were at odds over an inheritance. But the brother denied that and pledged his full support in the investigation. Or was it linked to al-Hilli’s work as a consultant to high-tech companies, or to a job he just applied for at the CERN nuclear lab in Switzerland? French prosecutor Eric Maillaud said he would find the truth. “The most important thing for me,” he said, “is that, many years in the future, I can say to the girls: ‘Thanks to the work of the investigators, and their British colleagues, we have found those who killed your parents.’”

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