February 9, 2009
Courtroom sketch of Elisabeth Cons-Boutboul
The murder trial of Elisabeth Cons-Boutboul drew together the Paris smart set, the horse-racing fraternity, the underworld and the Roman Catholic Church. It was a case of lies, cynicism, make-believe and manipulation and as such has gone down in French legal history as one of the most enigmatic.
As the murder trial of 70-year-old Elisabeth Cons-Boutboul opened in Paris on March 2, 1994, the question on everyone's lips was not, "Is she guilty?" but, "Which role is she going to play?"
During her life, Madame Cons-Boutboul (pronounced Conz-Booble) had acted out a range of parts – both fact and fiction– worthy of a Hollywood star: the discreet landlady of apartments in the chic quarters of Paris; the religious bigot; the lawyer who had swindled a missionary society; devoted mother of a champion jockey; secret agent of the Vatican; doting grandmother of little Adrien; a hypochondriac riddled with imaginary cancers.
So, which was it to be: the Machiavellian fraudster, the bogus widow or the innocent victim of a fiendish plot? The list of possibilities was long: Her whole existence seemed in retrospect to have been constructed on deceit, fantasy and self-seeking to the extent that is was difficult to separate truth from fancy, reality from self-delusion.
But were her lies mischievous, calculated, driven by a sort of genteel madness or, as she hinted, as a cover-up to protect superior powers? Whatever the case, she declared almost triumphantly before her trial, "I shall never reveal the truth about my life, not even if I have to spend 20 years in jail."
One day under interrogation she exclaimed to the Juge d'Instruction – another woman – "What a great film this would make! I imagine you played by Catherine Deneuve and my lawyer by Robert Wagner." When asked who would act her in the film she replied, "Why, naturally I'd play myself." (Juge d'Instruction: In France, when a serious crime such as murder is committed, the Procureur (District Attorney) appoints a juge d'instruction (something like a one-man Grand Jury) whose function is to conduct the inquiry and instruct the police as to which witnesses to interview, what evidence to gather and which suspects to interrogate and arrest.)
Elisabeth's daughter ("Darling Darinette," as she used to call her) was a champion jockey, the first woman ever to win a horse-race in France. Darinette was rich, beautiful, intelligent (claiming to have held several diplomas) who had also cut a pop album, appeared regularly on a radio chat show and had written her autobiography, Casaque de la Chance. (Casaque is a jockey's racing silk/tunic, so in English an appropriate title would be something like Lucky Colors.)
Darie once said, "Not loving success is like not loving life." The only flaw in complete fulfillment was that the poor girl had been an orphan since as long as she could remember. Her mother lied to her that her father had been killed in a plane crash.
Darie's husband was a handsome and amiable playboy, a successful and ambitious lawyer, and best friend of France's Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius. It seemed perfectly fitting that he should marry a girl who might have come straight out of a soap-opera. The wedding, in April, 1982, was predictably sumptuous and caught the public's imagination. After all, it is not every day that two society personalities get married with the Prime Minister as best man. However, Perrot, 36, was a chasseur de jupes (womanizer) and he proposed a divorce after only three years of marriage, when his 24-year-old wife objected to his extra-marital affairs. In retaliation she used the threat of their only child, 3-year old Adrien, against him. The divorce never took place; Perrot was dead before it could come to court.
Elisabeth Cons had been married a quarter of a century earlier when, like Darie, she was already pregnant. Her husband, a Tunisian surgeon, Nassim Robert Boutboul, was much older than his bride and not a family man. Both being of independent spirit, the pair soon separated by mutual consent – it was rumored that a financial deal was arranged if she would tell her friends and family that he was dead. He never saw his daughter.
Two days after Christmas 1985, Jacques Perrot was assassinated outside the door of his apartment by three gunshots. According to the medical examiner each of the wounds would have been fatal. Because of the high profile of those close to him the murder immediately hit the headlines – and stayed there for some time.
The only witness was the man in the neighboring apartment, but all he could tell police was that while he was at his desk he had heard a detonation. Thinking to himself, "This isn't the wild west," he carried on working and it was only after the third report that he opened his door to investigate. Perrot was sprawled on the floor, already dead, and his assailant had vanished.
Ballistic experts were to identify the murder weapon as a rare, almost antique, revolver – either a Harrington & Richardson 1906 model or an Iver-Johnson "Target" from the 1930s. Either way, the gun was of a type not generally available in France and its use led investigators to the conclusion that this was a job by a hit-man who had not wanted his weapon to be readily identified.
Working on the assumption that Perrot's murder had been a contract killing, it was not long before suspicion fell on his mother-in-law. She had a motive: Protection of the interests of her daughter and grandson. But was this a strong enough reason for murder? Besides, she had a cast-iron alibi: That evening she was dining with friends, all of whom vouched for her before, during and after the time of the killing.
Faced with her complete denial, police had little to go on and it wasn't until she was eventually exposed that they realized just how many false trails she had laid for them with her lies and half-truths.
The investigation took nearly nine years but piece by piece detectives managed to assemble the jigsaw of her intrigue. A first clue to a real motive came when they learned that Perrot had confided to a friend that he had dug up incriminating information about his mother-in-law involving a fraud.
Delving into this rumor they found that after qualifying as a lawyer, Marie-Elisabeth Cons had joined a Paris firm specializing in litigation and had been given charge of a dossier concerning a Roman Catholic missionary society. Over the years she had systematically embezzled $5 million from the society's funds and filled her Swiss bank accounts. When her crime was discovered, she had been sacked from the firm and disbarred from practicing law.
The missionaries never brought charges against her: Was this an extreme case of Christian forgiveness or was it, as she once deviously implied, on orders from The Vatican?
Police also discovered to their surprise that Robert Boutboul was still alive and living in Paris. Had Perrot known this too? Was he hoping to pressure her over the divorce and the custody of Adrien? The threat of blowing her cover and effectively ruining the life of respectability she had carefully constructed would certainly have provided her with a strong motive.
A further link in the chain appeared when a witness affirmed that Perrot had told him he had an appointment to see Mme. Cons-Boutboul at his apartment the very evening of his murder but that she had cancelled at the last minute. Perrot, his friend said, had seemed frustrated at this, no doubt because he had lost a chance to gain ascendancy over his mother-in-law.
Uncorroborated evidence from a witness suggested that Elisabeth had been seen in the street outside the apartment block in a car (or taxi) shortly after the time of the murder. Had she been checking that everything had gone according to plan?
All of this was just supposition; there was still nothing concrete the police could lay on her. The problem remained of her alibi, her determined resistance to questioning and the constant smoke-screen of fables: As an accomplished musician she had been cited for the Prix de Rome but her father forbade her to go; the horses Darie rode belonged to an American millionaire (in fact they were a humble cousin's); she had a Harvard degree (she hadn't); her father was an aristocrat (he was a clerk) . . . the extent of her inventions seemed limitless.
Despite the police's frustration, she earned their respect by her composure under questioning, her elegance and above all her air of authority.
There the case appeared to become bogged down. Then, on May 5, 1988, two and a half years after the slaying of Perrot, the body of Bruno Dassac, a sales representative and small-time crook, was found floating in a canal at Le Havre, in Normandy. At first the case was treated as a straightforward drowning but two days later his burned-out automobile was found not far away. The case was immediately re-opened and an autopsy ordered, which found that he hadn't drowned at all but had been killed by a gunshot through the neck. The automobile had apparently been burned to destroy evidence of what now appeared to be an underworld liquidation.
An inveterate gambler, Dassac had been spending freely in the local casinos – but where had the money come from? Closer investigation revealed that he was known to do "jobs" for local criminal bosses.
A journalist (who in view of what followed wisely prefers to remain anonymous) took an interest in the case and she soon established a link between Dassac and Madame Cons-Boutboul. The journalist reported her findings to the police but they were skeptical and she was eventually forced to flee Le Havre after receiving death threats. Martyrdom did not feature in her career plan.
Nonetheless, a keen detective followed up the journalist's claim and, searching through Dassac's clothing, found a diary containing several telephone numbers. One of these led to a charcuterie in Paris frequently used by Madame Boutboul for making and receiving telephone calls. While it is true that at that time there was still a large number of French city-dwellers who did not have their own telephones and used those in the local bar or shop, suspicions arose as to why Madame Boutboul, a wealthy woman, would use this method of communication unless it were to hide something. The fact that she used a false name (Marguerite Sanson) served to confirm this skepticism. The calls she made and received were in fact to and from Bruno Dassac (alias "Robert").
A taxi-driver, Isauro Figuier, testified that Mme. Cons-Boutboul had hired him and she met a man (Dassac?) to whom she gave a packet (money?) two weeks before the murder. Here her lies caught her out. Figuier only remembered the fare because she had spun him a fantastic story about her son-in-law dangling little Adrien over their 3rd floor balcony to terrorize both him and Darie. At this stage of her life she couldn't help embroidering everything.
Faced with proof that she had withdrawn $300,000 from her bank account in Switzerland (the contract fee?), she finally admitted that she had met Dassac but went off down fantasy lane once more by claiming that he was a courier passing funds via her to the Vatican.
She even went so far as to produce a document which, she claimed, attested to her being a member of the Vatican secret service and that she was sworn to secrecy, subject to a divine omerta, which if she broke it would put the lives of her family at risk.
The police now had something to pin on her, but it was to take six more years to get the case to court. French justice is notoriously cumbersome.
During her trial, which took four weeks, the "Iron Lady" stood firm in her denial of the accusation against her, that of complicity in a murder.Even expert witnesses such as psychiatrists and handwriting specialists became disorientated in the labyrinth of her fictions, though she did admit to the trial judge that she occasionally "embroidered" facts for "amusement."
The prosecuting attorney echoed Perrot's reference to his mother-in-law as "The Octopus" because of her ability to emanate a cloud of fantasy, myth and plain lies behind which she could safely hide, and she had the ability to reach out her tentacles and draw others into her machinations.
Faced with the evidence of her involvement with Dassac, the defense attorney, a personal friend, was reduced to claiming that there was no evidence to show that her stories were untrue. He told the jury that had a book or play been written using this plot any publisher would throw it out as being too far-fetched, and asked them to reject it too. The jury didn't, and she was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.
Having already been held in custody for nearly five years, she was released after serving nine years of her sentence. While in prison, this scheming but remarkable woman organized bible classes and gathered around her a clique of admirers. When prisoner n° 23134W wasn't entertaining them with readings from literature or lectures on history, she treated them to recitals of Bach on the piano. A veritable sinner turned saint. On her release, she went to live with Darie and her beloved grandson in the département of Seine-et-Marne, east of Paris, still serene and proclaiming that she has nothing to feel guilty about.
It was never proved that Bruno Dassac murdered Jacques Perrot and the question has never been solved as to who executed him and why. Neither was the Vatican link ever verified. Like the accused's own life, the case was and still is rich with loose ends.
So who was the real Elisabeth Cons-Boutboul: A scheming and manipulative liar whose imagination would put Baron von Munchausen to shame, or a caring mother and protective grandmother, emissary of the Pope and victim of a fiendish plot by political enemies? As she herself told us, "I will never reveal the truth about my life . . ."
This case, drawing together the Paris smart set, the horse-racing fraternity, the underworld and the Roman Catholic Church, was a case of lies, cynicism, make-believe and manipulation and as such has gone down in French legal history as one of the most enigmatic.
But perhaps an unsolved mystery is more fascinating than the truth.