GRÈGORY

Apr 30, 2009 - by Anthony Davis - 0 Comments

Gregory Villemin

Grègory Villemin, age 4

The murder of little Grègory Villemin was one of the most mysterious and media-hyped criminal cases of the 20th century. During the 25 years since, the investigation has seen new and surprising developments, throwing light on numerous dysfunctions within both the French judicial system and the media, and leading to repercussions including a second murder, the resignation of a high-ranking gendarmerie office, the destruction of one judge's reputation and another's loss of health and subsequent premature death. Who was the murderer? Who was the corbeau? A quarter of a century later these questions remain unanswered in a story of murder, revenge, bizarre family feuding, strange twists and surprise suspects.

by Anthony Davis

Grègory Villemin would have been 29 years old this year and probably – like his parents before him – happily married, with a good job and a nice house. Instead, an infinitely more cruel fate was reserved for him: On Tuesday, October 16, 1984 his body, tied hand and foot, was found floating in the River Vologne. He was only 4 years old.

As if this wasn't shock enough for the 1,000 inhabitants of the village of Lèpanges-sur-Vologne (Vosges, north-eastern France), a second murder was to follow a mere five months later.

So many rumors, contradictions distortions of the truth have beset the case that it is difficult picking one's way through the files, news reports and books written on the subject to determine what was fact and what supposition, malicious gossip or plain lies.

Grègory's parents, Jean-Marie, 27, and Christine, 25, had done well for themselves. He was a foreman in a local factory, Autocoussin, specializing in manufacturing top-of-the-range automobile seats, she a seamstress and section head of a clothing workshop. They had recently built a large, new house on the outskirts of the village beside a charming wood and had a handsome, almost pretty, son who was the light of their lives.

In French rural villages, as in small towns all over the world, passions run deep: jealousy and resentment at others' good fortune count for almost as much as pride in family possessions (measured in land, no matter how meager and barren the plot). Murder, when it occurs, is usually found within the family circle.

The Villemin clan was pre-eminent in Lèpanges, forming a sort of blue-collar elite, members of which tended to get the best jobs. Many of the inhabitants were related (cousins, in-laws), but Christine Villemin was an exception. She had come from another village in a different valley, considered inferior on the social scale, and she had never been accepted by the clan. They saw her as trying to better herself by marrying into their circle, a resentment that increased as she and her husband began to display every sign of relative economic success.

Three years earlier, Jean-Marie Villemin had received promotion to foreman in his factory and this, along with his perceived social climbing and authoritarian demeanor, earned him the nickname of le Chef ("the chief," or "Mr. Big").

For local people the killing, although shocking, was unsurprising and merely the inevitable result of social tensions that had been building up in recent years. The most apparent manifestation of such underlying uneasehad been a series of threatening phone calls (and four letters) from a corbeau (crow: a name given originally to a writer of poison-pen letters, nowadays also applied to malicious telephone callers.)

These messages, which started in April1981 (two months after Jean-Marie's promotion), were sent mostly to the Villemin household (and even to Mr. Villemin's workplace) but some were also received by his parents. Generally the corbeau issued menaces against Grègory, but on one occasion threatened to rape Villemin's wife.

There seems little doubt that Jean-Marie and Christine Villemin were also instrumental in distancing themselves socially. One example of this was that when they had the telephone installed in their new house they gave the number to only a small circle of family and close friends.

Even though nobody could identify the gruff disguised voice, it was apparently someone close to the family as he (or she?) knew intimate details of Jean-Marie and Christine's lives. He knew, for example, that Grègory called his Uncle Bernard "Popof," and was well-informed on past and present family squabbles.

The gendarmes advised members of the family receiving the calls to tape-record them to help identification, but no one thought to get the telephone company to trace where the calls were being made from.

The final, horrifying message came at 5:32 p.m. on October 16 to Michel Villemin, Grègory's uncle, at his workplace: A raucous voice declared, "I have taken the chief's son and put him in the Vologne."

The next day Grègory's parents received an anonymous letter saying: "I hope you die of sorrow, chief. Your money won't give you back your son. Such is my vengeance, you bastard."

For the Villemins, the day had been like any other. Both parents had been at their work. Christine left work at 4:53 p.m., picked up Grègory as usual from his child-minder and arrived home at 5:03 p.m. While she got on with some ironing, the boy was playing happily in the sand-box in the front yard. Although it was fall, the day was warm and sunny and the front of the house was shuttered against the heat.

It wasn't until around 5:15 she noticed he was missing. After searching the immediate area she returned to the nanny's house to ask if she had seen the boy. Meanwhile, a quarter-hour later, Jean-Marie's brother Michel received the final telephone call confirming Gregory's kidnapping and death from drowning. The voice was the same as that in the previous threatening calls.

After notifying the gendarmerie, Michel and Jean-Marie searched the woods behind the house for an hour: a curious action since the corbeau had said that he had thrown the boy into the river. Or did Michel only recall this vital information later?

A hasty search was set up by the gendarmerie and at 9:15 p.m., four hours after his disappearance, Grègory's lifeless body was found in the River Vologne at Docelles, five miles from Lèpanges

The case predictably hit the headlines and stayed there. The story had all the elements of a press bonanza – adorable child, grieving parents, poison-pen letters, a number of possible suspects – and before public interest could wane there occurred an extraordinary sequence of events to grip their imagination. Fed by media hype, the French public was seized with passion and quickly – and irrationally – took sides in the affair.

The next day Lèpanges-sur-Vologne was under siege. Journalists bargained for photos of the child, sought interviews with anyone willing to speak to them and put pressure on the bereaved father to name the person he suspected. Newspaper reporters trampled over each other to get the best angle. The press even offered the Villemins money (which they refused) for permission to photograph the boy in his tiny coffin.

Meanwhile, the legal procedure had to be put in motion. A juge d'instruction (magistrate charged with organizing preliminary inquiries) was appointed: Jean-Michel Lambert, 33, who soon earned himself the nickname of le petit juge (the little judge), partly on account of his short stature and boyish looks, but also because in French the epithet petit can also mean "not very good," in, other words a "nickel and dime" guy.

He considered this an internal affair and supposed that there was a direct link between the malicious phone calls by the corbeau and the crime that he (she) had threatened, and instructed the local gendarmes (rural police) to pursue their investigations along this line.

In his first statement to the press Lambert said that in his opinion, "… this is a simple affair." He was later to regret that facile boast.

Inexperienced, he soon showed himself unequal to dealing with such a complex and high-profile case. In order to bring simmering journalists into some sort of rational approach, he gave daily press conferences. Normally, these should have been restricted to progress reports on the investigation, which leads were being followed up by the gendarmerie, requests for witnesses to come forward and so on.

Instead, he was coaxed by reporters into indiscretions such as releasing the names of witnesses and suspects. He even appeared on radio and TV chat shows and soon appeared to consider himself as one of the leading actors in a drama.

Not only did he break the rules concerning the confidentiality of the case, but failed to follow the correct legal procedures – or did so too little and too late – such as inaccurate filing of vital documents or their incorrect ratification. His indecisiveness and lack of experience did not help matters.

These errors were exacerbated by the sloppy work of other officials who should have known better. The medical examiner, for example, on the presumption that Grègory had indeed died from drowning, did not examine the victim's lungs, stomach or intestines to determine the fact. As a result, a rumor started that the water in the boy's lungs was not river water but from another source, thus suggesting that he had been drowned before being thrown into the River Vologne. The cause of death was therefore never officially established.

A prime suspect was Jean-Marie Villemin's cousin, Bernard Laroche, 29, who lived at the village of Aumontzay, two miles from Lèpanges. He was known to be jealous of his cousin's success and Christine revealed that he had once made sexual advances towards her. In 1976 he had married Marie-Ange Bolle, now 27, and they had a son (born 10 days after Grègory) who was partially handicapped and needed constant care.

Laroche, whose mother and father had both died when he was young, had, in fact, been brought up by Jean-Marie Villemin's parents, thus the two cousins had grown up together. Despite their closeness, Jean-Marie had once refused Bernard's request for a job at Autocoussin even though, now that he was a foreman, a recommendation from him would have carried some clout with the boss.

Another early suspect was Jean-Marie's own brother, Michel, who had also received (he claimed) at least one call from the corbeau. It was common knowledge that Michel was envious of his brother and investigators learned that only two days before the murder Michel and his wife had visited the Villemin's in their new house – the first time in ages that the two couples had met socially – and that Jean-Marie had taken great pleasure in showing them around the house, the leather sofa, the modern kitchen . . . could this, they wondered, have been the trigger for the killing?

Like Lambert and the gendarmerie, the press was convinced that this was a family affair and armed with information unwittingly leaked by Judge Lambert they indiscriminately interviewed potential witnesses even before the authorities had been able to question them. And so a farcical situation arose in which the general public probably knew as much about the case as did the investigators. Given the stifling atmosphere in which they had to work, one can see why le petit juge was overwhelmed by the affair, even though he had been partly responsible for the fiasco.

A handwriting expert from Paris, Mme. Marie-Jeanne Berichon-Seyden, was called in to compare examples of the handwriting of members of the Villemin family and neighbors with that on the corbeau's notes and she concluded that there was a strong probability that Bernard Laroche had written the letters.

More importantly, she noticed that on one of the letters, evidently taken from a note-pad, there was the faint imprint from the previous note where the writer, using a ballpoint pen, had left some pressure traces. If the author of the upper note could be identified then the corbeau would have betrayed himself (or herself).

The task of examining the imprint was handed to Denis Klein, a gendarme with expertise in that line, and using special laser equipment he was able to distinguish a signature at the bottom of the note – the letters B. L. Of all the suspects, only Bernard Laroche had those initials.

Another expert considered that the majority of recorded telephone calls from the corbeau matched the voice of Bernard Laroche.

Marie-Ange Laroche
Marie-Ange Laroche

Laroche and his wife Marie-Ange were called in for questioning, but in the absence of a confession they were released without charges being made.

But why Bernard's wife as well? Because after the news of the murder had spread, she had telephoned the gendarmes from a public phone booth – even though she had a phone in the house – to denounce an elderly couple, the Hollards. She had also taken a very active interest in early inquiries – behavior that arouses the suspicions of police anywhere in the world – and had not gone to work either the day of the murder or the day after, even though she was clearly not ill. In fact, for her employers (a factory in Gerardmer, 12 miles away) this was the last straw and she was sacked for absenteeism, having taken 100 days off in the past year!

What had she been doing during the days she was absent from work? Investigators were also intrigued as to why she had begged Ginette Villemin, Michel's wife, not to reveal the close friendship between them and the Laroches.

Murielle Bolle

Murielle Bolle

During the interrogation of witnesses, Marie-Ange's sister –15 year old Murielle Bolle – told the investigating gendarmes that Laroche had collected her from school in his automobile the afternoon of the murder, saying he had a job for her. According to her, they picked up Gregory from his front yard then drove to the nearby village of Docelles and parked at an isolated spot beside the River Vologne.

Investigators initially presumed that Murielle's part had been to keep the boy quiet and make sure he was not alarmed: as close a relative, he was thought to have known the pair well. In fact Murielle claimed that this was the first time she had ever seen the little boy and when investigators realized that she in fact lived with her sister and brother-in-law as a sort of nurse to their son it became apparent that her presence there was not so much to look after Grègory but to keep calm Bernard's mentally handicapped son Sèbastien, who had also been in the automobile.

After parking the vehicle, Laroche had told Murielle to stay where she was while he went off with the boy. She remembered that he had called the boy "Grègory," the first time she had known his name. Laroche returned alone.

When shown his photograph, Murielle formally identified Grègory as the boy her brother-in-law had taken away. Further suspicion was thrown on Laroche when it was learned from his parents that Grègory was a timid boy who would not have gone willingly with someone he didn't know. He was fond of his uncle however.

Bernard Laroche being arrested
Bernard Laroche at his arrest

On the Monday, November 5, Murielle Bolle repeated her story to le petit juge and he ordered the gendarmerie to arrest Laroche. They did so at his place of work, while still in his overalls, in front of a crowd of journalists. After a brief interrogation he was charged with kidnapping and murder and held in custody.

The press splashed the news on the front pages, leaving their readers in no doubt that the killer had been found and that the motive was jealousy.

As for Lambert, he announced to TV cameras, a modest smile on his lips, that the case was solved. The reporters, now that the investigation was over, prepared to leave Lèpanges the following day.

They were forestalled by a dramatic publicity coup. The very next morning, Marie-Ange Laroche called in the TV reporters to film her sister Murielle Bolle, broadcasting live, publicly going back on her previous version of events, claiming the gendarmes had coerced her. She now asserted that her original statement had been forced out of her by the gendarmerie under pressure. (In fact the day before she had remarked on how kind they had been to her.)

Murielle Bolle was of low intelligence; not educationally subnormal but in a special class for slow learners. She was physically unattractive, gauche, a loudmouth. For Judge Lambert, she was typical of a person without any redeeming features who seizes upon the slightest opportunity to feel important. He therefore discounted her "confession" and accepted its retraction despite the gendarmes protests that they had put no pressure on her.

The gendarmerie were also furious, believing that Lambert had made a serious error of judgment in allowing the girl to go back to her sister's house, suspecting that there had been plenty of time to cook up a story between the girl, her sister and her brother-in-law.

(Some time later Marie-Ange's sister-in-law, Marie-Therése Lamboley, revealed that that very evening, Marie-Ange had rough-handled Murielle, giving her a good shaking and screaming, "Why did you tell them that?" Murielle, terrified, had run out of the house.)

Contrary to her previous assertion that Laroche had picked her up in his automobile the afternoon of the murder, Murielle Bolle now claimed that after she had taken the school bus as usual. She described the driver as having a moustache and small beard, a description that fitted the regular driver. However, that day a relief driver had been on duty who was clean-shaven and wore glasses.

Other witnesses came forward. The school bus driver insisted that Murielle had not been on his bus the afternoon of Grègory's death. Two fellow students said that on leaving school they saw her get into a car driven by a man with a bushy moustache and staring eyes, a description that fitted Laroche.

Lambert organized a confrontation between Bolle and Laroche. This is a favorite French judicial ploy, supposedly intended to force the truth out of one or both parties, though the success rate is disappointingly low. In this instance, since Bolle had already gone back on her previous accusations, there was no contest. The investigators learned exactly nothing, except perhaps that they were as far away from the truth as ever.

Then three women who worked under Christine Villemin came forward to testify that just before 5 p.m. on October 16 they had seen her driving off in the direction of the post office, where the last letter of the corbeau had been mailed, although no one saw her actually post a letter or even stop there.

The postmark on the envelope gave the time as 5:15 p.m., but the investigators did not bother to check with the clerk whether she had postmarked the envelope immediately when it had been put in the mailbox or 15 minutes later. When questioned, Christine admitted that she had posted a letter at that time, but on Monday, the day before Grègory's murder. After a thorough search, the gendarmes traced this letter; it had no connection with the case.

For Judge Lambert, however, the testimony of these three women was enough to throw suspicion on Grègory's mother and the gutter press slavishly followed his lead. After all, the story of a mother who murders her own child is far more marketable than that of a jealous cousin.

New handwriting experts were called in and this time they found that there was an 80 percent chance that Christine had written the corbeau letters! Lambert advised her that she was now officially a suspect and subjected her to nine hours' interrogation. She was by now in the early stages of pregnancy and collapsed under the strain and was rushed to hospital. Rumor has it that she lost one of the twins she was supposedly expecting.

There was criticism of the gendarmerie for not having subjected the Villemins to handwriting tests before, and for not having searched their house, but they protested that Judge Lambert had not instructed them to carry out these inquiries.

It was becoming evident that relations between Lambert and the gendarmes were becoming strained and Captain Sesmat, leading the investigating team, felt this new lead was preposterous, bearing in mind the strength of evidence against Laroche.

The gendarmes were also hampered in their job by repeated procedural failures owing to Lambert's incompetence. Documents on the original handwriting expertise were declared ineligible for vice de forme, a French legal expression meaning that there had been flaws in the procedure, such as interviews carried out and statements being taken without a third party present, documents incorrectly labeled or added to the case files outside the time limit.

Among the documents which could now no longer be submitted in evidence included the original handwriting report confirming Laroche as the corbeau and the expertise carried out by Officer Klein on the imprints that revealed the initials B. L.

In addition, the tape recordings of the corbeau's voice had been played back so often that by the time they were produced in court they were practically inaudible.

Convinced now of Laroche's innocence, le petit juge – against the advice of the district attorney – released him on bail February 4, 1985, even though the charges against him were not yet dropped.

Laroche's attorney leaked information of his impending release to the press and television filmed the emotional reunion with his family, presenting the event as a triumphant homecoming. The significance of this incident was not lost on the Jean-Marie Villemin.

Some time previously a journalist, Jean Ker of Paris Match, had befriended the Villemins and became a sort of avuncular advisor to them. He claimed to be firmly convinced of Christine's innocence and of Laroche's guilt. Cynics will no doubt conclude that he had ideally placed himself for a scoop.

Three weeks after Laroche's release, Ker, who had somehow got hold of a copy of a recording of Murielle Bolle's accusations against her brother-in-law, played the tape to Jean-Marie. Predictably he was driven into a rage at the injustice of his cousin's liberty and, grabbing his hunting rifle, swore he would have his revenge.

Ker calmed him and got him to swear that he would do nothing rash. Reassured, he returned to his hotel but, gnawed by doubt, rose from his bed at four in the morning. He went to Villemins' house and, alarmed at not seeing their automobile in the drive, immediately made for Laroche's residence. There he found Jean-Marie outside, gun cocked. Laroche, who was on night-shift that week, was due to return home shortly.

After some desperate persuasion, Ker managed to talk him out of any rash act. He did not fail to file an article with his magazine describing the night's events. Villemin was to later suggest that Ker's probing had been partly responsible for what followed.

Laroche was now forewarned of the danger he faced, but despite the clear threat on his life neither Lambert nor the district attorney took any action to protect him.

Meanwhile, antagonism between Judge Lambert and the local gendarmerie had reached such a pitch that he took the investigation out of their hands and handed it over to detectives of the Police Nationale. As everyone in France knows (except perhaps for Lambert) there is bitter rivalry between the Gendarmerie (who are in fact a military unit attached to the army) and the police.

Judge Lambert and Commissioner Corazzi
Judge Lambert and Commissioner Corazzi

The police decided to look at the case from zero and followed up Lambert's suspicions of Christine Villemin. The officer in charge of the case, Commissioner Corazzi, wishing to put pressure on her and at the same time prepare public opinion, used a relative of his who worked for the radio station RTL to arrange for the news to be broadcast of her imminent arrest.

The Villemins heard this announcement in their automobile, returning from a Sunday spent with Jean-Marie's parents. The shock to the pregnant Christine was so severe that she started to hemorrhage and was once again hospitalized.

It was while she was in her hospital bed that Judge Lambert formally warned her that she was now the chief suspect in Grègory's murder.

With his wife hospitalized, accused of the worst of crimes, while Laroche was free, Jean-Marie Villemin cracked and what had long been expected happened. Just after midday on March 29 as Bernard Laroche had left work Villemin suddenly confronted him, hunting rifle at the ready, and shot him once in the chest. The wound was fatal.

Laroche's last words just before the shot was fired were, "I didn't kill your kiddie."(This public – almost staged – act reminds one of Jack Ruby's assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. Had Villemin done it out of revenge, in a fit of uncontrollable rage or to get rid of a vital witness?)

Before giving himself up to the police he visited the hospital to tell Christine what he had done. She was now left to face everything alone, her son dead and her husband under arrest. On leaving hospital, she went to stay with her parents, but not once did she crack under pressure and gave no confession whatever.

Then in April, six months after Grègory's murder, Lambert and his associates claim to have found tire marks near the spot where the boy was presumed to have been thrown in the River Vologne. Casts were made of the tires which were said to have been those of a Renault Ami, the model of automobile owned by Mrs. Villemin.

Following up this "clue," police hopes were dashed when it was found that she had in fact sold the vehicle three months earlier and that the new owner had already put in over 1,000 miles. The tread patterns of the tires did not therefore match.

Jean-Marie and Christine Villemin
Jean-Marie and Christine Villemin

The tire tracks were not deemed sufficient evidence to charge Mrs. Villemin but then police searching her house found a reel of cord identical to that used to bind Grègory's hands and feet. This was enough for Judge Lambert and she was arrested forthwith, July 5, and placed in custody.

Later, faced with the evidence of the cord, she claimed that Bernard Laroche had given it to them. Neither Lambert nor the police felt it necessary to search the Laroche home – or anybody else's house – to see if other people had similar cord. Nor did they ask themselves why an intelligent person like Christine, were she the murderer, would leave behind such an incriminating piece of evidence where it could be easily found.

And her motive? The petit juge put it down to "a fit of madness." He therefore called in various psychiatrists to examine her. Not one found anything abnormal about her.

This "simple affair" dragged on without making further progress and contradictory information clouded matters even more. It seemed that the more evidence that turned up, and the more witness stories were gathered, the more difficult it became to apportion blame. The case became tangled in its own contradictions.

With Laroche now dead, any legal action against him was annulled. The evidence nevertheless still pointed to him as the most likely corbeau, kidnapper and murderer. Could Lambert have switched his attention to Christine Villemin in order to be able to produce another suspect to keep the case alive?

Certain journalists who could not believe in Christine's guilt carried out tests to indicate that she did not have the time to commit the murder. Stop-watches in hand, they traced the route taken by the slayer between Lèpanges and Docelles and concluded that it was impossible, given the times and places where witnesses had testified to have seen her.

Unfortunately, the majority of the press followed the official line and these voices raised in protest were ignored by the investigators. One influential writer, Marguerite Duras, even wrote an accusatory article against Christine in the left-wing magazine Libèration ("Sublime, forcèment sublime, Christine V.") which was not only biased but defamatory.

However, in his book In Love with Duras, Edmund White wrote:

 

There was always something preposterous about (Marguerite Duras). When she was feeling well enough she surrounded herself with courtiers, laughed very loudly, told jokes, and had opinions about everything. She was an egomaniac and talked about herself constantly. Almost three years after her cure [NB for alcoholism] she created a scandal by speculating recklessly about the most famous (and still unsolved) murder case in recent French history—the case of little Grègory.

Luckily for Christine, the district attorney intervened. He concluded that there was too little evidence to hold her in custody and instructed the Appeal Court to order her release. She was freed 11 days after her arrest. (In 1994 she was awarded 410,000F or $70,000 compensation for wrongful arrest.)

She once more sought refuge with her family and was granted police protection, while her attorney, Maótre Henri-Renè Garaud, organized a deal with Paris Match for exclusive rights to the photos of her new baby when it was born. Cynical, you may think, but at least the 250,000 francs ($28,000) they received went some way to paying her and her husband's legal fees, a sum which they could never have afforded themselves.

Mid-October, 1985, almost a year to the day after Grègory's death, the photos duly appeared of a radiant Christine proudly holding little Julien. Garaud's idea had been that this would restore Christine's reputation in the eyes of the public, but the scheme was to backfire disastrously.

Shortly afterwards, Marie-Ange Laroche also gave birth to a baby and the newspapers published photos of her – no smile this time – with the caption, The Mother in Black. Public opinion remained firmly against Christine.

In May 1986, Marie-Ange applied to have her aunt, Louisette Jacob, certified insane. Had she succeeded it would have meant that Louisette would be barred from giving evidence against her. She was not bright, it is true, but not in any way mentally ill and locally she was considered such a simple soul that she would be incapable of lying. Was this event totally unconnected with the case or was there something Marie-Ange was afraid Louisette might reveal? Nobody followed up this potential lead.

In December, 1986, Christine Villemin appeared in front of the County Court at Nancy charged with murder. Her attorney immediately put in a request for the charge to be withdrawn and the case was referred to the Appeal Court at Dijon.

Here the judges recognized the various errors in the investigation and took Judge Lambert off the case. Responsibility for leading the inquiry was assigned to Judge Maurice Simon, president of the Appeal Court of Dijon, a judge of considerable prestige and experience.

Rather than try to rectify Lambert's mistakes, he decided to re-open the case from the beginning. Morally, this was a courageous decision but the stress that this involved was to cost Simon his health and ultimately his life.

Modest, discreet and courteous, he brought a new approach to the investigation, which advanced quietly and with less media hype. He rarely gave press interviews except to give brief progress reports and in the four years that he was in charge the case clarified under his capable grasp. There were no more "lost" documents, misfiled information, secrets leaked to the press or similar breaches of legal ethics.

According to one press report, his work was "exceptional . . . and of considerable impartiality. It is thanks to men of his caliber that justice regains its credibility."

On Christmas Eve, 1987, Judge Simon ordered the release on bail of Jean-Marie Villemin pending trial. In November 1993 in a trial lasting six weeks at High Court in Dijon, Villemin pleaded guilty to the charge of the murder of Bernard Laroche. He was convicted and sentenced to five years' prison (one year suspended) but since he had already purged the greater part of his sentence in custody he was released after only a few weeks detention.

In pronouncing such a lenient sentence, the court no doubt took into consideration the grief Villemin had suffered, the judicial errors that had occurred and the media pressure that was deemed to have played a part in driving him over the brink. Is it possible that they also privately felt that Laroche had indeed been Grègory's killer?

In an interview with the magazine La Croix of October 25, 2006 Jean-Marie Villemin recalled: "The first time we had the impression that someone was actually listening to us was when Judge Simon took over the case – three years after Grègory's death . . . He didn't interrupt us, just quietly took notes and then repeated word for word what we'd told him. It was incredible. . . . Without him Christine and I would be doing 20 years each."

Christine added: "If we're still free, living with our three children, it's thanks to him."

Before the case came to trial, Maurice Simon had in fact been forced by ill-health to give up control, but by then he had practically completed the investigation. After a series of heart attacks he finally succumbed on May 24, 1994.

Jean-Marie Villemin again: "When we heard he was critically ill, I drove all night to the hospital. I knew he was in a coma but I just wanted to be there . . . he died before I arrived. I stood a long time beside his bed then, before leaving, slipped a photograph of Grègory into his pocket."

Ten long years were to pass before Christine Villemin was finally cleared. On February 3, 2003 she eventually benefited from a non-lieu (case not proven) – if "benefited" is the right word. In many respects a non-lieu is worse than a conviction: with the latter one can hope to appeal, have the decision overturned and be declared not guilty, but the former creates an element of doubt and leaves a permanent stain on one's reputation.

At the same time, the court imputed Grègory's kidnapping to Bernard Laroche without going so far as to say he was his slayer. The investigation officially closed, effectively designated a "cold case."

June 28, 2004, the State was sentenced to pay an additional 70,000€ ($87,500) compensation to the Villemins for the errors which had occurred during the investigation. The judges who made this decision described Jean-Michel Lambert as having perpetrated "a memorable balancing-act of thinking."

In April 2005 Jean-Marie Villemin applied to the Appeal Court of Paris for "rehabilitation," a French recourse to justice enabling someone who has served his punishment to have the conviction removed from the records. Villemin in no way contested his conviction for murder, but merely wanted to have the chance to become once more an ordinary citizen. Against the favorable opinion of the district attorney, the appeal was rejected.

In fact, after 10 years from the day of completing his sentence he was automatically entitled by law to rehabilitation, which was ratified on December 30, 2008. His criminal record is once again clean.

Early in 2003 hopes had been raised that DNA tests on saliva from the stamp of the corbeau's final letter stamp would finally disclose conclusive evidence of the killer's identity, but alas the sample was too old and had been handled by too many other people to give a positive result.

Finally, December 3, 2008, the Appeal Court of Dijon decided to re-open the case at the request of the Villemins. With recent advances made in forensic science it was considered that further DNA tests might yield new evidence. In particular it is hoped that samples taken from the cord used to bind Grègory might reveal the identity of the killer. The re-trial is fixed for April, 11, 2011.

What hopes are there in 2011 of proving who the murderer was and what were the motives? French justice has a long history of refusing to admit its errors, citing obscure administrative ploys to block attempts to re-examine cases.

Apart from discovering the truth about the murder, many hope that other questions will be answered, such as how much the misconduct of the press influenced what happened. Were they instrumental in pushing Jean-Marie Villemin over the edge of reason?

It is apparent that Judge Lambert was not equal to dealing with journalistic subterfuge, but is that sufficient to explain why this case became one of the worst examples of judicial and media chaos in French criminal history?

This was an affair that has become the shame of a nation, blighted by every possible flaw: breaches of legal confidentiality, abuse of personal privacy, media bias, lack of care in searching for, preserving and documenting clues, the indecision of Judge Lambert, rivalry between gendarmerie and police and unreliable witnesses.

As if that were not enough, this tragic and unnecessary history was tainted by a small community's jealousy, conflict, narrow-mindedness, lack of judgment and hatred: emotions that reached such a pitch that it took perhaps just one small thing to tip the balance between resentment and murder and make an innocent child pay with his life for the begrudged happiness of his parents.

 

Postscripts:

Captain Ètienne Sesmat, the gendarme initially in charge of the case was transferred to another town after Judge Lambert had handed over responsibility for the investigation to the police. So convinced was he of Christine's innocence and Laroche's guilt that when he left the force he wrote a book about it (Les Deux Affaires Grègory [Belfond May 2006]). As an active gendarme, he was barred from publicly saying anything about the case, so he took the extreme step of resigning in order to have his book published.

Another book, by Philippe Besson (l'Enfant d'Octobre [Grasset, 2006]), was judged defamatory and the author and his publisher were condemned to pay a total of 40,000€ ($50,000) to the Villemins.

Marie-Ange Laroche is still bitter about the murder of her husband and has unsuccessfully sued magazines and TV companies that persist in suggesting that Bernard Laroche was Grègory's killer.

Together with Murielle Bolle, she also had a lawsuit turned down against the TV channel France3 when the station attempted to block a television documentary on the case (Raoul Peck's docu-fiction, l'Affaire Villemin) broadcast in October 2006. Instead of receiving the 350,000€ ($440,000) that the plaintiffs had claimed in damages they were ordered to pay €10,000 ($12,500) costs.

Judge Lambert, now 57, is still on active service. A few years after being taken off the case he was promoted. His book Le Petit Juge [Albin Michel, 1987] became a best-seller. Even before l'Affaire Villemin (see above) was shown on television in October 2006, Lambert expressed his distaste for the program, regretting that the actor who played him in the film portrayed him as "an insulting stereotype."

Contrary to rumors that their marriage was an unhappy one – an idea that fed the suspicions against Christine – the Villemins are still together, living far from Lèpanges at Ètampes, 40 miles south-west of Paris. They have three children, two boys (Julien, 23, and Simon, 10, and a daughter Emelyne, 18.)

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