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June 1, 2009
Saturday, June 11, 1994 was to have been a foretaste of the summer vacation for the children of Gruchet-le-Valasse, a small town (pop. 2,700) in Normandy. Their school was organizing its traditional end-of-term fete and 9-year-old Emilie Tanay was spending the weekend at the house of one of her classmates, Jérome Tocqueville.
Emilie was an only child. Her parents, Denis and Corinne Tanay, had been invited to a christening but, not wishing to deprive their daughter of the pleasure of dressing up for the fete, they gladly accepted the Tocquevilles’ offer to look after her. It was to be the first time she had ever spent the night away from her parents.
Emilie had been suffering from a cold for a couple of days and her mother sent her to the Tocquevilles with a bottle of Josacine ready prepared , but she was not going to let a mere cold spoil her fun. Dressed like the other merry-makers, both young and old, in medieval costume, she spent a happy afternoon with her schoolmates.
On returning to her friend’s home that evening she felt unwell and Jérome’s mother, Sylvie Tocqueville, gave her a spoonful of the prescription medicine. Emilie pulled a face on taking the dose and rinsed out her mouth with water to get rid of the unusually horrid taste.
Within minutes Emilie collapsed. The Tocquevilles immediately summoned medical help. Although she was rushed to hospital, she died at 10:30 p.m. the same evening. The doctors were unable to determine the cause of death.
The autopsy revealed that Emilie had died from a lethal dose of sodium cyanide. What had previously been thought a tragic accident now turned into a murder hunt. Within days, the whole of France would know her name.
Suspicion was directed at the bottle of Josacine. A male nurse, Denis Lecointre (a friend of the Tanays) who had arrived soon after the emergency call, had noticed immediately that the medicine had a cloudy aspect and smelled of bitter almonds.
As soon as it became apparent that the medicine was implicated it was withdrawn from sale and precautionary messages were broadcast on television and radio news bulletins. A warning communiqué from the Bellon pharmaceutical company was broadcast June 15 during the 8 o’clock news on TV channel France 2. A little girl had died from poisoning after having taken a dose of one of its products, the antibiotic Josacine. The implication was that by accident or the action of some nut a batch of Josacine had been contaminated. (Josacine is a children’s medicament for the treatment of specific bacterial infections. It is presented in the form of a yellow powder which, when added to water and shaken until dissolved, produces the liquid by which it can be most readily administered. It is only available on prescription.)
Josacine was the most popular children’s antibiotic medicine in France and a great many families were affected. All over France anxious parents were washing bottles of Josacine down their sinks.
Rumors and Suspicions
Rumors quickly spread: it was said that a second girl had died after taking Josacine and that a blackmailer was trying to extort money from the manufacturers by claiming he had poisoned a batch (though both rumors later proved false). In order to ward off general panic swift action had to be taken.
An enquiry was set up which soon cleared the Bellon laboratory of any implication in the tragedy. Cyanide is not used at any point in the manufacture of Josacine. The analyses carried out showed clearly that no contamination could have occurred during production or transport and that the poison had been introduced into a single bottle, Emilie’s.
Less than four months after Emilie’s poisoning, Josacine was once again put on the market.
There are several types of cyanide, one of the most common being sodium cyanide. It is stocked as a white solid and is odorless in its dry state. Soluble in water, it acquires a smell of bitter almonds. It calls for handling with care as it carries the risk of serious intoxication by inhaling, ingesting or contact with the skin.
As a poison its effect is terrible: It attacks the tissues of internal organs and blocks the respiration of body cells. In the most severe cases, the victim suffers an attack of tachycardia then falls into a coma accompanied by convulsions. Death occurs within minutes.
Cyanide is used in metallurgy, photography, gold mining and the pharmaceutical industry. Regulations covering the manufacture, stocking and use of cyanide are strict. Personnel who handle the product have to undergo special training and containers must be marked with the skull and cross-bones together with the warning “Very Poisonous.” It may only be bought by approved users.
Cyanide is often used in cases of murder by poisoning.
The Parents as Suspects
The gendarmerie issued their standard statement to the press: They were considering all hypotheses and did not rule out any particular lead. In other words, they were stumped.
They would soon establish that the medicine must have been poisoned during the afternoon, as Emilie had been had been given a dose after lunch by her mother – with no after-effects – before she left home for the fete. Despite this evidence, early questioning was aimed at checking if there was any conflict between her parents or whether they had problems with their daughter.
[The gendarmerie is not a police force but a branch of the military. They therefore tend to carry out their duties in a more calculated and impassive fashion than the police and have often been criticized for their insensitive attitude during investigations and their lack of social skills when faced with the public.]
The Tanays were held for questioning for 18 hours and rather than being treated as victims they were deemed prime suspects. At no time was any consideration given to the grief they were suffering. Details of their daughter’s death were withheld and they were not even aware of the nature of the poison until, like the rest of the nation, they heard about it on the news broadcast.
They were not allowed to see Emilie until after the autopsy, by which time her internal organs had been removed and preserved for evidence and her body crudely stitched up again.
Eventually Captain Martinez, the officer heading the investigation, told reporters that there was nothing to prove that Emilie’s parents had poisoned their child. Translated, this meant that the investigation was looking elsewhere, not that the Tanays were cleared of suspicion.
Since no one else appeared to have any motive for wishing Emilie dead, the investigators thoughts turned towards the idea that the girl had not, in fact, been the intended victim. The case thus acquired a new dimension and they cast their net wider.
Jean-Marc Deperrois before the trial
After a few more days’ investigation, a man came under suspicion: Jean-Marc Deperrois, 43, a well-known character in the town: Boss of a color print works, councilman and a prominent active supporter of local clubs and charities. Following up rumors, gendarmes learned that this married man, father of two children, had for some years been having an extra-marital affair with Sylvie Tocqueville.
The Tocqueville’s house was right next to the Mairie (Town Hall) where Sylvie was the secretary, and in his capacity as councilman, Deperrois was in regular contact with her. By crossing the alley between, he would have been able to gain access to her house without having to go into the street.
Jean-Marc Deperrois was an affable, self-assured (some said arrogant) and well-respected citizen who had influential friends and contacts in high places locally. The investigators needed to make sure of their facts before involving a man of such stature.
The gendarmes started by tapping his phone and were soon rewarded. A caller named Alain phoned to express his concern about a certain substance that he had procured for Deperrois the previous month. Alain was soon traced: He was Alain Bodson and worked in the Prolabo laboratory in Paris. Records showed that sodium cyanide from batch # B062 had been supplied a month before Emilie’s death to someone in the département (county) of Seine-Maritime, in which Gruchet-le-Valasse is situated. Analysis of the poison found both in Emilie’s stomach and in the bottle of Josacine proved that it came from the same batch, #B062.
Under questioning, Deperrois at first denied everything: Acquaintance with Bodson, the phone call, possession of cyanide When he was eventually confronted with the bill for the chemical, he admitted that he had bought some for use in his factory but on learning of Emilie’s death had panicked. Fearing that possession of the poison might make him a suspect, he had thrown it in the river.
The gendarmes did not believe him and on July 27 he was charged with premeditated poisoning.
The Intended Victim
It was clear that the accused hadn’t meant to kill Emilie: He had no motive and no way of knowing that she would be given a dose of the poisoned Josacine, or even that it would be in the house. For this reason he could not be charged with first-degree murder.
So whom had he meant to kill? The obvious answer was Jean-Michel Tocqueville, husband of his lover, Sylvie. Deperrois had repeatedly asked her to leave her husband and make a new life with him, but she had refused because Jean-Michel suffered from both mental and physical health problems and she felt that he needed her support. Although Deperrois was apparently madly in love with Sylvie, for her the affair was merely a mild sexual fling.
Jean-Michel Tocqueville was a hypochondriac – he had 60 different medicines – though his heart disease was real enough, and he was having sporadic treatment for depression. A witness described him as someone who seemed to carry the world’s troubles on his shoulders. In the family home it was he who did the housework and brought up the children while his wife, a fun-loving, outgoing woman, enjoyed herself.
The most likely scenario, the police reasoned, was that Deperrois had slipped into the Tocqueville’s home from the adjacent Mairie, while everyone’s attention was concentrated on the fete, with the intention of putting cyanide in Mr. Tocqueville’s medicine but that in his haste he had contaminated the wrong bottle.
Sylvie had told Deperrois the day before that her husband was suffering from a recurrence of his heart problems and was back on his medicine. Was this the spur that led him to make the decision to act? It was highly probable that had Tocqueville died, the symptom of tachycardia would lead his doctor to believe that he had succumbed to heart failure; there would be no reason to suspect death from poisoning.
Deperrois’s possession of the cyanide since May, even though he tried to justify its industrial use, suggests he had planned the murder some time earlier and was merely awaiting an opportunity.
Further investigation revealed new incriminating evidence. When ordering the cyanide, Deperrois had persuaded Alain Bodson to record the sale under Bodson’s name. Yet there was only one customer in that area of France who had been supplied with cyanide for the whole month.
Deperrois had driven to Paris to collect the order and brought it back in the trunk of his automobile, which was not only highly dangerous but also illegal. Although he claimed he needed it to try out a new process in his printing works, the amount involved – one kilogram (2¼ pounds) – was too small to have been of practical value at industrial level. It was nevertheless sufficient to kill 500 people. It cost a mere 18€ ($25).
Specialists were called in who confirmed that the process Deperrois claimed he wished to carry out would be extremely dangerous, especially for someone with no scientific qualifications. He was not an industrial chemist by training, merely the proprietor of the firm. When asked to demonstrate the experiment he was unable to do so.
Then during enquiries a neighbor, Mrs. Madeleine, said that the afternoon of the fete she had seen Deperrois leave the Tocqueville’s house during their absence via the French-windows, which he then locked with a key. He was wearing “transparent plastic gloves like those that surgeon’s wear.” Or people who handle chemicals, perhaps?
At the time she had thought little of it, as she and her husband, a retired couple, had seen Deperrois letting himself into the house at all hours when Mr. Tocqueville was absent.
The gendarmes searched Deperrois’s house and found latex gloves matching the description given by this witness. They also checked the keys for the Tocquevilles’ French-windows and found that one was missing.
Apart from outright denial and the accusation that Alain Bodson was “a well-known liar,” the only defense Deperrois’s attorney could put forward was that the affair between his client and Sylvie Tocqueville was nowhere near as passionate as gossips alleged but merely a flirtation. Contrary to what the investigators believed, Jean-Michel Tocqueville could in no way be considered a sexual rival and Deperrois therefore had no real motive to murder him.
Surprisingly, this claim was supported when Mr. Tocqueville himself defended Deperrois, saying that although he obviously did not approve of the love affair it had been an “accident” and his wife had confessed to him immediately afterwards. He was certainly not going to let it stand in the way of their friendship.
Deperrois’s defense was also weakened by the fact that, according to his own timetable, he got rid of the evidence before the cause of Emilie’s death was known. The official autopsy report had not yet been published at that point.
But he was clearly a popular and esteemed figure in the community and those who knew him could not brook the notion that he was a common murderer. Soon a support committee was set up by Deperrois’s friends to back him, offering moral comfort, creating a fund to obtain the best legal defense for him and launching a publicity campaign to denounce this “miscarriage of justice.”
His defense attorney produced a statement from Dr. Sylvain Vue who said that he had spoken to Corinne Tanay and she had told him that she had noticed a strange odor from the bottle of Josacine. The liquid “fizzed” when shaken and had particles floating in it. Mrs. Tocqueville confirmed that she had noticed this too.
The implication was that the medicine had already been tampered with before Emilie went to stay with her friend, and that it could not have been Jean-Marc Deperrois who had done so. If this were the case it is difficult to understand why the two women still gave her a dose if they felt it was suspect. And why did Emilie not react to the dose her mother had given her before leaving home?
The investigators did not place much credence on this evidence (denied by Mrs. Tanay), considering that Emilie’s mother had been in a state of shock at the time and had not fully understood the doctor’s questions.
Deperrois’s attorney, Maitre Charles Libman, filed 11 applications for his release from custody; all were refused. When the gendarmerie finally presented witness statements for ratification as evidence, Libman immediately filed an appeal for them to be withdrawn on the grounds of false testimony; in view of the fragility of the defense case, it was necessary to discredit any potentially embarrassing elements as soon as possible
The trial opened on May 2, 1997 at Rouen, the chief town of Normandy. A huge crowd gathered outside the courthouse and the press and television were there in force. The main witnesses were photographed and asked for comments “as if they were stars at the Cannes Film Festival,’’ noted Maitre Laurent de Caunes, attorney for Denis and Corinne Tanay
Early in the proceedings it was established that the main point of contention was the exact time when the bottle of Josacine had been tampered with. If it was before midday on June 11 then Jean-Marc Deperrois was in the clear.
Analyses proved that the poison could not have been introduced into the Josacine in the factory because, after a few hours of contamination, it would have caused a caramelizing of the powder which would change its color and consistency.
The only way Josacine mixture could be adulterated with cyanide without it changing color would be if the poison were first diluted in water and then added to the medicine.
The poison could not have been put in when Emilie’s mother prepared the mixture. The fatal solution was found to have contained a high level of zinc. This element is not a constituent of Josacine but is found in abundance in old domestic water-pipes. Tests of the water supply at the Tanay’s house showed a very low concentration and therefore it was not from their faucet that the zinc-rich water had originated.
However, samples from water in Deperrois’s factory revealed an identical percentage of zinc to that found in the poisoned bottle. There was thus a strong suspicion that the water used to dilute the cyanide was indeed from this source.
According to the gendarmes, the medicine was contaminated between 4 and 5:45 p.m. At this time, Deperrois protested, he was with a friend, the dentist Jacques Bachelet, looking at a boat he was considering buying, but he was unable either to name the boat or produce the owner as a witness.
Maitre Libman, for the defense, claimed that the case was devoid of real evidence against his client. The juge d’instruction said, to the contrary, that the investigation had been thorough and to back his claim pointed out that the case files were in a pile 1.4 meters (4 feet) thick. He was determined there should be no judicial errors as there had been recently, particularly in the Grégory Villemin murder case [see my earlier article].
The witness box proved damaging to the defense. Deperrois’s mother didn’t help his case by making such comments as “Poisoning is a woman’s crime” or “We are surrounded by chemical factories, [a gross exaggeration] any one of them could have used cyanide” and “my son threw away the cyanide in panic because he was being hounded.” In fact, Deperrois was not yet a suspect at the time he claimed he disposed of the poison.
Corinne Tanay repeated her denial that she had told Dr. Vue that the Josacine solution she prepared that day had a funny smell and an odd appearance. Furthermore, he wasn’t her regular family doctor, so why would she consult him?
A pharmaceutical expert told the jury that any odor or cloudy aspect of the medicine would only become noticeable several hours after its preparation. This would disappear again after shaking the bottle. The doctor’s evidence was thereby discredited.
Jean-Pierre Madeleine who, with his wife, had seen the accused entering the Tocqueville’s house during the afternoon, had been rankled by Maitre Libman’s frequent statements to the press hinting that he was a liar, and he would not be shifted on the time they had seen Deperrois leave, wearing latex gloves: it was 4:25 p.m. precisely.
Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Jean-Michel Tocqueville retracted his previous support of Deperrois. He now said that he believed he was the intended victim of the poison. A month before Emilie’s death, he and Deperrois had fallen out when the latter had pressed him to leave his wife. He also complained that some days as he left for work, Deperrois was waiting round the corner for the coast to be clear.
Then Maitre Libman made an error. Calling Brigitte Bachelet, the dentist’s wife, as a witness he pressured her into confessing that she was having an affair with Jean-Michel Tocqueville. There was general astonishment in court. Why had he discredited someone who could provide Deperrois with an alibi? He tried to cover up his mistake by telling the jury that this merely showed that extra-marital affairs were commonplace, but the damage was already done and he dismissed her without further questions.
A number of character witnesses, all either friends or relations of the accused, described the accused as kind, intelligent, hard-working, generous, a caring husband and father.
A psychiatrist who had interviewed him in prison gave a completely different portrait of the accused. He diagnosed him as cold and calculating; an infantile personality who hid this defect behind a facade of social geniality and professional success. He was capable not only of denying an act but of eventually convincing himself that he was completely innocent of it. He was a liar, a manipulator and a hypocrite.
Deperrois himself was shaky on the question of his affair with Sylvie Tocqueville. Like her, he claimed that sexual intercourse had taken place on only one occasion. This claim induced suppressed laughter in court: A French jury would find it hard to believe that only a single adulterous encounter had occurred during a two-year romance.
None of this was proof positive of Deperrois’s guilt. As he himself said, after admitting having told some lies: “Being a liar doesn’t make me a murderer.” However, considering the weakness of his defense, the jury felt that suspicion weighed too heavily upon him to believe in his innocence. A unanimous verdict of guilty was returned and he was condemned to 20 years’ imprisonment.
On the pronouncement of the sentence, friends and supporters of the accused let loose their anger. The judge had the court cleared and their frustration was turned against the victim’s parents. The Tanays had to leave the courthouse under the protection of their and Bellon’s attorneys, assailed by threats and insults. The gendarmerie were nowhere to be seen.
Provincialism at Its Worst
One thing had been missing from this case: a confession. In French justice a confession is of paramount importance, an inheritance from the country’s Roman Catholic tradition. In English-speaking countries a decision for or against the prime suspect is based upon the weight of the evidence alone, but in France the investigators’ main task is to gather enough evidence in order to make the accused crack. In the eyes of the public, therefore, no confession equals no guilt.
From this point, it seemed that no one talked of Emilie any more. There was only one victim: Jean-Marc Deperrois. Faced with the impossibility of accepting their friend’s guilt, his supporters subliminally transferred their pent-up resentment against those who had suffered an even worse fate. The Tanays’ was a heavier sentence: a lifetime without their beloved daughter, and with no chance of remission or appeal.
Two opposing clans formed: the vast majority, mostly citizens of Gruchet-le-Valasse, supported the convicted man; only a minority of close friends remained faithful to Denis and Corinne Tanay. The couple did not live in the town but in a nearby village Saint-Jean-de-la-Neuville. Corinne wasn’t even from Normandy, but had grown up in Brittany, a region of France where the inhabitants consider themselves unique (as indeed do the Normans themselves.) They had never really been accepted in the community.
Their integration was not helped by Mrs. Tanay’s strong personality. Instead of being submissive and appreciative (as newcomers should be) she tended to be opinionated and didn’t suffer fools gladly.
In order to cope with the grief of losing her daughter, Corinne Tanay had turned to Buddhism to find some sort of inner tranquility. At Emilie’s funeral she wore white, a gesture that shocked the reactionary locals ever ready to find fault in others, especially outsiders.
The Deperrois camp considered him, and by association themselves, as the victims of legal injustice. In the battle between the two injured parties, they subconsciously turned against those whom they perceived as setting themselves up as surrogate victims. The Tanays became their legitimate prey.
Insults in the street, muttered threats, anonymous telephone calls, threats to kill their four-year-old son Maxime (born after Emilie’s death), became a part of their daily life. Local shopkeepers would no longer serve them. In an attempt to move out of the area they tried to rent a house in a distant village but the real estate agent, a friend of Deperrois, refused to let it to them.
Malicious rumors were started: Corinne Tanay had AIDS . . . the couple was filing for divorce. . . In the year 2000, when they tried to enroll Maxime at the local school, the principal refused to accept him.
In the local newspapers, Anne-Marie Deperrois became a symbol for the suffering woman, not because her husband was an adulterer but because he had been unjustifiably imprisoned.
She published a book Erreur sur le Coupable (‘They Got the Wrong Man’) and the support committee organized petitions (getting the backing of several well-known figures including TV personalities, singers and sportsmen) and raised 250,000 francs ($50,000) for their fund. They published regular bulletins on her husband’s supposed deteriorating physical and mental health in prison.
The popular press, who in general had favored Deperrois’s innocence, now profited from the controversy over the guilty verdict and fed on the local resentment and national surprise. They talked of “judicial error,” called for a re-trial, anything to keep the story live.
Rumors began to circulate that the real murderer was Maurice Tanay, Denis’s father (by now dead); but how would he procure the cyanide, and how would he know the Tocqueville’s house would be unoccupied at the time the Josacine was allegedly poisoned? Or perhaps it was the Tanay’s friend, Denis Lecointre; but, if he were the poisoner, why would he take the bottle of Josacine to the hospital to be examined?
Deperrois appealed against his conviction but on October 27, 1998 his appeal was turned down. (In 2001, this time with a new attorney, he would apply for the case to be retried but with the same result.)
The hatred and harassment became so intense that eventually, in 2001, Denis and Corinne were forced to leave the area and start a new life in the anonymity of a large city, Le Havre, where they could be free of these constant reminders of their tragedy. In vain. On September 19 – Saint Emilie’s Day – they received two anonymous letters. The first read:
“Living shits, parasites, bitch, filthy whore. I know where to find you. I’ll never leave you in peace. Your place is underground, not in the cemetery but in a cesspool with the rats.”
“You vermin, your harlot of a daughter has been dead since 1994, the maggots will have gobbled her up by now. If you continue pissing-off honest folk, Maxime will die like a beast.”
Soon afterwards the poison pen letters ceased. Working on the theory that the writer must have been very familiar with the case, probably a relative or close friend of Deperrois, the gendarmes discovered the author’s identity. No action was ever taken against the offender and I am barred by the laws of libel from revealing her name.
In an attempt to come to terms with all the pressure, Corinne Tanay has written two books. One, Lettre à Emilie (Letter to Emilie) [Grasset, 1998], a touching address to her daughter, telling her the intimate secrets she would like to have shared with her had she lived.
The second, Le Châtiment des Victimes (The Punishment of Victims) [Bayard, 2001], is a reflection on the status of victim, comparing and contrasting her experience with that of Deperrois. She also founded a group called l’Association d’Aide aux Parents d’Enfants Victimes (Aid Society for Parents whose Children are Victims).
Jean-Marc Deperrois made further applications for a retrial (all rejected) and was eventually granted a conditional release on June 7, 2006 after spending 12 years in jail. He is still married and living at Gruchet-le-Valasse.
This was not a case of legal injustice. In the opinion of the trial jury and of the judges that considered his appeal and applications for retrial, the evidence against Jean-Marc Deperrois justified his conviction. He continues to claim his innocence and at no time has he expressed any remorse.
No, this is a case of social injustice, the hounding of a couple who were unfortunate enough to have lost their only child as the result of a bizarre and tragic coincidence. This is a case which illustrates how the true victims are often isolated, left to cope alone in their suffering, unprotected from the attacks of those blinded by false loyalty to friends; a case of locals sticking together against outsiders; another bitter reminder of how rural life is beset with rivalries, petty jealousies and the settling of old scores.
Parents who lose their children warrant compassion. As Corinne Tanay says in her book Le Châtiment des Victimes, “When you’ve lost a child nothing seems worth doing any more: sleeping, waking, washing, eating, working . . . the victim is always alone.” Yet the Gendarmerie treated them callously, the gutter press suggested – without a shred of evidence – that they were accidentally (or carelessly) responsible for the contamination of the medicine and the local people behaved abominably
The victim is always alone. The guilty receive close attention in prison: doctors, psychiatrists, nutritionists, social workers, teachers all ensure that they are not lacking basic human needs – and quite rightly so. A nation cannot deem itself civilized if it treats any group of its citizens worse than others. But who looks after the victims? Who provides them with succor, advice, financial aid?
For most of us, the affair has dimmed into the past. For Corinne and Denis Tanay it will always be with them.
Gustave Flaubert (the author of Madame Bovary, a 19th-century novel set in Normandy, whose eponymous heroine dies from cyanide poisoning) once wrote about law cases:
“The facts are lacking, but I always maintain that ideas are facts.”
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