Alps murder: mountain man cleared of killing al-Hillis

Suspect who resembled e-fit was not involved in brutal killing of Surrey family, says prosecutor

BY Jack Bremer LAST UPDATED AT 09:45 ON Fri 21 Feb 2014

ERIC DEVOUASSOUX, the "taciturn mountain man" arrested on Monday by police investigating the September 2012 murder of the British-Iraqi al-Hilli family near Lake Annecy, has been cleared of any involvement in the crime. As a result, policy custody was officially lifted this morning.

However, Devouassoux remains in custody under new terms while police investigate whether he should be charged for arms trafficking, the local website, Le Dauphine, reports.

In searching his property for the murder weapon used to kill the al-Hillis and the cyclist Sylvain Mollier, police found a cache of World War Two weapons and other munitions. They later found more of the same at the home of a friend of his, who was also taken into custody.

Devouassoux was arrested on Monday because he strongly resembled a man spotted near the scene of the crime by forestry workers. Based on their evidence, an e-fit image was created and made public last November. 

Devouassoux's house in the village of Lathuile is situated just a few kilometres from the woods outside Chevaline, where Saad al-Hilli, his wife, mother-in-law, and Mollier died in a hail of gunfire on 5 September 2012.

However, the search of his property failed to turn up either the murder weapon (a Swiss-manufactured Luger PO6), or the distinctive helmet worn by the mystery motorcylcist, or the bike itself.

And Devouassoux was presumably able to persuade investigators and prosecutor Eric Maillaud that he had not disposed of any evidence in the 17 months since the killings. 

Yesterday, his lawyer, Marc Dufour, said his client had denied having anything to do with the crime and was not anywhere near the crime scene on the day of the quadruple murder.

To the huge frustration of the extended al-Hilli family, now caring for Saad and Iqbal's two orphaned daughters, Zainab and Zeena, it's back to the drawing-board in the search for the culprit. 

Zainab only just escaped death herself: she was clubbed on the head by the killer and left for dead. Her younger sister Zeena  escaped unscathed - physically, at least - by hiding beneath her mother's skirts in the back of the car.

Alps murder: mountain man's DNA does not match

20 February

ANOTHER blow for those hoping the French might have caught the murderer of the al-Hilli family: the DNA of Eric Devouassoux does not match the DNA found at the scene of the crime.

Devouassoux is the 48-year-old 'mountain man' arrested on Monday because of his close resemblance to an e-fit image made from eyewitness accounts of a man on a motorbike seen in the area on the day the al-Hillis died - 5 September 2012.

A source close to the investigation leaked the DNA news yesterday afternoon, according to Le Parisien. It was later confirmed by prosecutor Eric Maillaud.

The discovery of what was assumed to be the killer's DNA at the crime scene in the woods outside Chevaline came in April 2013, after seven months of investigation. As the Daily Telegraph reported at the time, the DNA was found on "elements at the scene". These were understood to include the murder weapon, an ancient Luger PO6, which was found in pieces after mysteriously breaking apart in the attack.

Prosecutor Maillaud had already made clear at yesterday's press conference (see below) that there was nothing yet to link Devouassoux to the killing of the al–Hilli family from Surrey and the French cyclist Sylvain Mollier.

Among the factors pointing to Devouassoux's innocence was that a Luger discovered by police searching his home was NOT of the same calibre as the one used to kill the al-Hillis, and no motorbike helmet of the distinctive kind seen in the e-fit was discovered in the search. The lack of a DNA match looks to have ended any hopes of his arrest bringing this long investigation to a conclusion.

Devouassoux, described variously as a "taciturn mountain man" and a friendly father-of-three, could still be charged however – but with arms trafficking rather than murder.

The discovery of World War Two weapons and other munitions at his home and on the property of a friend suggests to police he was involved in trafficking – an offence that carries a prison sentence of up to ten years.

Police have until Saturday morning to either charge Devouassoux with a crime or let him go. 

Alps murders: suspect 'could be an arms trafficker'

19 February

THE 48-year-old Frenchman arrested yesterday by police investigating the killing of the al-Hilli family near Lake Annecy may have been involved in arms trafficking with a partner who has also now been arrested. 

That was the big surprise to come out of today's lunchtime press conference held in the southern French town of Annecy by Eric Maillaud, the prosecutor in charge of the murder inquiry.

The second man tried to escape when gendarmes arrived to arrest him last night, Maillaud said.

The prosecutor still refused to identify the first man arrested - named as Eric Devouassoux by British newspapers - and continued to insist that there is no direct link proven between him and the murders of Saad al-Hilli, his wife and mother-in-law and the French cyclist Sylvain Mollier on 5 September 2012.

Devouassoux had been brought into custody for three reasons: he resembled strongly the face in the e-fit image (above) issued in November; he was found to be in possession of around 40 weapons and grenades; and he was known for having a violent temper.

It was true that the man had left the municipal police force in Menthon-Saint-Bernard last summer, said Maillaud, but he could not confirm earlier media reports (see below) that he had left the force under a cloud.

In stating that there was still no real evidence to link Devouassoux with the al-Hilli murders, he confirmed that a Luger found at his house yesterday was a German-manufactured Luger PO8, whereas ballistic investigations show the weapon used to kill the al-Hillis and Mollier was a Swiss-manufactured Luger PO6.

Also, no motorbike helmet has yet been found on Devouassoux's property of the kind seen in the e-fit.

Maillaud did not name the second man arrested, but confirmed that munitions, explosives and detonators were found at his property. He said of Devouassoux - again, without naming him – that he was "possibly involved in arms trafficking – but we are not sure".

Alps murders: mobile phone puts arrested man at scene 

19 February 

THE FRENCHMAN arrested yesterday by police investigating the killing of the British-Iraqi al-Hilli family in September 2012 has been identified as a former local policeman who left the force under a cloud last year. Latest reports say his mobile phone records put him in the area – the woods outside the Alpine village of Chevaline – at the time of the crime. 

The Daily Telegraph and other British papers have named him as Eric Devouassoux. The French press have adhered to the strict rules laid down by prosecutor Eric Maillaud and have declined to name him, though they have identified him as a 48-year-old  described by locals as "a taciturn mountain man" and a collector of old guns. 

Eyewitnesses who watched police raid his house in Talloires, a commune close to the scene of the shooting, saw officers remove guns and a motorbike.

Maillaud is to hold a press conference at 1pm today (UK time). In the meantime, signals are mixed as to whether there is enough evidence to charge Devouassoux.

The mobile phone: According to Le Parisien, phone records put him in the area of the crime on 5 September 2012.

The murder weapon: Police know that an ancient Luger was used to kill Saad al-Hilli, his wife Iqbal and his mother-in-law Suhaila al-Allaf. A Luger is reported to be among the weapons seized at the house in Talloires yesterday - but it was not of the same calibre as the murder weapon. 

The suspect's reputation: The mayor of Menthon-Saint-Bernard, where the suspect worked as a municipal policeman, has confirmed that the man arrested yesterday was struck off last June.  According to Le Dauphine, the local news website, this followed more than 20 complaints about his behaviour: a neighbour said he would get into a fury with anyone who questioned his authority. However, regulars at a café used by Eric Devouassoux told BFMTV today that he was a friendly man and they refused to believe he could have murdered four people in cold blood.

The e-fit picture: There is apparently no doubt that Devouassoux resembles the e-fit image (above) of a man spotted by forestry workers near the scene of the crime and released last November. The crowd at the café said he would roar with laughter when anyone pointed out how much he looked like the e-fit - or "portrait-robot" in French.

What happens next: The authorities are allowed to hold Devouassoux for only four days before they must either charge him or release him from custody. Prosecutor Maillaud is insisting the man has only been held for questioning because of his resemblance to the e-fit picture and that there could be other arrests soon.

“For the moment it is impossible to say whether he played any role in the shooting. It is simply the result of the release of the photofit but it is strictly impossible to say any more at this stage,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “It could turn out that he has absolutely nothing to do with this affair.”
 

Alps murders: French police arrest man over al-Hilli killings

18 February

FRENCH police have arrested a 48-year-old man in connection with the quadruple murder of the British al-Hilli family and the French cyclist Sylvain Mollier on 5 September 2012. 

The man comes from the Haute Savoie region where Saad al-Hilli, his wife and mother-in-law were found shot to death in their BMW car parked in the woods outside Chevaline. The man is now in custody and his home is being searched. He has not yet been named but Le Parisien claims he is a "taciturn mountain man" who "lives on the margins" of society.

News of the arrest was broken by the French television channel BFMTV and confirmed this morning by the French prosecutor in charge of this long-running case, Eric Maillaud.

It is the first arrest since the French authorities issued an e-fit image in November of a motorcyclist spotted by forestry workers near the scene of the crime. According to the local news website Le Dauphine, Maillaud said today there might be further arrests.

The e-fit image depicted a rare model of motorcycle helmet, once used by French police. Only 8,000 were ever made in black.  

If the arrest proves a breakthrough, it will come as a relief to the survivors of the al-Hilli family – not least Saad's brother, Zaid al-Hilli, who has consistently had to protest his innocence while prosecutor Maillaud has argued that a row between the two brothers over their inheritance was a possible motive for the murders.

Last month, Zaid al-Hilli was freed from bail when Surrey police, who have been investigating the murders in tandem with the French, announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge him with any criminal offence.

Yet, as The Week reported at the time, Maillaud insisted: "This decision [to lift bail] is logical under British justice. But it does not signify that we are finished with Zaid al-Hilli, nor that he is innocent."

Mystery has surrounded the case since the bodies of Saad, his wife Iqbal and his mother-in-law Suhaila al-Allaf were found in 2012. Among the questions asked have been: 

  • Were they killed by a professional hit-man? 
  • Did it have anything to do with Saad al-Hilli's Iraqi background? 
  • Were the family from Surrey actually the assassin's primary target, with the French cyclist being shot because he stumbled upon the scene - or was the cylist actually the target, and the al-Hillis the innocent witnesses who had to be disposed of? 
  • Why did the al-Hilli family suddenly decide to take a caravanning holiday in the Alps with their two young daughters, both of whom survived the attack, just as school term was starting? 

Prosecutor Maillaud said controversially within a week of the bodies being found that solving the crime might take "two, three or ten years". If today's arrest is significant, the question will be asked: why did he wait until November 2013 before issuing the e-fit image of the motorcyclist? The image was constructed soon after the killings and was held back for fear it might drive the suspect into hiding.  · 

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