The Chevaline Affair: The Unsolved Murder Of Four People In France In 2012
On 5th September 2012 four adults were shot dead in a parking area south of the French town of Chevaline. There were two children present. One was shot in the shoulder and then beaten. The other cowered out of sight in the car her family were travelling in. She remained there silent for many hours before being discovered. This all happened just before 3.45 pm when a witness cycled upon the scene.
Please note this is an in depth article. For a shorter version click here.
The al-Hilli party consisted of :
Driver’s Seat: Saad al-Hilli, a 50 year old engineer from the UK
Rear seat passenger: His wife Iqbal, 47.
Front seat passenger: Suhaila al-Allaf, 74. Ms al-Allaf was a Swedish citizen and Iqbal al-Hilli’s mother.
All three adults were found in the car and had been shot twice in the head along with at least two shots to the chest.
Rear of vehicle: Zeena al-Hilli was only 4 years old and she hid under her mother’s legs.
Outside of the vehicle: Zainab al-Hilli was 7 years old. She was wounded and beaten.
The French cyclist who had no established links with the British family was:
Sylvain Mollier. He was a 45 year old father of three. At the time of his death he was a divorcee with two children from his previous marriage. His partner had just given birth and he was on a leave of absence from his job. He was shot several times. Two of these shots were in his head.
Please note the number of shots varies in different reports. I have gone with the description of this detail from the GQ article below. The number varies between 15 and 25 depending on what you are reading.
The Victim’s Movements Before The Shootings
The al-Hilli group had begun two weeks holiday on 30th August when they travelled from Surrey in the UK to France. They were travelling in a BMW estate ( station wagon) and pulling a caravan ( trailer). They went to a camp site. This was on the shore of Lake Annecy which is directly north of the crime scene.
In the morning of the 5th September they had been seen picking apples and appeared relaxed. They set out for a drive in the afternoon. One report says that the choice of activity was left to the children. One option was to go shopping and the other was to walk in the woods.
Only in one report did I see anything of note about those days before the shooting. Mr al-Hilli was said to have been in an argument with a man with a Balkans accent the night before the drive.
Mr Mollier is said to have set out to ride his bike at about 2.30 pm on the afternoon of the 5th September. He lived in Ugine to the west of Chevaline. This was a normal thing for him to do according to family.
The Scene The Witness Found: As Reported in 2013.
Mr William Brett-Martin was cycling along the Route Forestière Domaniale de la Combe d’Ire. He saw a bicycle on its side in the road. He saw a young girl fall at the road side. He could hear a car engine and wheels spinning. His first thoughts were it was a movie set. His second was that there had been an accident. He saw that seven year old Zaineb was seriously injured.
It is important to note that the car was not just sat there idling. It was in gear and the rear wheels were spinning. There was smoke and the witness, an ex RAF serviceman, felt it was dangerous to leave the vehicle in that way.
Mr Mollier had to be moved so that he could switch off the ignition.
Mr Brett Martin gave first aid to the little girl but could not get service on his cell phone. He cycled to where the service returned and asked for help before returning to the scene.
He said he had been overtaken by Mr Mollier earlier on. I also note he was surprised to see that Mr Mollier was on a racing bike as the road was very uneven. I also saw that the bicycle that the victim was riding is described as an expensive one.
Mr Mollier As The Target
It is mentioned that police believe that Sylvain Mollier was shot first though that idea is disputed. The logic is that as his blood was found on Mr al-Hilli’s shoes and Mr al-Hilli was then found in the vehicle, how else could it have got there? There is a slight problem with that and the police do recognise this detail as a ‘possible’ not a definite.
So the situation with this theory is the killer knew the route he was on or had tracked him from his home. He or she waited in the parking area.
Along comes the target and he is shot. The complication is that at some stage the al-Hilli party had arrived. Mr Brett Martin does say their vehicle passed him as he cycled.
What could the motive be if Mr Mollier was the principle target?
Mr Mollier’s partner of two years was involved in a deal to buy her family’s lucrative pharmacy business. As was pointed out, however, Mr Mollier had no legal dealings with this matter.
A rumour went around that he was a nuclear engineer. He wasn’t. He had been a welder employed by a firm that manufactured some components for the nuclear power industry. Their products were not security sensitive and certainly his role did not give him access to any information that might merit this sort of violence.
In any case he was technically unemployed by the time he was killed. He had arranged a three year absence from his work.
His home was in Ugine 19 km ( 12 miles ) away. His partner, Claire Schutz, was a pharmacist and the daughter of a pharmacy owner. The rumour went she was about to inherit the business and this would make her a millionaire. Further the gossip said her family were not happy that Mr Mollier was living off her fortune.
A GQ article seemed to dispel this inheritance motive. Ms Schutz was in the process of buying the family business with an interest free loan. The deal was still ongoing. The French prosecutor in charge of the case rightly pointed out that it would be strange for a killer to butcher witnesses including children for this reason.
My only thought is that if Mr Mollier was the target there were plenty of opportunities to kill him on that ride without involving anyone else. If you look at the terrain it is very quiet. In fact that car parking area, even though it is small, is probably the worst place to try and kill someone given how sparsely travelled the rest of the area was.
In addition, why not just shoot him on the doorstep or as he cycled into the woods?
The al-Hilli Family As The Target
So the theory was that the family saw danger and attempted to reverse away from the threat. The driver, Saad al-Hilli, was killed and the vehicle grounded. I note that the parking area was at the end of vehicle access along that road.
The ex RAF witness said that Mr al-Hilli passed him. So if vehicles were prohibited after the parking place that suggests Mr Brett-Martin was travelling south along the road with Chevaline behind him.
Investigators talked to the caravan site owner. He said Mr al-Hilli had asked him for suggestions about local beauty spots. That would suggest that no-one other than the family knew for sure where they would be at any given time. Later accounts confirm this. The decision to go there appears to have been a spur of the moment plan. Then you have Mr Brett Martin’s account. He does not mention anyone else passing him.
So how can we assume the al-Hilli’s were ambushed deliberately for some hit man type reason?
The al-Hilli car was grounded to the immediate left of this image.
According to the GQ articles Mr al-Hilli had arrived at the spot and parked his vehicle nose into the tree line. The family got out. At some point shots were fired but this might have been after a few moments. It is even possible Mr al-Hilli and Mr Mollier were talking at the time.
Mr al-Hilli shouted for his oldest daughter to get in the car and he then got in and slammed the vehicle into reverse. The shooter had been into the tree line to the left of the above image. He/she came out and took up a pivoting stance.
In total 21 shots were fired. 17 bullets hit people. The car had done an arc to where it ended its journey. There were no shots that hit the vehicle structure. Undoubtedly this was an awful creature but they were very capable with a pistol.
Mr al-Hilli was shot four times including two shots in the head. His wife, in the rear passenger seat, was shot in the same way. The older lady, in the front passenger seat, was shot a total of five times. Two of those bullets hit her in the head.
It seems Mr al-Hilli must not have realised his daughter was outside the car when he set off. Not surprising in the horror of gunshots and spinning wheels. GQ says that Mr Mollier was dragged by the vehicle as it arched around. He was shot five times. Also twice in the head. He was found near the driver’s door of the BMW on the right hand side.
The shooter had been standing in the middle of this arc. So they paint a picture something like the below image sequence.
Number 1, the position of the car with nose to the tree line.
Number 2, the shooter takes up a position within the arc of the car as it goes into reverse.
Number 3, The final position of the car. On the way the front right of the car hits Mr Mollier and drags him with the vehicle. The GQ articles are in several parts. have linked them below.
Mr al-Hilli was a very capable engineer. He had gone to the region on holiday but took his lap top and documents with him. The view taken by the police was that he liked the area and was combining the trip with efforts to get a job there. It was not the only connection this victim had with that part of the world.
Within a short drive you can cross into Switzerland. It was there that his late father had accounts. At the time of his death Saad al-Hilli and his brother Zaid were not speaking to each other. They had been having arguments about £800,000 and properties that were in their father’s will. The French prosecutor in charge of the case believed that was the motive for the shooting.
Along with French officers they travelled to the UK as part of the enquiry.
Mr Zaid al-Hilli was arrested in the UK where he lived. The police in the UK and France were operating in co-operation. His house was searched and he was interviewed. That was very shortly after the murders. He has been cleared of any wrong doing.
What strikes me in this analysis is that the shooter was a very accurate and cool person. An experienced killer using a weapon common to the area called a Luger 06. It is very good at shorter ranges. If they started shooting in the tree line ( as suggested in this scenario) he/she did not hit Mr al-Hilli as he stood there. Does that suggest the killer was shooting at Mr Mollier?
It is possible, of course, he or she did that because Mr Mollier was more likely to be able to clear the scene on his bicycle.
I notice the cycle route he took was described as ‘normal’ for him. The point is if the al-Hilli group were the target and they were not about to drive off, why shoot until Mr Mollier had cleared the scene?
The Rampage Shooter
Was this a thrill shooting?
The Luger that was used was an old model. It is described as a collectors item. The pistol was widely issued to soldiers in Switzerland to the north. Even after their national service many were allowed to keep them. The manufacture of the gun started in the early part of the 20th century. A part of the grip was broken and left at the scene. The damage was caused when the pistol was used to beat Zaineb after she had been shot. It is presumed that the killer had, by that time, run out of bullets.
So was there a local watching from the trees intent on killing that day? Another thought was that one of the al-Hilli group had had a run in with such a man just before the shooting started. There is no evidence of that. I am just looking, as everyone has, for a motive.
The weapon has two versions. There was the German issue with 9 mm ammunition and the Swiss one that used 7.65 mm ammunition. All reports seem to agree it was the Swiss version. The standard magazine would use eight rounds. This shooter began firing and then changed magazines three times. The last magazine only had five rounds in it or the weapon had malfunctioned.
All 21 casings were found at the scene. Simply put the gun, no matter what the motive was behind it, is just too common in that area to be significant.
If it was a rampage the number of victims fits the sort of thing you would expect. However, don’t these attacks normally continue? Once a shooter starts it is only surrender, suicide or police action that stops them. Examples of this are Michael Ryan, Howard Unruh and the Columbine massacre.
The other type of spree killer carries out repeated attacks over a period of time. I am thinking here of the Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam and Joseph Franklin.
That is just not the case here unless you know of other very similar shootings in Europe?
This massacre happened and then simply halted.
The police talk of having some DNA profiles that don’t fit the victims but in fairness to them they say they are likely innocent from the general use of the car. There is no reference to fingerprint evidence from the scene.
Here I am thinking of the loading of maybe three magazines with each cartridge pushed into place. Metal casings can keep a partial print unless gloves are used. Is the absence of such evidence more in keeping with a professional hit type theory?
The Hit Man Theory
From what I can see there is no-one likely to have known where the al-Hilli family where. The police patched together footage of their journey to that part of France. This included CCTV on the ferry across the English Channel and any and all they could get from elsewhere. No vehicle featured more than once around them.
Good evidence suggests they didn’t have any specific plans that day. There is no evidence that Mr al-Hilli’s brother had any idea they were there.
The witness says the family drove past him on the way to where he later found them dead. He did not mention any vehicle behind them.
Mr Mollier was following a route his partner’s father had suggested to him. In other reporting his route is said to be ‘normal.’ So out of all of the victims he seems more likely to have been tracked. Throw in the local connection to the weapon used and it does tend to draw me towards him as the target.
The killer was undoubtedly good with a gun. I am passable with certain weapons. I could not shoot like this killer did. Basically he or she was really good. Adrenaline, in any conflict, will make your fingers disobey you and magazine changes can be fumbled in a tense situation. There was none of that panic here.
The number of shots per person (4 or 5) is a very precise number and the shots to each victim’s head seals it for me.
This was an ex special forces soldier or similar turned bad. The casings were not collected which has had people saying it was not a professional killer. I counter with this:
The ammunition for a gun like that, in that area, would have been so common and old that the weapon would have been untraceable if disposed of carefully. If he or she used gloves when loading then it mattered little the casings were on the ground. Not taking the time to try and pick up every casing from a fast moving shooting is professional.
Then there is the mind set. The killer shoots adults. That is one thing. This killer not only shoots them but shoots a seven year old girl and then beats her with the gun. It indicates this murderer has killed before and when they were active they killed a lot.
Another argument against this being a professional ( as in a hit man) is that the gun used was old. The last time that weapon would have been issued new was in 1949. That makes it over 60 years old at least. However, a weapon that is well maintained is just as useful as a brand new one. If looked after they will go on for many decades. Even if this was a targeted hit, why not use a make of pistol so common it is hard for law enforcement to track it down?
The History Of The Area Is Worthy Of Note
An ex cop was one of the suspects rounded up. He had been dismissed because he had a quick temper so the story goes. He had a collection of weapons. He was cleared of the murder yet they did look at prosecuting him for having illegally held guns. These seem to have been old guns, collectors items.
When commenting on this the prosecutor pointed out that the location had been a hot bed of French Resistance during WW2. Those brave patriots needed guns and with the Swiss border being so close it would be no surprise that hundreds of Swiss made Lugers would have been obtained and used against the German occupation.
The Phantom Motorcyclist.
On the day of the murders a motorcyclist was seen by two forestry workers. He was above the area that became the crime scene. He should not have been there and was told to leave. The witness, Mr Brett Martin, said he passed him as he cycled south. The police had a sketch made up of him but did not release it. The idea was they did not want to spook him. About a year later they still had not traced him. They put the picture out and still got nowhere.
In 2015 a businessman living in Lyon was identified. He claimed he had not become aware anyone was looking for him. He was questioned and released. In January this year he was re arrested. The police said there were inconsistencies in his alibi. After a few days he was released again. His lawyer stated he had been in the area for legitimate reasons and it was all a mistake. He saw several road users but had not seen the al-Hilli group. In other reports it says he had been on a paragliding trip and had become lost in the area.
As Mr Brett Martin saw him going the other way after being told to leave by the forestry workers I guess his opportunity to commit the killings was limited.
As a foot note to this Mr Brett Martin was checked out as well. His hands were swabbed for gun residue and his connections to the victims were examined. He was cleared of any involvement.
The Black BMW
This vehicle was said to have been a X 5 model. It was seen by another forestry worker in the area. The occupants and the car have not been traced. Though this might seem like the perfect wild card the prosecutor did not put much weight on it. He coined a phrase I have not heard before. One witness is no witness. I like that. As you might know I am no fan of single witness testimony unless it links into other evidence.
As you would expect Mr Mollier’s partner was asked to name anyone they knew. One of the names was Patrice Menegaldo. This 50 year old local man lived in the same place as Mr Mollier. He was an ex French Legionnaire. Not only that he had been in the elite paratrooper unit known throughout the world for their toughness.
His phone was one of 4000 signals traced to the nearest cell tower. 19 months after the murders he was interviewed, but only as a witness and the process took no more than an hour.
Two months later he left a seven page suicide note and then shot himself. One of the things he wrote was that he could not continue living as a suspect. The police confirmed he wasn’t. I do not know what his service history was. I have had a look and if he was born around 1960 then he would have been eligible to have served in several campaigns The French Foreign Legion was deployed to. These include the Balkans and the First Gulf War. So he would fit the bill as a very highly trained professional who could have fired a pistol with the proficiency of the killer.
The thing is he was not placed at the scene, he was never connected to the victims except in a small way and he left a seven page suicide note. In that writing were probably many issues that bothered him. The public does not have the details of what the rest of the pages concerned. It is the case that a severely depressed person can latch onto things that are just not true…Like being suspected of a murder involving children.
So Who Killed Four British People And A Local Cyclist?
The accounts online number so many that I doubt this effort of mine will get above page eight on Google at anytime. You will see that I have only linked a few references below despite this being a hugely complicated group of murders. This is because you need no help finding as many references as you like.
In my very humble opinion I think that this was a terrible crime in which the al-Hilli group were unconnected victims. It may have been a hit type killing. If it was I believe Mr Mollier was the target. These are my reasons:
There was suggestion that he was shot first.
He was local killed by someone with a type of gun with local connections.
It was far more likely that someone knew where he would be than was the case with the al-Hilli group.
If the al-Hilli group were the targets why not just wait until this cyclist had gone on his way? Why not wait until Mr al-Hilli got into the car with his daughter? All the killer would have had to do would be to step up and riddle the vehicle with bullets.
However, it could have easily been a spree killing but one sparked by racism or some perceived slight by the family or Mr Mollier. We only have fragmented childhood memories that can give a frame work to the forensic evidence.
What do you think?
I hope a resolution comes soon. Only today the French police have released a statement claiming to be close to a solution. I will say we have heard that said before in many cases. Bless all those that lost people they loved that day.
Take Care and thanks to Dominique for suggesting this case.
Other unsolved family murders we have covered include: The Sims family, The Martin Family and The Investor Murders.