The brutal murder of four people in the Alps has French detectives under immense pressure to find those responsible. As the world’s media look on, investigators are racing to solve a case that has produced many red herrings but few real leads.
Prosecutor Eric Maillaud and his team of 40 or so investigators have the unenviable task of trying to solve a multiple murder under the scrutiny of the international media.
“He will only have one case like this in his life,” a French police source told FRANCE 24. “ It is a horrific crime and he is under real pressure to get results quickly.”
But solving the murder of four people, including a couple from Britain, on a secluded road near Lake Annecy will not be easy as Maillaud and his team face a number of difficulties.
In a press conference on Saturday, Maillaud appeared ready to blow his top as journalists peppered him with repeated questions about a shooting which also claimed the lives of a British couple, a 74-year-old woman believed to be Mr al-Hilli’s mother-in-law, and a French cyclist, who police believe was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In recent days, Maillaud has grown frustrated, repeatedly insisting the police probe was “confidential” and flatly refusing to answer questions from British and French journalists.
A gruesome crime that captures the attention of the world media can sometimes work to the benefit of the police. Members of the public, stirred by watching events unfold on television or online, can often provide vital clues to aid detectives.
But France 24 correspondent Nicolas Baker, reporting from Annecy, said the media presence has been more of a hindrance than a help to detectives.
“Once the story is in the media, some members of the public have false memories of things they thought they have seen, but these can actually pollute the police investigation,” Baker said.
“They have had hundreds if not thousands of calls, many of which will have been red herrings. But police have to take them seriously, so it’s a very long process.”
The failure to find the 4-year-old Zeena, hiding under her mother's corpse, until eight hours after the murder resulted in the media questioning the competency of the gendarmes from day one.
On Saturday, Maillaud had seemingly reached his limit and asked journalists to stop calling him every two minutes. “Don’t you want the legal inquiry to carry on?” he pleaded with reporters.
Pressure from authorities on both sides of the Channel
A source close to the investigation told local newspaper "Le Dauphiné Liberé" on Friday that British authorities have been putting enormous pressure on local police to track down the perpetrator or perpetrators of the horrific crime.
The presence of the British ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, in Annecy on Friday would have sent a clear message to Maillaud and his team about the significance of the investigation to the British authorities.
But it is not just the British who will want this crime solved. The image of France and particularly the Haute-Savoie region, which is popular with tourists, has been tarnished by the killings. Articles in the British press highlighting the danger of travelling to France will have concerned regional authorities.
This “scare-mongering”, as one British ex-pat called it, has not gone down well in France.
“We have to be clear that France is not a dangerous country. This is not the United States,” FRANCE 24's French police source said. “The Haute-Savoie is a beautiful and safe region. The French gendarmes are the most effective in Europe. They have a good record of solving crime.”
“It’s a complex case, and this type of crime remains extremely rare,” he said.
Lack of leads
The day after the gruesome murders, prosecutor Maillaud admitted that investigators had little to go on and no obvious leads. The murder was committed on a secluded road, and by shooting dead a French cyclist, who police believe stumbled across the attack, the killer eliminated a key witness.
A second cyclist, who discovered the crime, did manage to tell police that he saw a dark 4x4 vehicle and a motorcycle on the road near the murder scene. Unfortunately, in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps, “everyone has a 4x4”, Maillaud said.
The main witnesses, 4-year-old Zeena and 7-year-old Zainab, who both survived the attack on their parents, have so far been unable to shed light on what happened. Zeena was hiding under her mother’s skirt when the attack happened and has recalled hearing “screaming and shouting”. Her sister may yet prove a key witness, but she remains in an artificially-induced coma and may not be able to talk to police for days, if not weeks.
And given that the murder took place in an isolated spot in rural France, there does not appear to be any CCTV footage that could help police trace the killer.
Authorities on both sides have been at pains to stress that British and French detectives have been cooperating fully in what Surrey police have called a “complex” investigaton.
Nevertheless, the fact that the murder took place in a different country, hundreds of miles from the al-Hilli couple's UK home, will present detectives with logistical and linguistical problems.
Detectives faced difficulties in identfying the victims. The 74-year-old Swedish national who was in the car with the al-Hillis remained unnamed on Saturday. Red tape also meant French investigators had to wait until three days after the murder to search the murdered couple's Surrey home.
Questions remain over who is leading the inquiry. Prosecutors in France have insisted it is a joint British-French investigation, but Surrey police say their colleagues in the gendarmes are in charge.
With prosecutors announcing that Italian and Swiss police have now been involved, the search for the killers has expanded into a Europe-wide manhunt.
Despite the obstacles, Maillaud has vowed to solve the crime.“My only concern is the search for truth, and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” he said.