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Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès: Murder, mystery and an 8-year manhunt

Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès is suspected of mudering his wife and four children in Nantes in 2011.
Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès is suspected of mudering his wife and four children in Nantes in 2011. AFP / File photo

A man believed to a French fugitive accused of killing his wife and four children in 2011 was arrested in Scotland Friday only to be later released in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. It is the latest twist to a case that has stumped authorities and gripped the French public for the past eight years. 

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Police in Glasgow arrested a man believed to be Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès at the city’s airport on Friday afternoon, according to police sources. They had been tipped off after the suspect had been spotted by officers at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport boarding a flight bound for the Scottish city, a source told the AFP news agency.

Initial media reports said his fingerprints matched those of Dupont de Ligonnès, raising hopes the prime suspect in one of France’s most gruesome murder cases had finally been caught. But on Saturday, French police sources said a DNA test had come back negative.

It is just the latest false lead in a case that has been shrouded in mystery since it first hit headlines eight years ago.

The murders

On April 21, 2011, police made a gruesome discovery at an otherwise ordinary, middle class family home in the western French city of Nantes.

Under the house’s patio, wrapped in sheets and covered in quicklime, they found the bodies of 48-year-old Agnès Dupont de Ligonnès and her four children: Arthur, 21, Thomas, 18, Anne, 16, and Benoît, aged 13, along with the family’s pets, two Labrador dogs.

Autopsies revealed that Agnès and the four children were all killed by gun shots to the head, fired by a .22 rifle in what was described as a “methodical execution”. The children had also reportedly been drugged with sleeping pills before being shot.

They had been dead for around two weeks, placing the killings at between April 3 and 5. Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, husband to Agnès and father to the four children, was nowhere to be found.

Prime suspect

The alarm had been raised by a neighbour more than a week earlier, on April 13, who had noticed the blinds of the house had been drawn for days, though an official investigation was not launched by police until six days later on April 19, eventually leading them to search the Dupont de Ligonnès family home.

By this time, suspicion has already fallen on Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, a businessman from an aristocratic family then aged 50 with no history of criminal behavior.

Initial investigations reveal that in the days before the killings, Dupont de Ligonnès had bought cement, digging tools and four bags of lime in various locations in the Nantes area. He also owned a .22 rifle, the same type used in the killing, which he had inherited from his father three weeks earlier. He had recently bought ammunition for the gun and had gone for shooting practice at a local rifle club.

Prior to the alleged murders, Dupont de Ligonnès reportedly told his children’s high school that he had been transferred to a job in Australia and told friends he was a US secret agent who was being taken into a witness protection programme.

Manhunt

But Dupont de Ligonnès’s whereabouts were unknown with only a handful of mysterious recent sightings providing any clues. On April 12 he had stayed at a luxury hotel in the south of France, where staff said he booked a prestige suite before dining alone, ordering half a bottle of burgundy.

He was spotted again on April 15 in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, a small town on the Côte d’Azur after spending the night in a budget hotel there. His car was discovered abandoned in the hotel’s car park. It would be the last confirmed sighting of Dupont de Ligonnès.

French take part in a search ofr murder suspect  Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, southeastern France, on June 28, 2011.
French take part in a search ofr murder suspect Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, southeastern France, on June 28, 2011. Reuters / Jean-Paul Pelissier

In the weeks that followed, police in France conducted a massive manhunt and issued an international search alert for Dupont de Ligonnès.

Five days of searches in and around Roquebrune-sur-Argens involving hundreds of police officers, firefighters and sniffer dog teams failed to turn up any leads. Further searches around France and interviews of 25 of the suspect’s friends and relatives also proved fruitless.

False leads and speculation

As months passed without any sign of Dupont de Ligonnès, France became gripped by the killings and the fate of the chief suspect, with speculation over whether or not he may have killed himself and what possible motives he may have had for the alleged murders. Reports emerged alleging that around a year before the killings Dupont de Ligonnès had written to friends warning that, crippled with financial debts, he had been contemplating “suicide, alone or collective” and “shooting up the house while everyone is sleeping”.

Meanwhile, hundreds of sightings of Dupont de Ligonnès were reported to police, all proving to be false leads.

The trail seemed to have gone completely cold. But then, on April 28, 2015, four years after the killings, human bones were discovered by a walker near the town of Fréjus, close to where Dupont de Ligonnès had last been spotted.

Despite intense speculation the remains belonged to the suspected murderer, DNA analysis proved they belonged to someone else. Nevertheless, the discovery propelled Dupont de Ligonnès into the headlines once again and in July that year that speculation intensified after a letter signed by someone claiming to be Dupont de Ligonnès was sent to journalists.

“I am still alive,” the letter, written on the back of what appeared to be a family photo of two of his sons sitting at a table and sent to an AFP journalist, said.

Whether that letter was indeed sent by Dupont de Ligonnès has never been confirmed.

One final high-profile alleged sighting of the suspected killer came just last year, when a witness reported seeing a man who resembled Dupont de Ligonnès at a monastery in Roquebrune-sur-Argens. A police raid followed but this once again proved to be a dead end.

For a brief moment after the arrest in Scotland on Friday, it looked as if police had at long last made a breakthrough, but the mystery and speculation over the fate of Dupont de Ligonnès looks set to continue.

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