REVEALED: THE MAN WHO’S KEY TO ALPS MASSACRE
PAUL BRACCHI uncovers vital new evidence in the execution of a British family that’s still baff ling police
YOU will probably never have heard of Sylvain Mollier. Few people outside the small French village where he lived even know what he looks like. Until today, his picture had never appeared in a newspaper or on TV.
Cyclist Mr Mollier was originally written off as collateral damage in the Alpine massacre which claimed his life and the lives of three members of a British family, leaving two little girls orphaned.
But new evidence seems to point to him being the key to the mystery. As we shall see, it now seems clear that the 45-year-old fatherof-three was the first to be gunned down. It has also emerged that he was shot seven times, more than any of the other victims, who were each shot twice.
Mr Mollier was found next to a UK-registered BMW estate car in a remote lay-by high above Lake Annecy on the afternoon of September 5. Inside the BMW were the bodies of engineer Saad Al-Hilli, 50, and his wife Ikbal, 47, from Claygate, Surrey, and Mrs Al-Hilli’s mother Suhalia, 74.
Zeena Al-Hilli, four, escaped unhurt by hiding under her mother’s skirt. The only witness was her seven-year-old sister, Zainab, who survived against all the odds despite being pistolwhipped and shot in the shoulder.
The murders — one of the most shocking unsolved cases of recent times — have resulted in an almost endless list of conspiracy theories and possible motives. Over the past few days there have been yet more claims and revelations.
Here, the Mail analyses what we know and reveals new evidence about Mr Mollier, who, until now at least, was thought to have been killed simply because he had witnessed the slaughter of Mr Al-Hilli and his family.
But could it have been the other way round?
How the killings unfolded
DETAILS from police reports leaked to the respected French newspaper Le Parisien and new information obtained by the Mail, give us a clearer picture than ever before about the order of the killings — and, by implication, the possible motive.
Officially, police say there is no scientific proof about the chronology of the executions.
That may be true, but we have been told that investigators who have accessed all the available evidence are convinced that Sylvain Mollier was the first to be shot.
A source who agreed to meet the Mail in a hotel in Grenoble last week has close links with the local gendarmerie and has detailed knowledge of the ballistics file.
Mr Mollier, he says, was shot seven times in two separate bursts of fire. The first two shots were to his chest, the third to his head. The angle and trajectory of the bullets mean Mr Mollier must have been either standing up or still on his bike when he was gunned down.
But analysis of the four other bullets, all in Mr Mollier’s back and lower body, indicate he was lying on the ground when they were fired. Because Mr Mollier was shot in different positions, police believe it is unlikely that all seven shots came from a single, continuous volley of gunfire; there was a gap, they think, maybe only a few fleeting moments, between the initial and final shots, during which time members of the Al-Hilli family were killed.
In other words, the gunman opened fire on Mr Mollier first, then dispatched Saad Al-Hilli, his wife Ikbal and her mother Suhalia, who had all witnessed the attack, before returning to ‘finish off ’ Mr Mollier.
This version of events is not inconsistent with seven-year- old Zainab Al-Hilli’s account of what happened. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, she told detectives she and her father were outside the car when the shooting started.
Her father grabbed her hand and may have been shot in the back as he fled with her to the vehicle. In the confusion, he got in the BMW without her, locked the doors then reversed at high speed and hit Mr Mollier in the chest.
As her father frantically reversed the car, Zainab says, it got stuck on an embankment, leaving those inside it at the mercy of the killer.
If Mr Mollier was shot in two separate bursts of fire as police suspect, he may already have been dead or fatally wounded when the car struck him and then reversed into the embankment.
Hitman or lone psychopath?
UNDERSTANDABLY, given the scale of the slaughter, early coverage suggested a professional execution by one more trained hitmen.
But the evidence suggests otherwise. Clues left at the crime scene, police are convinced, are ‘ not compatible’ with a professional killing by someone, say, from a foreign intelligence service; the gunman was ‘disorderly’ — at least 11 stray bullets were found around the BMW.
All the victims were shot with the same gun, which almost certainly means there was only one killer.
Parts of the gun, it has emerged, were found at the scene, suggesting there may have been a struggle between one or more of the victims and the killer, which resulted in the weapon breaking.
It was a semi-automatic Luger PO8, firing 7.65mm ammunition, standard issue for the Swiss army between 1900 and 1945. Such an old-fashioned weapon — more than 60 years old — is not one you would normally associate with a ‘professional’ assassin. So could the killer have been Swiss, not French? Military service for 22 weeks is compulsory in Switzerland at 18. The weapon issued then is for life, or at least until the age of 50, when Swiss men are taken off the reservist list.
Annecy is only about 20 miles from the Swiss border, so such guns in that part of the world are not hard to come by.
However the gun was obtained, there is a growing consensus among local police that the murders were the work of a lone psychopath or ‘ tireur fou’ — ‘mad gunman.’
Staff at French psychiatric hospitals, it can be revealed, have been questioned by gendarmes, as have members of shooting clubs and hunting associations.
All psychiatric patients who may have been released recently f rom hospital, or are on day release, are i n the process of being tracked down.
The sinister motorcyclist
OFFICERS want to trace the rider of a black motorbike spotted in the area 30 minutes after the murders.
He has aroused suspicion because
Mystery: The murder scene and (inset) Sylvain Mollier he was stopped by two Forestry Office officials who ordered him to leave after observing him riding on a track forbidden to motor vehicles.
The rider is now the subject of a line of inquiry that has never been disclosed: that he might have been involved in a road rage incident with Mr Mollier.
A criminal psychologist drafted in by police believes this scenario was more likely to have involved Mr Mollier because Mr Al-Hilli didn’t speak French, making it difficult for an argument to escalate.
Officers are now checking if there have been ‘road rage’ attacks elsewhere in France with any similarities to the Annecy killings.
The Saddam money trail
DESPITE these more prosaic explanations, the conspiracy theories refuse to go away. The latest twist surfaced at the weekend in Le Monde, which suggested money — possibly up to £840,000 — had been deposited in the Swiss bank account of Mr Al-Hilli’s late father, Kadhim, by Saddam Hussain.
Mr Al-Hilli senior was close to the old Iraqi regime, but is said to have fallen foul of the late dictator in the Seventies when the family’s mechanical engineering business was seized. He subsequently fled to Britain.
But could it be that the split from Saddam was not all it seemed? Did the tyrant continue to pay Mr Al - Hilli senior for services rendered — or use his account to salt away cash reserves in case he had to flee Iraq? Was Mr Al-Hilli’s son in Annecy to pick up this money? Annecy, after all, is less than an hour’s drive from the famously discreet banks of Geneva.
The Le Monde article quotes a French police ‘source’, saying that the ‘Saddam Connection’ had been uncovered by German intelligence agency BND. The money flow to and from Baghdad was kept under close scrutiny by the BND because Germany once had strong business
links with Saddam. The story, it should be stressed, has been officially denied by the French prosecutor Eric Maillaud, who is leading the Annecy inquiry.
Even so, money — or rather a family dispute over money — has always been at the forefront of the inquiry. Following Kadhim Al-Hilli’s death last year, his legacy led to a feud between his sons — Saad and Zaid.
Saad, in fact, had put a legal block on his father’s will which effectively prevented Zaid, who lives in Chessington, Surrey, from inheriting his share until ‘unknown’ disputes had been resolved.
Police stress, however, that Zaid Al-Hilli is being treated as a witness, not a suspect, in the investigation. However, they now want to question him over suggestions he tried to use an expired credit card to withdrew cash from the Geneva account shortly before the killings.
Zaid Al-Hilli denies any part in the murders. His family insist the answers lie in France, not in Britain. ‘I think the French cyclist was the target,’ Dr Ahmad Al-Saffar, uncle of Mrs Al-Hilli, said this week. ‘There is no reason for our family to be targeted on vacation in France.’
The mysterious Mr Mollier
SO WHAT is the truth about cyclist Sylvain Mollier? He lived with his girlfriend Clare Schutz in Ugine (pop; 7,000), about 12 miles from Lake Annecy, and was on extended paternity leave after Miss Schutz, 29, a pharmacist, gave birth to their son, Louis, in June. Mr Mollier left his home for the last time around 2.30pm on September 5.
Much later that afternoon, when he did not return from his bike ride, Miss Schutz became worried. Eventually, she decided to get in her car to go and look for him.
Mr Mollier, 45, had told her where he was going, so she knew where to start her search. But her way was barred by a police road block near the bottom of the Route de la Combe d’Ire, leading up the mountainside, a route popular with hikers and cyclists.
Miss Schutz told the police she was very concerned about Mr Mollier; that he had not come home when she had expected and had not rung her.
Miss Schutz was asked to get a photograph of Mr Mollier and bring it to the police station. When she produced a photograph, her worst fears were confirmed. Like many people, Mr Mollier’s private life was not entirely uncomplicated.
He had two sons, Leo, nine, and Mathis, seven, from a marriage which ended in divorce more than six years ago, after Mr Mollier reportedly had several affairs. Police are satisfied, however, that the murders are not linked to his personal life.
But could his professional life hold the key? Mr Mollier was a manager at the Cezus factory near Ugine, owned by Areva, the multi-national that specialises in the research and development of nuclear power.
His job has given rise to speculation that he may have been involved in a plot to supply nuclear material to Iran — with Mr Al-Hilli, as a co- conspirator — which resulted in their elimination by state- sponsored Israeli assassins.
Inevitably, some people believe police have been too quick to discount this theory in favour of the simpler — and less politically charged — ‘lone psychopath’.
Wrong place, wrong time
OF COURSE, it is entirely possible that nothing in the lives of the victims can explain what happened.
The local newspaper, Le Dauphine Libere, recently described the car parking area where the murders happened as a ‘remote spot used by drug dealers’, and pointed out that it had an ‘unsavoury reputation’ with some members of the community.
In June, the skeletal remains of a woman were found in the surrounding forest. She had been drinking and taking drugs and had died of a suspected overdose.
Might Mr Mollier and the Al-Hillis have stumbled upon something ‘unsavoury’ and paid with their lives?
The forgotten innocents
PERHAPS the most tragic aspect of this terrible story is that at the centre of it are two traumatised little girls.
Little Zeena, four, did not see what happened because she was concealed under her mother Ikbal’s skirt. It has now emerged that she owes her life to Ikbal’s quick thinking.
Police notes suggest that Zeena was sitting in the back of the car with her mother and grandmother when the shooting started. With just seconds to spare, her mother unbuckled her safety belt and shouted: ‘Hide!’
Zeena followed that order so well that police who arrived at the murder scene did not discover her for at least eight hours.
Even her sister Zainab, seven, may never fully remember everything she witnessed. Maybe, for their sake, it is better it remains that way — even if it means their parents’ killer is never caught.
Additional reporting: TIM FINAN and IAN SPARKS