THE LACHEMENT ASSASSINE
On October 14th exactly 4 years after my first visit to Le Martinet I was accompanied by a longstanding friend and professional photographer Chris Powell. It was a glorious day, the sun spreading a comfortable autumn warmth up the route of the Combe d’air from Chevaline. The forest road was lined with red, green, gold and yellow leaves which formed a blanket of colour either side and overhead. The tarmac surface had deteriorated since my last visit. Our aim was to re-photograph the murder site, inspect the location of the bullet damaged structure overlooked by the forensic teams and visitors since 2012 and to reconstruct the driven paths taken by Saad al-Hilli’s BMW Tourer when he arrived at the Le Martinet car park and then desperately tried to escape from his attacker on 5th September 2012.
The bullet damaged structure I had found in 2015, just 50 metres from the murder site had been removed by the French Police just days after I reported it through the Surrey Police investigation team. It was apparently sent to a forensic lab in Paris where they concluded the bullet debris still embedded in it did not match the bullets fired by the attacker. This was no surprise to me, I never considered it had anything directly linked to the case. What had intrigued me was the fact that scores of professionals had missed it, what if it had been linked? The question both then and now is, what else at the time of the murders was overlooked. The finding of this structure and its removal and details surrounding the forensic inspection was never passed to the press by the French or British police authorities.
I had hired a VW Passat Station Wagon, (Estate) from Geneva airport. Saad al-Hilli had a BMW 5 series Tourer, (Estate). We drove to the exact location and re-constructed, (filmed and photographed), Saad’s initial calm approach and his frantic attempted escape. We were also able to examine the scenario from the perpetrator’s perspective and consider where he might have been positioned. Investigators know that Saad al-Hilli parked face into the uppermost part of the last parking area, (because there are two). This was as far as the public could drive vehicles and the limitation is clearly signed. Investigators knew that both Saad and his daughter Zainab both got out of the car from the soil samples on their shoes. This action was natural because there was an information and map board next to where they parked. It is considered that it was at this stage that Sylvain Mollier arrived on his bike and the attacker struck.
I have always considered that the attacker was concealed in the lower portion of the car park, unseen to an approaching vehicle and he anticipated a car would park in front of him face in. This is what 90% of people would do. He also anticipated that the driver would be immediately in front of him and this would be the first victim to shoot because this would disable the car and trap any passengers. When Saad al-Hilli turned his BMW into the parking area he did exactly what the attacker expected but it immediately started to go wrong. The BMW was right hand drive. When 7 year old Zainab emerged this caused the attacker to hesitate and enabled both Saad and Zainab to simply and calmly get out of the car to look at the information structure which was next to them on right side of the car. At this stage they had no cause for concern. The attacker was probably enraged with his mistake. He launched himself forward to get around the back of the car just as the cyclist, Sylvain Mollier arrived whom he shot first at the beginning of his frenzied attack. Saad and Zainab numbed with surprise and shock probably froze and then realising what had happened ran for the car. Zainab was now on the wrong side, Saad al-Hilli now fuelled with adrenaline was unable to think straight. It might have been at this stage that Zainab was shot beside him. He ran to the drivers door away from the attacker and as he did so he was shot in the lower back. The attacker was also in a panic and had now lost total control, his plan was failing. What was intriguing was why Saad al-Hilli chose to reverse in an arc to his left. It may have been a natural flight mode sequence, he sensed he was moving away from the attacker. It would have been simpler to reverse right and then be in a position to escape straight down the hill. This would have closed the field of fire to his attacker who was behind him, he may even have hit the attacker with his car or at least forced him to move and stop firing. We know Zainab was outside the car and probably behind and to his right and on the ground. Perhaps he was fearful of hitting her, perhaps he had seen her being shot. His chosen arc to the left hit Sylvain Mollier who was prostrate on the ground and in his path. The investigation team concluded that Mollier was struck by the left side of the reversing BMW. Saad al-Hilli then misjudged his 180 degree evasive manoeuvre and reversed too far, ramming his BMW into the loose earth bank and disabling it. This gave the failing attacker a reprieve and another chance and it opened the field of fire.
Much has been written about the professional methodology of this attack. Perhaps there was nothing professional about it at all. The attacker may have been positioned on the wrong side. Wherever he initiated his attack from he totally failed to stop Saad al-Hilli getting back into his car and actually driving off. Had Saad not disabled his car he could have escaped. He might have considered Zainab was dead and whilst wounded himself he tried to save the rest of his family. One can attach no blame to him for trying; he had already been shot, he was panicking, his eldest daughter was outside the car, he was experiencing intense personal and physical pain and fear, the rest of his family were in the car with him, perhaps screaming, shouting, his judgement was thwarted. He was not trained in evasive driving. This skill needs practise and unless an individual is well trained and very deliberate attempts to escape will fail. Henry Paul failed in Paris in 1997, his ludicrous and amateur attempt to escape the paparazzi killed Princess Diana.
I am not just speculating. For the past 31 years I have worked in the defensive and performance driver training industry. I have taught evasive driving techniques. The most valuable point any student of this subject will learn is never to get into an ambush situation because once you’re in it the chances of escape are slim. We smugly imagine that we would turn into Jason Bourne behind the wheel in such circumstances; I can tell you now we don’t, our judgement fails miserably.
It was interesting to re-construct Saad al-Hilli’s movements. Initially I drove the left arc in very slow time then we filmed it at speed. Remaining orientated and judging the position of the bank behind me at the completion of the manoeuvre was not difficult. One could complete the manoeuvre and stop the vehicle a metre or two before the bank to select drive and accelerate forward and turn right down the route. However, I could appreciate that Saad’s judgement and orientation was compromised. Nevertheless, if we combine the frenzied, ill-judged and unprofessional actions of the attacker with the natural but crude attempt at escape by Saad al-Hilli we have a situation where the attackers’ errors and bad judgement is redeemed by luck and position. The attacker had the gun. The overwhelming odds and the lost opportunities to escape were the al-Hilli’s demise.
It has been described how the attacker shot his victims in the upper body and head even shooting Sylvain Mollier at close range between the eyes. These actions have influenced some writers and researchers to conclude that the attacker was a “professional killer”. Even the police have agreed. I am dismayed at this preoccupation. How on earth can we conclude this attacker was a “professional”. His actions were shambolic, a frenzied, urged, cold blooded killer with a loose plan to slaughter a random group. His initial course of action went completely wrong. His ultimate success was the fact he confronted unarmed adults and children who were not in a defensive stance. He was prepared to kill other human beings from very close range; professionalism doesn’t come into it. Sylvain Mollier was doomed from the onset. Saad al-Hilli was actually close to escaping. He and his family along with Sylvain Mollier entered a temporary evil dimension within a beautiful place. Like Sue Godfrey entering Savernake Forest in 1987, they stumbled into a personal hell.
Scrawled on the wooden upright supporting the region map is a confused testament. Someone has written in felt tip, (September) – 09/2014, drawn a Christian cross and the figure 5 Pax. Seemingly somebody has corrected the year date crossing out 4 and writing 2 and changing the fatal victim’s figure from 5 to 4. It is a messy reference to the murders of the al-Hilli’s and Mollier. The most interesting statement is the term “Lachement Assassine” which translated means Cowardly Killer. Below this is written the word Bravo.
The French prosecutor, Eric Maillaud once maintained that the cause of the Annecy Murders originated in the UK. He may have been misquoted but others have been keen to think and state likewise. Before and indeed since 2012 the region has experienced several murders, (including gun slays), and disappearances. This beautiful part of France is not without a sinister tag. In 2015 I found gunfire damage on the site of the murder. Bullet debris still embedded in a structure and a clean hole as a result of a shotgun slug. This has been put down to irresponsible hunters. That might well be the case. Hunting is a popular pursuit in the region. Does it however explain the action of the shooter who fired a shotgun slug through the direction sign on the nearby D109. This was in the direction of a VW dealership and a private house. And the shooter who fired a 9mm bullet through a direction sign between Sythenex and Fort Tamie. I found both locations in 2015, they are close to Chevaline and de la Combe d’Ire. In 2019, they are still there.
When these murders took place, it was initially considered that the perpetrator got to the killing ground by way of the tarmac road from Chevaline and escaped by the same route. Why would he do that and be potentially seen and possibly trapped and caught. There are routes over the mountain to the south accessible on foot or mountain bike. Indeed, mountain biking is extremely popular in the area. A killer on a mountain bike would just blend in and receive no attention whatsoever. One should not just employ plain logic and sense in situations like this. It is pointless trying to establish a specific reason for the killings. We cling to the idea that there is a motive. We cannot accept random. We do these victims no favours by trying to create reasons for their untimely deaths. It’s all about facts and they don’t have to make sense.
On this trip we investigated two of these anticipated routes that the Annecy killer might have taken from the scene, indeed he might well have approached from the same direction. The French police at the time investigated them. One is from the village of Percherel where there is a car park for walkers and bikers, the start of the track is clearly marked and in plain view.
The other is a more remote 3 km tree lined river course tarmac route to the Nant Fourchu car park areas. This takes traffic away from the main road and winds uphill on a gentle gradient alongside the river. The road was a splendour of autumn colour, truly appealing and beautiful. This is the antithesis of its dark alter ego which is that of a shocking bullet riddled shoot route. When one considers that typical visitors, driving, walking and cycling are peaceful individuals and family groups just like Sylvain Mollier and the al-Hilli’s it is frankly horrifying. I recognised that at least four different weapons had been used to blast holes and fracture info signs bordering the route. High velocity rifles, .17HMR, .308, 9mm handgun and shotgun shot charges and slugs. The majority of people will fail to notice these signatures despite the perpetrators leaving them in plain view. What are they here to signify, are they indeed some sinister form of signal, salute or recognition? Whatever they are and whoever perpetrates them has left a sinister, dangerous and dark representation of this beautiful region. We have a mysterious brutal shooting murder site at Le Martinet but the location is surrounded by these violent gunplay signatures. Coincidence perhaps. The murder remains a mystery and the armchair sleuths still speculate over the conspiracy theories. Go there, and see for yourself.