On September 5th we reached the 5th anniversary of the the Annecy shootings, (or the Chevaline killings), where 3 members of a British family and a French citizen were mysteriously shot to death on the tarmac Route Forestière Domaniale de la Combe d’Ire close to the small village of Chevaline, Haute-Savoie, near the southern end of Lake Annecy in France. The perpetrator has never been identified or caught. The four people killed were Iraqi-born Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, her mother Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, who held a Swedish passport, and a local French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45. The al-Hillis’ two daughters, Zainab, 8 and Zeena, 4, both survived the attack although Zainab was severely injured.
The Hungerford Massacre recently reached its 30th anniversary when a local man, Michael Ryan shot and killed 16 innocent people on August 19th, 1987. Most of his victims were murdered inside the Berkshire market town. Ryan was a troubled loner suffering with psychotic tendencies. His quiet and private demeanour concealed his inner frustrations At the two gun club ranges where he used his legally licenced firearms he was a safe and trusted shooter. Outside this environment he was the antithesis of the responsible shooter; carrying firearms in his car and on his person at work locations. He admitted to one employer that he would go out at night in his car shooting at roadside structures. Thames Valley Police found bullet penetrated examples after his rampage. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The two brutal events 25 years and 750 miles apart would not appear to have anything in common. A closer look however reveals some features of interesting similarity. These are simple factual characteristics that might provide an insight into the Alps killer who remains a mystery. As a result this murder has drawn so much speculation and stimulated so much intrigue and opinion. I have visited both murder sites.
The circumstances surrounding Ryan’s first victim is often lost in the descriptions and image of Ryan stalking around the streets of Hungerford, killing his victims with a semi-automatic assault rifle. His first victim however was 7 miles from Hungerford; 35 year old Sue Godfrey from Burghfield Common near Reading who was by chance picnicking in Savernake forest park with her two young children. She had entered Savernake on Grand Avenue, a tarmac road that runs the length of the forest close to the small town of Marlborough.
Looking at both cases :-
Both murders were perpetrated in the summer months, on weekdays, in fine weather within forest parks known and promoted for their beauty. Both locations offered signed and easy public access on tarmac roads.
Both victim’s cars were parked in small roughly hewn car parks to the side of a tarmac road. The locations were quiet but not remote. Both victim groups had not visited the locations before and had simply gone as a result of friendly suggestion; the al-Hilli family by their camp site manager, Sylvian Mollier by a friend and Sue Godfrey by her father.
The al-Hilli’s had taken happy family photographs in Doussard village, just a small distance from Chevaline and just a short time before they reached the Combe d’Ire forest route. Sue Godfrey had stopped to purchase fuel in Froxfield on the A4 just short of Savernake and had briefly passed the time of day with the fuel station proprietor, Kakboub Dean.
Michael Ryan knew Savernake Forest, he had frequented the place before, sometimes dressed in camouflage, stalking unsuspecting visitors on fanciful military style clandestine missions. He had set out in the late morning on the day of his shooting spree with firearms and ammunition in his car. He had spotted Sue Godfrey and her children and decided to target her. The Combe d’Ire killer was positioned where his victims would have to stop at the end of the public access road. Despite all the speculation of an assassination there is no evidence proving that the al-Hilli family or Mollier were on site to meet anybody or they were lured or being followed. Both locations would as a matter of course attract innocent visitors on each respective day. The Combe d’Ire route has sometimes been inaccurately described. It is not a road that you can take by mistake, the route is clearly marked off a sharp bend in the road.
All the victims were shot multiple times at close range with a handgun. Both perpetrators made no attempt to retrieve the spent cartridge cases ejected from their semi-auto pistols. Although it is thought that Ryan might have intended to rape Sue Godfrey, he didn’t. Both Saad al-Hilli and Sue Godfrey made desperate attempts to get away once the attacks were underway. Nothing was taken or stolen from any of the victims.
The children present at both shootings were spared despite Zainab al-Hilli being badly hurt.
A British cyclist, Brett Martin was first on the scene at Annecy, he had not heard any shots despite being close to the murder site. He had a holiday property in the area but it was his first visit to the forest route. He found Zainab al-Hilli badly hurt but alive outside her parent’s car. Myra Rose was the first to reach the vicinity of Sue Godfrey’s demise, she found her two children wandering around confused and alone. She had not heard any shots. She was visiting friends in Marlborough and had set out alone that morning to enjoy a walk in the forest.
There were no witnesses to either killings. Both killers were easily able to make their escape and they had a choice of direction. They were both long gone before the police arrived.
Once the authorities discovered it was Michael Ryan who murdered Sue Godfrey it was accepted that he had sufficient knowledge to use the 9mm Beretta in his possession to kill his victim. She was defenceless. Michael Ryan was not a “professional”.
Speculation has fuelled the view in some quarters that the Annecy murders were perpetrated by a “professional” assassin but questions the use of a 7.65mm P06 Luger. Whoever the perpetrator was this hand gun was extremely efficient, the Luger is a very accurate and easy to operate hand gun at close quarters. This gunman attacked his victims in the same way as Ryan and like Sue Godfrey they were also completely defenceless.
The killings in both circumstances were disjointed and messy. Sue Godfrey had tried to flee, she was shot 13 times in the back and was found face down across a wire fence. Saad al-Hilli had parked forwards into the parking area and had got out of his car with his daughter Zainab. Saad al-Hilli was first shot in the back whilst desperately trying to get back into his car, his daughter Zainab was shot in the shoulder. The French cyclist Sylvian Mollier arrived just as the killer launched his frenzied attack, he was shot multiple times at close range in the face head and chest. Perhaps the killer, waiting for a random target was positioned in natural anticipation of a left-hand drive car. The al-Hilli’s right hand drive BMW momentarily confused him when Zainab stepped out; he was initially positioned on the wrong side of the car. He was on the driver’s side however when he started shooting. As Saad al-Hilli reversed his car in a wild wheel spinning arc ramming it into the bank the killer shot him, his wife and her mother through the windscreen and side windows whilst they sat trapped in the car. Zeena remained in the car and was found unhurt and concealed in the rear foot well. We don’t know if the killer saw her.
Perhaps Ryan’s random attack in England’s Savernake forest and the way he cruelly murdered his victim is a clue to what happened in the forest south of Lake Annecy in France. Ryan was comfortable in Savernake and knew the location, perhaps the Combe d’Ire killer felt the same. Whilst totally unconnected there is perhaps an interesting trend apparent here. Had the al-Hilli group not arrived the victims might well have been the cyclist Brett Martin and the 3 French walkers in a car who arrived behind him.
In October 2015 evidence of gunfire damage and bullet debris was found on a steel forestry sign structure just 30 metres from the Annecy murder site. There was also gunfire penetration damage through roadside structures on nearby roads. This was promptly reported to the joint British and French investigation team and it was not reported to the Press. The Combe d’Ire structure was removed and sent to a French forensic facility. The gunfire damage perpetrated on this feature by two different firearms was determined to have taken place before the murder in 2012 and the embedded bullet debris did not match the murder weapon. This structure had however been overlooked throughout the entire period of the official investigation. The immediate area had been subjected to meticulous forensic investigation and searches, lengthy media reporting, filmed TV documentaries and public interest visits whilst it stood there only partly obscured by foliage. This perhaps begs the question; what else was missed and overlooked throughout the important initial investigation.