THE DOMINICI AFFAIR – 67 years on

In the early hours of the 5th August 1952 three members of a British family on a camping holiday in The South of France were brutally murdered on the side of a rural road. The killings were angry, disjointed, messy and frantic. The family were defenceless and attacked in the most cowardly fashion. Sir Jack Drummond, 61 and his wife Lady Anne, 56 were shot to death with a military surplus US produced .30 calibre M1 rifle carbine. Both were found close to the roadside, opposite each other on either side of the road. Jack Drummond it was concluded had staggered across the road from where their car was parked after he was initially shot. His wife Anne was alongside their car, a new Hillman Estate. Their ten year old daughter, Elizabeth was found nearly 80 metres away along a track perpendicular to the road which led over a railway bridge and the banks of the Durance river. She had head injuries which had been inflicted with the murder weapon.

I visited the location in October 2019. The immediate vicinity of the murder site is little changed from how it appeared 67 years ago even down to the roughly hewn laybys adjacent to each other. The Durance river to the east has been re-routed to accommodate a motorway. There is a small memorial to the family in the form of a brass plaque affixed to the railway bridge next to a cross and offerings specific to the memory of 10 year old Elizabeth Drummond. The family are buried in nearby Forcalquier.

The murders were seemingly without motive. A local, Gaston Dominici, 75, from the nearby farm, was eventually arrested, tried and found guilty of the killings. Alternative theories, (of which there are no shortages of), deems the whole complex event to maintain the status of an unofficial mystery. There is little doubt that Gaston Dominici was implicated and a strong chance that other members of his family perpetrated the killings.

The Drummonds were holidaying in a new car. Private vehicle ownership in Britain was not common in the early 1950’s and even less so in rural France. The family had set off from Nottingham and arrived in Dunkirk on the 28th July. They drove south via Reims, Aix-Les-Bains and Digne eventually reaching Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France where they stayed with friends in their villa. On the 4th August they returned to Digne to experience a festival they had learned about. They left at around 7.00 pm but took a circular route back to Villefranche along the Durance Valley. They were equipped to camp out and Sir Jack had mentioned to the proprietor at The Grand Hotel in Digne that the beautiful weather was perfect for a night under the stars. Sir Jack Drummond was no ordinary happy camper, however. He was a well-known and respected scientist and had been knighted for his vital work for the Ministry of Food during World War Two. He had been very involved in the organising of public food rationing during the war years and had made studies into the importance of diet and vitamins. As a Nutritionist he had been invaluable to the war effort. He had been joined by a younger scientist during those important years; that was the enigmatic and energetic Magnus Pyke who would go onto to enjoy a life in broadcasting and television.

Sir Jack Drummond’s status has had far reaching influences with some who cannot accept the random and chance culmination of circumstances. They prefer elaborate speculation, dramatised guesswork and the idea that the Drummond family were executed by a clandestine authority. Rather like the assassination of JFK in 1963 there is not one shred of evidence that points to anything other than the official findings irrespective of errors made along the route of investigation.

August 1952 was a hot month in Europe and in this region during the afternoon and evening of the 4th August. A major question in the investigation was why had the Drummonds had stopped in this specific location. It was concluded that they stopped here in the early evening for a comfort stop and to attend to their vehicle. Witnesses stated seeing a gentleman standing in front of the Hillman with the bonnet raised. They were travelling on the N96, a major route but not a road that would accommodate large amounts of traffic by today’s standards. They had parked on an area that could be construed as a roughly hewn layby. The area on the opposite side of the road looked much the same. Jack Drummond had parked on the left side of the road however, facing oncoming traffic. Conspiracy theorists have thought this action to be relevant; positioning his car so it was recognisable to somebody coming from the opposite direction. I think he did it because he was in a right hand drive car and he wanted his wife and daughter to be able to safely exit the vehicle away from the traffic side. He might well have initially stopped on the right and then decided to cross the road. Just 200 metres ahead of them and on the same side of the road was a farm, “Le Grande Terre”. This belonged to the Dominici family, peasant farmers from Italian extraction. The patriarch was 75 year old Gaston Dominici. He lived here with his wife Maria, son Gustave, his wife Yvette and their young baby son, Alain.

There was a lot of speculation into why the Drummond’s remained on the roadside and why they decided to camp there for the night. There was certainly enough space in the area to the left of the car to safely move about and position their camp beds, (more than there is now in fact, as can be seen in the images). It must be remembered they were on a camping holiday, closely analysing their decision to stay for the night is unrealistic, why shouldn’t they. Concern about the car was a perfectly good reason. Conspiracy theories suggest that Jack Drummond was positioned to meet somebody in some clandestine fashion, and this was supposedly linked to his new career position in a pharmaceutical company. Other theories have him connected to the wartime French Resistance. In some quarters he’s a spy embroiled in industrial espionage with the Dominici family merely set up as the murderers. It is all fanciful bunkum with not one tangible shred of evidence. If indeed Jack Drummond was positioned on the N96 to engage in a meeting it was the oddest spot, there was nothing to identify it. Why would he organise a sensitive meeting on a vague stretch of rural French roadside in company with his family?

Undoubtedly their presence close to the farm must have caused some discussion and debate amongst the Dominici family. Jack Drummond would have been a confident looking character. He was a tall and distinguished British gentleman, typical for the era. He and his family may well have appeared to the simple farming family to be a rather pompous and arrogant trio in this part of France, especially in their new touring motor car. We will never know the full truth of the exchanges that occurred between the families. The Dominici farmland extended along the side of the road leading to where they were parked. An irrigation pump served by a small canal alongside the railway line brought much needed water to their land. This needed to be regularly inspected as a fault could flood the railway line. Members of the Dominici family therefore would have met the Drummonds. It is inconceivable to imagine that there was absolutely no contact or exchange, polite or otherwise. The Dominici’s were having a party that evening to celebrate the harvest. Friends and family were expected. There would naturally have been a lot of activity around the farm.

The police investigation immediately after the murders was somewhat shambolic. The scene became a grotesque viewpoint immediately after the event with passers-by and locals stopping to tramp around the vicinity to satisfy their morbid curiosity. The police naturally and quite rightly approached the Dominici family to question them. Attention was focused on Gustave Dominici who told them that he heard gunfire at around 01:30 am on the morning of the 5th August and thought it was poachers. At around 05:30 am he went out to check the water pump and found the body of Elizabeth Drummond along the track leading from the road and just over the railway bridge. She had been severely beaten about the head. He moved towards the road and found the body of Lady Anne lying dead on her back alongside the family car. Across the road immediately opposite was the dead body of Sir Jack Drummond. They had both been shot three times. Two live .30 rounds and two fired cartridge cases were on the ground close by. The murder weapon was found by 2 police officers in the Durance river the following day. The stock had broken, probably as a result of the blows inflicted on Elizabeth Drummond. The weapon was in poor condition, the stock and furniture had been bound to the receiver by wire. The state of the carbine might also explain the live .30 rounds found at the scene. Rounds misfeeding into the action would require the firer to operate the bolt to eject them. That would explain the mixture of fired and live cartridges found at the murder scenes. This was not the work of a professional. This was the frenzied actions of a clumsy individual, perhaps drunk, using a largely unserviceable firearm. He only succeeded because his victims were unsuspecting, disorientated and unprotected.

 

The murder weapon was a war surplus .30 M1 carbine designed for the US military by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. At the end of the war in Europe in 1945 there were millions of discarded small arms and stocks of ammunition left by all sides. The French Resistance had been supplied with M1’s and even the Germans favoured captured examples. Procuring weapons post war was not difficult despite any official restrictions.

The M1 carbine was a very efficient semi-automatic weapon, it accommodated a 15 or 30 round magazine. The requirement of war materials overwhelmed peacetime production facilities and additional organisations and engineering facilities were contracted by governments to tool up to produce everything imaginable, including small arms. A total of 6.1 million Winchester designed M1’s were manufactured by ten primary contractors. One of these was the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Company who made coin operated entertainment machines, jukeboxes and parking machines. They produced 228,500 M1 examples. Reference is often made to the Drummond murder weapon being a Rock-Ola M1 carbine. The RMC reference is completely irrelevant and stemmed from the fact that contractors would affix their stamp to their manufactured contributions and the murder weapon had this in place. Ironically because Rock-Ola produced the least amount of M1’s they now secure the highest prices amongst collectors.

The infamous Willys Jeep impressed the US military but Willys didn’t have the facilities to produce the vast numbers required. The majority were produced under licence by the Ford Motor Company. Oliver Winchester, an astute businessman who founded the world-famous arms company was originally a clothing manufacturer. Michael Ryan had used an M1 carbine during the Hungerford massacre in August 1987.

Gustave Dominici had featured initially in the investigation because it was he who admitted to finding the slain family in the early hours of the 5th August. He described how he had found young Elizabeth Drummond first. Throughout his statements which were disjointed and contradictory he made no mention of encountering the Drummond’s prior to this. When the rest of the family were interviewed by the police, they too denied meeting or interacting with the Drummond’s. Gustave Dominici eventually admitted to finding the young Elizabeth Drummond alive but failed to explain why he didn’t seek immediate assistance for her. On November 12, 1952 he was sentenced to two months imprisonment for failing to assist a person in danger. He was released in December 1952. Another prisoner later informed the investigation that during a prison visit he overheard Gustave and his wife Yvette discussing the murders in a manner that implicated them.

The wider Dominici family continued to insist throughout interviews with the police that they had no contact with the Drummonds before the shootings. However, they admitted they had in the company of some friends and associates. Some of these individuals approached the police with statements. For instance, it transpired that Lady Anne had indeed gone to the farm to ask for some water, possibly for the car radiator. Replenishing and topping up coolant in vehicles of that period was commonplace and in a hot climate it was a routine chore even for a relatively new vehicle.

On November 13th, 1953 Gustave and his older brother Clovis Dominici accused their father Gaston Dominici of the murders. The old man was taken into custody and questioned. He confessed to the murders but proclaimed that he was protecting the honour of his family which frustrated the police, was he admitting guilt or not? Describing the events, he changed his story from one of a marauding challenge to offering sex to Lady Anne and being caught by her husband. His description of how he shot the victims differed from what the investigations and autopsy’s concluded. He retracted his confessions as many times as offering them. The police and the subsequent court simply focused on his confessions and accepted them. In 1954 Gaston Dominici was convicted of the deaths and sentenced to death. Two inquiries followed the widely criticised police investigation and conduct of the trial and the President, Rene Coty commuted the sentence to life imprisonment in 1957. In 1960 President Charles de Gaulle released Dominici on humanitarian grounds because of his age and health. He was however not pardoned or given a re-trail. Gaston Dominici died in April 1965 in Digne. He was 88 years old.

Gaston Dominici was found guilty of the murders but there is a theory that whilst he and his family were implicated, he was not the murderer. That guilt fell to his two sons, Gustave and Clovis and their nephew Roger Perrin. Gaston took the blame to save them, believing his age would limit a sentence. Gaston Dominici always wore hob nailed boots when he was outside; there was no evidence of these at the crime scenes. He also walked with a stick. Indeed, there were footprints around Elizabeth Drummond from crepe soled shoes as worn by Perrin.

Gustave Dominici was found guilty of not assisting Elizabeth Drummond who was allegedly still alive at 05:30 in the morning when he “found her”. If he was guilty of the crimes did he leave her for dead once he had bludgeoned her around the head after shooting her parents. Did he then discard the broken M1 carbine in the river and return to the farm? He was then shocked to find her clinging to life hours later when he intended to “discover” the scene and alert the police.

In his 1976 memoir, Police Commissioner Chenevier offered his version of events. He concluded that it was Gustave Dominici and Roger Perrin who confronted Sir Jack Drummond and his family during the early hours of the 5th August when they set out to monitor the water pump and shoot some rabbits. This was after the party, both Gustave and Roger may well have been drunk. Jack Drummond was unhappy to find them armed near his camp, perhaps they disturbed him and there was an exchange, an altercation. Drummond tried to disarm Gustave who, furiously, then shot the Drummond couple and bludgeoned Elizabeth Drummond who tried to run away. Gaston or Clovis Dominici reportedly joined Gustave and Roger and the men then allegedly set the encampment upside down and stole a few objects in order to deflect suspicion. Subsequently, Gaston confessed to being the sole perpetrator relying naively on the implausibility of his statements in the hope of being acquitted.

The 1952 Dominici Affair draws a parallel with the Annecy murders in 2012. A sudden frenzied disjointed shooting of a family with a child left alive with serious head injuries possibly in both cases because the perpetrators firearm eventually failed. In the Annecy murders, 8 years old Zainab al-Hilli was thankfully saved by being promptly found by Brett Martin. Nobody found poor Elizabeth Drummond and she was sadly left to die. Both murder scenarios have prompted wild speculation and conspiracy theories. The Annecy murders remain unsolved. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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