Family feud one theory in French Alps murder probe

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 07, 2012 7:33 AM
Family feud one theory in French Alps murder probe

By Johnny Cotton

CHEVALINE, France (Reuters) - Police investigating a gruesome family murder in the French Alps are looking at several theories, including that the British man shot dead in his car with his wife and another woman was involved in a financial feud with his brother.

As forensics experts performed autopsies on the four victims, who include a local cyclist who was passing at the time of the attack, a team of French investigators landed in Britain.

A state prosecutor confirmed the people killed in the car were a couple from Britain - on a camping holiday in the Annecy region with their two daughters - and an older woman.

The girls, aged seven and four, survived and are under police protection in hospital after the shootings on a remote forest road near the village of Chevaline on Wednesday.

Prosecutor Eric Maillaud identified the dead car driver as Saad al-Hilli, an Iraqi-born Briton. He said Hilli's four-year-old daughter - who hid for eight hours with the bodies in the car, too scared to move - had confirmed she had been with her parents and sister when the attack took place.

"She said, 'It's my father', she gave his first name, 'It's my mother', she gave her first name, 'It's my sister'," Maillaud told a news conference in the town of Annecy, near Chevaline. The older girl was badly beaten in the attack.

Maillaud cautioned that a tip-off to British authorities that Hilli and his brother were involved in a money dispute was "an interesting line of investigation, but one among many".

"Just because there is a dispute between two brothers doesn't make him the No. 1 suspect," said Maillaud, adding: "No lead, no information is considered far-fetched."

MOVING CHAT

He said the brother had not been formally questioned, but had sought out British authorities after learning that Hilli may have been killed in France, and added that he understood the brother had denied any dispute with Hilli.

Maillaud said investigators had gleaned little from their "moving" chat on Friday with the four-year-old girl, who is in a psychiatric hospital in the city of Grenoble, accompanied by a nurse and British embassy staff. He said authorities were searching for family members to whom she could be entrusted.

Police hope Hilli's seven-year-old daughter, who was in an artificial coma in a Grenoble hospital awaiting a second operation for serious skull fractures, will be able to eventually provide more information.

"We have someone, or some people, who clearly wanted to kill and who had no fear about taking lives," Maillaud said, adding that each victim had been shot at least three times, and at least once in the head.

The family's relationship to the older woman killed in the car, who had a Swedish passport, has not yet been established.

Shocked neighbours of Hilli in rural Surrey, south of London, described the family as friendly and normal. Well-wishers piled floral bouquets outside the family home.

COMMITTED ENGINEER

Hilli was a mechanical engineer who contracted with Surrey Satellite Technology, the company, a subsidiary of aerospace and defense firm EADS, said on Friday. It described him as a "an experienced and committed engineer".

Hilli, whose wife Ikbal had been training as a dentist, helped to design the kitchen of the European Airbus aircraft, according to Julian Stedman, his accountant since 2004. He specialized in computer-aided design and mostly worked from his house in the village of Claygate, said Stedman.

"We are all in shock here," said Fiona Davis, a neighbor of the family whose son goes to the same school as Hilli's elder daughter.

"Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors, but it didn't seem like a family that would have enemies."

The dead French cyclist has been identified as a local man, Sylvain Mollier, who was out on a bike ride in the area.

Police reopened the crime scene area after about 36 hours of forensic work, giving journalists access to the exact spot where the murder happened, a place where the road ends at a barrier and then turns into a track for walkers and cyclists.

A team of 11 forensics experts including ballistics and profiling specialists had been sent in from near Paris, national police officer Jacques Hebrard told BFM TV. About 25 gun shells had been retrieved from the area, Maillaud said.

Deep ruts in a bank of earth looked as though they might have been made by the back wheels of a car whose driver was trying to make a hurried U-turn and drive away.

(Reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Annecy and Alessandra Rizzo in Claygate; Writing by Brian Love and Alexandria Sage; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Pravin Char)