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09.22.12

Alps Murder Victims Pasts Probed by Cops

Investigators of the shocking quadruple murder in the French Alps are looking into the victims' unusual histories—and wondering who the real target was. By Barbie Latza Nadeau

New clues in the investigation into the grisly quadruple homicide in the French Alps on Sept. 5 paint an increasingly curious picture of the victims. Iraqi-born Britons Saad Al-Hilli, 50, and his wife Iqbal, 47, and her Iraqi-Swedish mother Suhaila Al-Allaf, 74, along with French cyclist Sylvain Moillier, 45, were all killed with multiple gunshot wounds, including two finishing shots into each person’s forehead. Police are working on the assumption that the act was carried out by a single gunman who fired 25 rounds, likely with a silencer on the gun.

Al-Hilli and his wife and mother-in-law were killed inside their BMW stationwagon. Moillier was killed outside the car. The Al-Hillis’ 7-year-old daughter Zaeinab was found outside the car, severely beaten with a gunshot wound to the shoulder.  Their other daughter, 4-year-old Zeena, was found hiding under her dead mother’s corpse in the backseat. The two young girls, who are the only known material witnesses to the crime, have been reunited in London and are staying in an undisclosed location under police protection. Zeinab, whose injuries have affected her eyesight, has been questioned by the police but so far has only said that her parents were killed by “one bad man.”

Investigators in France and Britain have merged the criminal investigation under the European Union’s Eurojust program, which allows multi-national investigators to form a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to work cross-border without the usual red tape. They have also called upon law-enforcement officials in Italy and Switzerland where the assailant may have fled to check border-crossing surveillance and keep an eye out for anyone who may be involved in the crime. So far no credible leads as to the assailant’s vehicle or mode of transportation have proven useful in the investigation.

Last week, investigators traveled to Sweden where the eldest victim, Al-Allaf, lived with her mentally disturbed son, Haydar Thaher, 46, who was twice locked up for threatening her life. Thaher was briefly considered a suspect in the murders because he was not in Sweden when the killings took place, but British police later located him in a psychiatric hospital in England where he has been a patient since late August.

Investigators are also looking into anomalies in the life of the cyclist who was killed at the scene. Moillier worked as a zirconium specialist at a nuclear-fuel-development company owned by nuclear-energy giant Areva, which had once fought allegations that it was supplying Iran with enriched uranium. Police originally assumed that the cyclist had accidentally stumbled upon the murder in progress and was killed because he was a witness. But French detective Benedict Vinneman said last week that they couldn’t rule out that it was the other way around. “Was the al-Hilli family the main target? Was it not the cyclist?” he said to reporters at a press briefing. “We’re talking about someone whom everybody says was a gentleman, but who’s to say he did not lead a double life?”

But Al-Hilli’s own behavior has caused the most consternation among both French and British investigators. The life of the Baghdad-born aerospace engineer has been the focus of the investigation from the beginning and investigators are looking at a number of distinct lines of inquiry. Al-Hilli and his brother Zaid had been in a legal battle over their family’s $6.5 million inheritance, which included a Swiss bank account and real estate across Europe. The Al-Hillis’ father died in Spain in 2010 and the considerable inheritance is still unsettled. But investigators are increasingly skeptical about his involvement. They believe that the brother, who has an airtight alibi for the day of the murder, would have likely instructed a hitman to kill all family members if in fact he had ordered the killings. Leaving the two young daughters alive in an inheritance dispute doesn’t make sense.

Investigators are also looking into the discovery of a previously unknown French farmhouse Al-Hilli was trying to sell, which could provide a link between the family and the country where they were killed. The house, which had never been renovated despite neighbors testimony that Al-Hilli had intended to fix it up as a rental property, was recently listed on the market. No one saw Al-Hilli visit the house in the days before he was killed, but police are not ruling out a connection to the sale of the property.

“Was the al-Hilli family the main target? Was it not the cyclist?”

Investigators are also combing the Internet for traces of Al-Hilli’s somewhat erratic virtual voice. A neighbor and friend in Surrey, Gary Aked, told British investigators that Al-Hilli spent hours online ranting in anti-Semitic chatrooms, according to the Mirror, which interviewed Aked. “When I heard Saad and Iqbal had been murdered my first thought was, ‘What has he said?’ ‘What has he done?’” according to the paper. Whether he incited an angry Internet troll in a chatroom debate is another thread the police are keen to unravel.

But there are still many more leads than actual trails to the truth in this mysterious crime. With only two young witnesses, no clear motive, and no identified suspect, the case continues to baffle authorities. And unless there is some major breakthrough or someone confesses, it may never be known exactly what happened on the lonely mountain road where the family and cyclist were killed.