Police Confounded

10.09.12

Mystery of Iraqi-British Family’s Murder in the French Alps Deepens

A month after the execution-style killing of an Iraqi-British family and a French cyclist along a lonely road, police are no closer to finding the assassin. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports on the confusing leads, the victims’ curious pasts, and more.

Investigators trying to piece together the mysterious quadruple murder of an Iraqi-British family in the French Alps last month have discovered several clues that have only confused the investigation further.

Police in Britain and France have joined forces to find the killer, who is believed to have escaped to Switzerland after the Sept. 6 slaying of Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife, Iqbal, 47, her Iraqi-Swedish mother, Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, and French cyclist Sylvain Moillier, 45. But they acknowledge they are nowhere close to identifying the culprit and have turned up a number of leads that have diverted the investigation in widely varying directions in the month since the murders. The curious pasts of all the victims have been dissected for clues that may lead to an answer to the complicated mystery.

The al-Hilli’s young daughters, who survived the massacre and are the only known material witnesses to the crime, are now back in Britain under police protection. Seven-year-old Zaenab is undergoing physical therapy for a gunshot wound to her shoulder and a severe beating. Investigators and child psychologists are gently prodding her and 4-year-old Zeena, who hid for more than eight hours under her dead mother’s legs in the backseat of the family BMW station wagon, for what they might remember—most important, what the person who fired the fatal shots that killed their parents and grandmother might have looked like.

The eldest victim, al-Allaf, lived in Sweden with a violent son who was in a psychiatric hospital in London on the day of the murder, giving him an airtight alibi. The French cyclist—whose body was found outside the car and like the others had two gunshot wounds to the forehead, a trademark technique used by hit men to ensure a victim’s death—was discovered to be a zirconium specialist at a nuclear fuel-development company.

Investigators briefly thought he was the real target, as his company had once been linked to supplying Iran with enriched uranium, but he had no position of power in the company, rendering the theory increasingly unlikely. Even the past of Brett Martin, the retired Royal Air Force official who was first on the scene, was probed in case he might have been involved, but he has no link whatsoever to the crime. He described the ordeal to reporters as a surreal experience that felt like something out of a Hollywood movie, but with a “lot of blood and heads with bullet holes.”

So far, police in France and Britain have interviewed 650 people who have provided a variety of leads, but nothing that has amounted to a tangible trail to the killer.

For all the false starts, the most likely motive for the murders sits squarely with Saad al-Hilli, the 50-year-old Iraqi-born patriarch of the family, whose covert actions in the days before he and his family were gunned down paint a picture of a man who was very likely on the run. The family had taken a curious vacation the first week of September, when their young daughters were scheduled to be in school. They hauled a camper from their home in Surrey and had booked a week at a French campsite, where al-Hilli came and went throughout the day while his wife, mother-in-law, and daughters stayed at the site. The family abruptly moved to another campsite just days after their arrival, after witnesses described a strange-looking man staking out the grounds. The man has not been identified, but a number of witnesses told investigators that he was dressed formally, not in attire normally associated with camping.

This week, investigators in Britain confirmed that al-Hilli changed the locks on his home in Surrey just days before left for France. Police also learned that he kept a Taser stun gun that he often carried but which he did not have with him when he was killed, prompting investigators to question whether he feared for his life. He also confided to friends that he had fired the lawyer who was representing him in a court case against his brother over a considerable inheritance from their father, Khadim al-Hilli. The elder Hilli died a year ago, and the family estate was yet unsettled, though Saad’s brother Zaid denied there was bad blood between them. Still, Saad al-Hilli told at least one friend that he feared he would lose his house in the legal battle. The same friend told investigators that al-Hilli spent hours online each night ranting anonymously in anti-Semitic chat rooms and feared that an Internet troll might seek revenge.

Investigators also learned that the day before the family was killed, al-Hilli traveled an hour across the Swiss border to Geneva to take care of secret financial business at a Swiss bank where he had a private account holding a considerable sum, according to Dario Zanni, a Swiss prosecutor involved in the case who ordered the al-Hilli assets frozen while the investigation progresses. Al-Hilli also owned property in France and Iraq in addition to his comfortable Tudor-style home in Surrey. Al-Hilli’s father died in Spain, where a sizable estate is still stuck in escrow pending the legal battle over the inheritance, which has now stalled with Hilli’s murder.

The investigation is also stuck in limbo as investigators struggle to connect the dots. So far, police in France and Britain have interviewed 650 people who have provided a variety of leads, but nothing that has amounted to a tangible trail to the killer.