11.25.12

Was the Al-Hilli Alps Murder the Act of a Serial Killer?

Three months later, cops are still stumped by the grisly murder of four in the French Alps. Could a 2011 shooting point to a new lead? Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

It has been nearly three months since the bullet-ridden bodies of three Britons and a French man were found on a lonely road in the French Alps, and British and French investigators now admit they have no idea who killed the foursome and why.

The only element of the case that is clear is that on Sept. 5, Saad Al-Hilli, 50; his wife, Iqbal, 47; her mother, Suhaila Al-Allaf, 74; and French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45, were fatally shot, and the Al-Hillis’ two young daughters survived as the only known material witnesses to the crime.

Blood-splatter evidence points to a bizarre scenario at the scene of the crime. The elder Al-Hilli, shot as he sat in the driver’s seat of his burgundy BMW station wagon, had Mollier’s blood on his clothing, meaning he was outside the car when the cyclist was killed. The Al-Hillis’ 7-year-old daughter, Zainab, was pistol-whipped and found outside the car with a gunshot wound to her shoulder. She had drops of Mollier’s blood on the soles of her feet. Four-year-old Zeena was found hiding under her mother’s corpse eight hours after investigators first arrived at the scene.

More than 800 witnesses have been questioned in France, England, Italy, Switzerland, and Iraq. Investigators are chasing a number of leads, including whether the Al-Hilli family were money runners for Saddam Hussein or whether Mollier and Al-Hilli were ambushed during a secret meeting in the Alpine woodland. Now investigators are considering that perhaps neither theory is true, and that the four were victims of a racist serial killer who preyed on tourists.

French police have confirmed that throughout the last year, someone has been shooting bullet holes through foreign license plates on cars in the area. Police also say that in July 2011, Xavier Baligant, a Belgian tourist, was shot with a similar weapon under comparable circumstances near the French city of Nancy, less than 100 miles from Annecy, where Mollier and the Al-Hilli family were killed. Like the Annecy murders, the two young children of the Belgian victim were left alive in the car. Baligant was shot after 2 a.m. as he stopped at a rest stop in the French Alps en route back to England after a camping vacation. The Al-Hilli clan had also been on a camping trip. No one in the area heard the shots, implying that, like in the Al-Hilli murders, a silencer was employed. In both cases, based on shell casings left at the scene, a classic collector’s gun was the likely weapon of choice used by the killer or killers. Victims of both mysterious massacres were finished off with a two shots to the forehead—known in assassins’ terms as a double-tap.

The coincidence may be compelling fodder for conspiracy theorists, but it doesn’t explain a number of curious details in either crime. For instance, Saad Al-Hilli had changed the locks on his Surrey home before leaving on an impromptu camping trip to France just as his young daughters were meant to begin the school year. Al-Hilli also had properties in France and Spain that were unknown to his closest friends until after his murder. He kept a secret bank account in Geneva and several more accounts in the U.K. Just days after he was killed, a Nigerian man named Abiodun David John was arrested for attempting to access two of his British accounts. Al-Hilli also kept an illegal Taser gun in his family home in Surrey, and friends said he spent long hours as an internet troll ranting on anti-Semitic websites.

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Saad al-Hilli (National News-ZUMA Press (FILE))

Mollier, the French bicyclist, worked in research and development for a nuclear facility with ties to Iran, causing some speculation that he and Al-Hilli were ambushed during a secret meeting to exchange documents. Mollier’s clothing and belongings were ransacked after he was killed, as if someone was searching for something in his possession, though his watch and cash were left.

“Until now there has been so much speculation and so few answers.”

Detectives looking into Baligant’s death never turned up solid clues as to why anyone would kill the father of two young children, leaving them alone in the car in the middle of the night. Speculation that he was involved in a late-night drug deal or that he had ties to an organized-crime syndicate were never proven. The case is still open, but the trail has been cold for nearly a year. Now, his ex-wife and mother of his children, Mihaela Jacobeus, believes the Annecy murder could provide valuable clues to what happened to her ex-husband.  She told The Sun newspaper that she believed that the two crimes are connected, and that they all died at the same hand. “I pray this new lead will finally help catch the person who took away my children’s father,” she told The Sun. “Until now there has been so much speculation and so few answers.”

Still, the French police are hesitant to confirm any connection between the two murders, even as they admit they have no idea if any of the other leads are anything more than dead ends. Eric Maillaud, the lead French prosecutor on the case, will only say that he believes that whoever is responsible for the Annecy murders was not a novice. “Without doubt we are looking for someone who has killed before,” he told reporters. “Someone who puts no value on human life.”