French Aristocrat Murder Mystery: Did Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes Kill His Family?

A French aristocrat is on the lam after his wife, four children and two Labradors were found killed and buried in the family’s garden. Dana Kennedy reports from France on the grisly manhunt—and the terrified former mistress.

An international manhunt is under way for a handsome, aristocratic Frenchman police believe may have shot and killed his wife, their four children, and two dogs, burying them all in the garden of their home in Nantes, France.

Meanwhile, his terrified former mistress has gone into hiding, fearing for her life.

Police dug up the bodies last week, finding a severed leg and the bullet-ridden corpses of Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes' family. After the grisly discovery, investigators began searching for Dupont de Ligonnes who had gone missing, homing in on the French Riviera and Provence, after tracing purchases with his bank card at two area hotels, according to a source close to the police investigation.

At the five-star boutique hotel, Auberge de Cassagne, outside Avignon, the owner, Sylvie Boucher, remembered de Ligonnes well, saying the 50 year old stayed at her hotel the night of April 12.

"He stood out because he was alone," Boucher told The Daily Beast. "I spoke to him during dinner and found him to be very elegant, very well-spoken, and very relaxed." Boucher recalled de Ligonnes standing on the balcony of his junior suite later that evening as she walked through the courtyard. "He waved at me," she said. de Ligonnes, who told Boucher he was in the region on business, ordered half a bottle of Burgundy wine and ate a four-course meal, including a pork fillet and a dessert of crème brulee.

The killings, authorities believe, occurred sometime during the first week of April. The state prosecutor in northwest France told reporters on Saturday that the murders were carried out "methodically" with a .22 caliber rifle, the same type of gun that de Ligonnes used when he took up target practice at a local rifle club in February.

Prosecutor Xavier Ronsin said that de Ligonnes explained his family's disappearance to friends, relatives, and school officials by saying he was a secret agent for the U.S. government and had to return to America to enter a witness protection program because of a drug case; to others, he said the family was moving to Australia because he had gotten a job there.

Dupont de Ligonnes explained his family's disappearance to friends, relatives, and school officials by saying he was a secret agent for the U.S. government and had to return to America to enter a witness protection program.

Dupont de Ligonnes, who hails from an aristocratic family from Versailles, had reportedly squandered his fortune on a series of failed businesses. Although the family appeared to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle that included several expensive cars and private school for the children, Ronsin, who issued the international alert Saturday, said that de Ligonnes had debts of at least $60,000, and that de Ligonnes reported revenue of just less than $6,000 last year. A bailiff sent by a creditor came to the de Ligonnes' home on April 5 asking him to cough up a $30,000 debt.

Described as a "devout Catholic" and with children in Catholic schools, de Ligonnes allegedly had a mistress in Paris who contacted police after the news broke Thursday about the murders. Paris investigators said she told them she met de Ligonnes regularly for sex or "les relations intimes," and showed them texts and emails from him, according to a report in Le Figaro. She said the relationship ended two years ago, and that she had recently gone to court to get back a loan of $73,000 she had given him in 2009. The woman reportedly showed police a letter she'd received on April 9 from de Ligonnes, saying: "We had a good time together but something bad may now happen." She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life.

Another woman, who lived in the southern town of Lorgues, where the Dupont de Ligonnes family lived until 2003, has meanwhile gone missing, according to authorities. Investigators scoured the area over the weekend, questioning her family and friends. But Ronsin, the Nantes prosecutor, said Monday that a link has not yet been established between de Ligonnes and the disappearance of Colette Deromme, a 50-year-old single mother.

"The gendarmes have been here night and day taking pictures and asking questions," Colette's father, Lucien Deromme, told The Daily Beast on Monday. "We can't take it anymore. We don't even know who this guy is. We don't remember him or his family. We're just worried sick about our daughter." When asked if his daughter knew de Ligonnes, Deromme refused to answer and abruptly ended the conversation.

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There has been no verified trace of de Ligonnes since police found his missing car, a metallic blue Citroen C5, abandoned at a cheap hotel in the picturesque village of Roquebrune-sur-Argens where he is believed to have stayed the night of April 14.

But people have called in sightings of him from all over southern France and northern Italy, some of them placing him in the company of a blond woman. As fear and hysteria mounted in the area, the local newspaper, the Nice-Matin, pleaded for people to remain calm.

Investigators have said the murders of Agnes, 49; Thomas, 21; Arthur, 18; Anne 16 and Benoit, 13; and the two family Labradors occurred sometime around April 3 or 4. But one of Thomas' friends from the university in Angers where he studied told Le Parisien in an interview published on Monday that the last time he saw his friend was the evening of April 5. Mathias said that Thomas received a text from his father telling him his mother had been in a bike accident and asking him to come home. Later, Mathias texted Thomas several times to ask him how he was doing and when he was returning to school. Mathias said he received three bizarre texts sent back from Thomas' phone, which did not sound like him. After that, he said, Thomas never responded to his calls.

The bodies had been placed in jute sacks and covered with lime.

The funeral for the Dupont de Ligonnes family will take place Thursday.

Dana Kennedy, a former correspondent for ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC, who also writes for The The New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine and People magazine, among others, is based in Europe.