NICE, France—Robert Vaux, 91, his mint-green trench coat folded neatly beside him, listened avidly to more than six hours of testimony Monday during the first day of the murder trial of the “Black Widow of the Riviera”—an alleged serial killer who would appear to have major daddy issues.
Police believe either her father or foster father was named Robert. So, too, were many of her alleged victims, and not everyone thinks it was a coincidence.
Directly across the courtroom at the Palais de Justice, seated behind a glass partition in what the French call “the box,” was the woman Vaux says seduced him into falling in love with her and then poisoned him with Valium in an effort to take all his money and property.
“Manipulatrice!” Vaux hissed to The Daily Beast during a courtroom break. “I might have been dead because of her but I’m not. I’m alive. I’m the winner. I won.”
Patricia Dagorn, 57, charged with fatally poisoning two older men on the Côte d’Azur as well as conning and drugging Vaux and another elderly widower, hardly looked like a femme fatale. But according to Vaux, whose testimony this week is expected to pack the courtroom in Nice’s Old Town, she was.
“She was like a ray of sunshine in winter,” he told reporters before the trial started. “When you are with a younger woman, you know it won’t last but you’d be a masochist to deny yourself the moment.”
AS THE TRIAL OPENED, Nice-Matin ran a front-page photo of Dagorn standing confidently on a sailboat in Cannes in a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt, describing her as a “golden-haired, blue-eyed” empoisonneuse and “black widow” who drew older, vulnerable men into her web within days, or hours, of meeting them.
But that photo was taken in 2011 and Dagorn looked as least 10 years older in court Monday. Her hair was a dark gray, she wore glasses and a baggy black and red tracksuit and looked more like a mousy librarian.
She’s spent the last five years in prison after being arrested and convicted in 2013 on charges of fraud, theft, and kidnapping involving a 87-year-old, widowed. retired teacher—first name Robert. It was not until 2015 that police had enough evidence to take her from her cell and charge her with murdering two old men and poisoning “with premeditation” two other elderly widowers. Her modus operandi involved drugging her prey so they would be so impaired that they’d agree to write checks to her or include her in their wills.
Nice Prosecutor Jean-Michel Prêtre said that Dagorn, who arrived on the Riviera in 2010 from a small town in western France, would be “full of empathy for these men, would gain their confidence, siphon off their money, and end up by working out how to make them disappear.” He called her a “manipulator and seductress.”
Dagorn denies all the charges against her. When The Daily Beast asked one of her two lawyers, Georges Rimondi, if she was innocent, he laughed. “She says she is,” he said. In court he described her as a “fragile” woman who preferred the company of the elderly.
In all, Dagorn is suspected of seducing at least 20 men on the French Riviera. Not all of them were rich. Dagorn posed as a businesswoman—as a jeweler or a pizzeria owner—when she signed up with a matrimonial agency in nearby Cannes and asked to be introduced only to elderly men of means. But she actually had little to no money herself and often spent nights on the street, hooking up with homeless men in between liaisons with her wealthier targets.
One of the men she is accused of murdering, Michel Kneffel, thought to be in his sixties, was an often homeless man who lived with Dagorn for a while in a residential hotel. He died from the effects of alcohol and Valium. She is also charged in the death of Francesco Filippone, 85, whose decomposing corpse was found in the bathtub in his home in the posh Nice suburb of Mouans-Sartoux in 2011. Dagorn had cashed a check of his for $25,000 prior to his death. She said he gave it to her as a gift so she could open a jewelry shop.
Prosecutors want a life sentence.
DAGORN'S STRANGE STORY, which unfolded Monday in the testimony of police investigators, doctors, and others and has been reported in various media since 2011, reads like a French film noir.
Abandoned for a while to foster care at age 6, the Parisian-born Dagorn had “no memory of any affection showed her by her parents,” an investigator said Monday. Her mother was a maid from Brittany and she reportedly had a troubling relationship with her father, who once took her camping at a nude resort on the Île du Levant on the French Riviera when she was only 14.
In 2013, Paris Match found a photo of her there, posing naked in sandals. Not long after the photo was taken, Patricia left home and embarked on a life as a juvenile delinquent on the streets of Paris. Her ex-husband, Luc Caron, said in 2013 that he “rescued Patricia from the gutter.”
“She had the face of an angel,” Caron said. “I fell blindly in love. I was not named Robert but my father was, I wonder if that was a point of interest to her.”
Caron, 71, was in the courtroom Monday as his ex-wife sat in the dock. In an odd twist that a prosecutor tried in vain to understand this week, Caron was accused of serious domestic violence against Dagorn and served 11 years in prison. But she married him just as he began serving his sentence. They divorced in 2005 but kept in touch and Dagorn often told Caron about her conquests on the Riviera.
Dagorn was resilient and intelligent enough to do well in school, loved to read, and managed to get close to a degree in law while having two sons with Caron.
But she also briefly handed her boys over to foster care when they were young, just as had been done to her. One son told TF1 television he was estranged from his mother who “was always obsessed with money” and said he was not surprised at the charges against her.
“She told me that she manipulated these men for money, that there was no love,” her son Guilhem, 27, said. “She’d talk about them in terms of what they had, like ‘He’s a rich guy with a beautiful car and a beautiful house.’ It was always about the money.”
Dagorn allegedly used her legal expertise when setting her traps on the Riviera. Police discovered copies of letters, all addressed “Cher Robert,” asking for financial compensation and leaving spaces for “Robert” to add his name and bank details.
Caron once intimated to Paris Match that Dagorn might have had something to do with the death of her mother, whom he said Dagorn plied with whiskey every night after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Dagorn inherited her farm after she died. The judge asked Monday, also in vain, about a hefty life-insurance payout Dagorn received after her mother’s death.
Robert Vaux said Dagorn contacted his lawyer about being written into his will as he gradually grew more and more incoherent from the effects of drugs she allegedly plied him with.
“Finally even my pharmacist told me, ‘Robert, you’re in danger!’ You could write a thriller!”