A 5,000-MILE JOURNEY

The Daring DNA Hunt That Cracked France’s Gruesome Cold Case

Thanks to American science and a determined French cop, a young woman whose burned corpse was found by a farmer 15 years ago may get justice.

DENVER—On a cold Saturday morning in January 2002, a farm worker in northern France unloading dirty stable hay into a field noticed a tree stump that looked out of place. As he got closer, he realized that what he thought was a log was actually a woman’s partially burned body.

Though violent crime in France’s sleepy Somme region is almost unheard of, the farmer’s horrific discovery was no surprise for local law enforcement: They had been looking for 24-year-old Elodie Kulik for two days.

Just after midnight that Thursday, police had found her red Peugeot abandoned less than a mile from the field where she was found, along a rural highway. The passenger door was open. There were no fingerprints on the door handles, no fibers on the seats, and no tracks to follow; but in the farmer’s field, Elodie’s murderer left a used condom and a cigarette butt. DNA from those items would speak for the victim years later.

Family and friends could not comprehend why anyone would want to attack and kill the popular young woman who was heralded as the country’s youngest bank manager. In a Facebook message from France, her father, Jacky, told The Daily Beast his daughter was “our pride for my wife and me.”

Tragically, Elodie was not the family’s only casualty. After she was killed, Jacky’s wife committed a long and painful suicide. Months after Elodie’s murder, Rose-Marie Kulik ate rat poison but did not die right away, surviving on life support for nine more years.

“Those who killed my daughter, also killed my family,” Jacky said.

For 15 years, Jacky’s determined face shows up in clippings as he keeps the case from stalling. There’s a Facebook page, a blog, and a march he organizes through quiet hamlets near their hometown of Monchy-Lagache. Every year on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his daughter’s murder, Jacky holds a vigil at the country church where she sang in the choir as a child.

Her final moments, just miles from where she grew up, are frightening for any parent to imagine. On Jan. 10, 2002, Elodie Kulik met a friend for tea in the little town of Saint-Quentin. After spending much of the evening together, at around 11 p.m., she told her companion that she thought it would be best to drive home on the dark country back roads to avoid traffic.

The last anyone heard from her was a 26-second screaming call for help to the local fire department at around 12:20 a.m. on Jan. 11. Two men were heard yelling in the background of Kulik’s call.

Police believe Elodie’s killers forced her car off of the rural highway, kidnapped her, and drove back toward Saint-Quentin where she had just left her friend. But before they reached Saint-Quentin, they took the exit for the tiny farm town of Tetry. Their deadly journey ended some time that night in the forgotten farmer’s field where Elodie’s charred body was found two days later.

The murder churned up an intense investigation as the country watched and waited for an arrest. Under intense pressure to solve the crime, the criminal investigation unit of the National Gendarmerie in Paris ran the unknown male’s DNA profile through their database. Nearly 2 million arrestees and suspects were compared to the man believed to have raped her, but none of them matched. In addition, DNA did not point to any of the 5,500 people targeted by the French police in the Somme region. Some 14,000 cellphones were seized and yet again there was no connection to Elodie’s death. Her own phone was never found.

By 2012, the news stories of the “Meurtre de la jeune banquière” (murder of the young woman banker) stopped. The case had gone cold.

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At that time, a captain who worked in the lab of the Gendarmerie, was frustrated that the investigation had come to a standstill. From the 911 call, Capt. Emmanuel Pham-Hoai knew that at least two men had run her off of the road. And from their local accent, he suspected they were from the area and were likely hiding their dark secret in plain sight.

While scanning science journals in hopes of jumpstarting the case, Pham-Hoai learned about a cutting edge development in DNA technology 5,000 miles away in America. A police crime lab was using DNA to catch bad guys by cross-checking their markers with family members. The district attorney and lab director had borrowed the concept of familial DNA from Britain. Denver was the first city in the U.S. to use it.

The captain started to suspect that the answer to one of France’s most notorious unsolved cases could be found in the test tubes of a lab in a place he’d never heard of.

Would his bosses accept a process that had never before been used in France? To complicate matters further, would these American investigators listen to him?

“When he called, I didn’t know who it was,” remembers Denver Police Crime Lab Director Gregg LaBerge, who happens to be French-Canadian. “We were talking about DNA with my rusty French and he spoke only broken English.”

Despite the communication problems, the Denver lab offered to send Pham-Hoai its DNA software kit for free.

But despite the promise of a solution to the 10-year-old case, there was a problem. LaBerge had been fighting with the FBI to let him use the familial searches, but legal issues regarding privacy and civil rights of family members were stalling his research.

Familial searches look for DNA profiles that are similar to the suspect’s, but are not identical. Like the FBI, the French authorities were concerned that the civil rights of family members would be compromised. It did not take them long to shut down Pham-Hoai’s quest.

“If they had allowed them to use our software,” LaBerge said, “they would have had a ‘hit’ right away. But it’s like we say in our lab, ‘you can try something new or you can wait.’”

The phone line between the two scientists was buzzing with suggestions as they brainstormed what to do with invaluable DNA samples that had led nowhere.

“They were lost,” remembers LaBerge, “And I was racking my mind.”

LaBerge suggested that even without Denver’s DNA software, Pham-Hoai could cross-check a rare marker he saw in the DNA profile found at the crime scene against individuals in France’s national DNA database who had the same rare marker and lived in the region where the murder happened.

The persistent investigator took LaBerge’s advice. Those same rare markers from the unknown sample turned up in a man who was in prison for sexual assault. The case solidified when it turned out the inmate also had the same Y chromosome type, which identifies the male gene, as that found in the mystery DNA. When Pham-Hoai circled in on the family, he found the man did have a son named Greg Wiart, but Wiart was dead: killed just a year and a half after Elodie’s murder, when he ran his car into a beet truck.

Finally, with this break in the investigation, French law enforcement was listening to the persistent Gendarme captain. To the dismay of Wiart’s family, a judge ordered for his body to be exhumed to obtain a tissue sample.

“When Pham-Hoai called me, he was in tears,” LaBerge remembers. “He was over-the-moon excited to tell me there was a match.”

LaBerge says there was a magic about working on the murder of Elodie Kulik. His family came from the Somme region of France where she lived and died.

The story didn’t end with the discovery of a killer long dead. In 2013, French police arrested and jailed one of his drinking buddies, the owner of a small café, whose voice they believe to be on the 911 call; however, after a year and a half with no charges and no other evidence against him, Willie Bardon was freed. Bardon denies having anything to do with Elodie’s death.

Last year, the investigation into Elodie’s murder was closed, but police say they are keeping an eye on him. A panel of judges will decide in the coming weeks whether or not Bardon should face trial for kidnapping Elodie Kulik that night.

Still, the man who goes by “Papa d’Elodie” says he can’t let “the barbarian“ get away with murder.

“For my daughter and for her mother, we will never let go.” As for the far-away yankee lab, he writes, “What is Colorado? I know the state, but nothing else…”

Last Sunday, as he’s done for the last 15 years, Kulik held a mass dedicated to his daughter at the small village landmark—Sainte Pierre de Monchy-Lagache church. Always numb on days like this, Jacky Kurik let the voice of Edith Piaf, Elodie’s favorite singer, soothe his pain. After church, locals gathered at a café, still holding on to the hope of finding “la justice pour Elodie.”

On his Facebook page, strangers who still follow the case, give him a message:

“Je suis avec vous, Mr. Kulik. I’m with you.”