Lake Annecy Murders

The following article was written by myself last year, and has now been updated in light of the recent release from bail of Zaid Al-Hilli, and the arrest yesterday of a man in France. I obviously do not know what is the basis for this arrest, and it is too early to speculate, although I am sure many others will.

Regardless of the outcome of this arrest, I still firmly believe that the answers to this terrible crime will be found in France, and not elsewhere. The following details my reasoning for this view.

The problem with an investigation such as this is the unprecedented nature of the slaughter, which is the correct term, of four innocent people.

The killing of Saad Al-Hilli, aged 50, his 47 year old wife Iqbal, her mother of 74, Suhaila al Allaf, and 45 year old Sylvain Mollier who was totally unknown to them would seem it to be without rhyme or reason. Add to this a seven year old child being left for dead, and you have a crime the likes of which has rarely been seen before in Europe, or elsewhere.

The lack of witnesses or apparent motive clearly makes the investigation more difficult, which can often lead investigators down paths with many dead ends.

Then pops up talk of Iraqi conspiracies, Mossad involvement, international intrigue, shady Swiss bank accounts, feuds over inheritance, and eastern European hit men. It would have all the makings of a TV series, had the consequences not been so tragic. And this is just the rumour surrounding the Al-Hilli family.

Add to the mix talk of a French millionairess with a three month old child living with a divorcee 16 years her senior, and who her family strongly disapprove of.

This is not my interpretation; it is the speculation of the media, and no doubt to a degree what is driving the investigators.

However, the need is to analyse and not guess, interpret the facts and evidence, and not speculate on theories without a sound evidential basis.

I accept that my opinions are to a degree based on media reports from the UK and France. However, there is also information from international letters of request, as well as the few comments made by the prosecutor. I also visited the scene and have tried to view the case objectively, using experience drawn from many years of investigating murders, often with multiple victims.

I have never been involved in an investigation such as this, and what follows is simply my view on what I believe happened. I will be the first to accept that I could well be wrong.

We have all seen the photos of the scene, the car sitting in the lay-by where this appalling offence took place. What isn’t realised until you actually visit the scene is just how small the area is. The parking area is a lot smaller than it appears, not much more than 25 yards in total, and little more than a car’s length wide.

Also, a media photograph taken shortly after the murders and rarely seen shows what appears to be Sylvain Mollier’s bike, although I believe this had been moved by the French Police prior to the taking of the photograph.

I believe that this looks more like an attack by a random killer than the calculated professional killing that many have surmised.

The lay-by itself is at the end of a steep single track road, and is the starting point for a number of local walks. It is less than three miles from the small village of Chevaline, the nearest town being Doussard, little more than a mile further away. This is on the south side of Lake Annecy, a picturesque tourist destination nestled in the foothills of the Alps.

The murders were committed shortly before 3.45pm on Wednesday, 5th September, 2013. Was the time of any relevance, I think not, but only the killer really knows.

The victims were a British family of Iraqi origin, who were staying at a local camp site less than 11 miles from the scene, and a French cyclist who lived about 12 miles away, who had left home about 2.30 that afternoon.

Although the details of the injuries have not fully been released, it has been confirmed that the weapon used was a Swiss made Luger P06 7.65mm semi automatic, that was in regular use by the Swiss army. No one knows how many of these were produced, and how many may still be in circulation, the figure will be in the thousands. It seems that 21 bullets were recovered by police from the scene, although we do not know how many went astray and were not recovered. Of these, seventeen struck the bodies of the victims, with the cyclist being shot at least five times, the child once, and the three adults in the car several times each, with the remainder having missed any of the intended targets and gone astray in the road or the forest. Although larger magazines are made for this type of weapon, the most common holds eight rounds, possibly implying that the gunman changed magazines twice, which could give a total of 25 bullets fired from three magazines as well as one in the chamber. This could possibly explain the clubbing of the seven year old girl as by this time the killer had used all his ammunition.

The following are the theories that have been suggested. I intend to look at these one by one, and try and dismiss those I believe lack credibility.

The most popular theory, and one that I believe is totally implausible is that Mr Al-Hilli’s brother Zaid arranged the killing due to a disagreement over their father’s inheritance, and that the cyclist was effectively collateral damage. This in my view is doubtful in the extreme. There are many reasons for this. Most significant is, how would a 54 year old accountant from Chessington find such a killer. It is not as if they advertise in Yellow Pages or the Surrey Gazette. I have investigated these people; I have had access to data bases that contain their details. There are not that many of them, and the few that there are do not work for 54 year old Surrey accountants. I will also explain later why this in my opinion was not the work of a professional killer.

Additionally, is it likely that such a massacre would be because of a disagreement over an inheritance? I do not believe so.

Next, that the killing was in some way related to Mr Al-Hilli’s work, and that he was killed by someone such as Mossad or another agency to prevent him selling sensitive information to a foreign government. In reality the information he had access to was not particularly sensitive and could have been obtained without too much difficulty. He was not a sophisticated spy. The idea that these murders were in any way state sponsored is farcical.

Links to the Iraqi regime of Sadam Hussein have also been discussed. None have been found. Saad Al-Hilli had not only left Iraq many decades ago, but he was also a Shia whereas the ruling party were Sunni. This theory is also ridiculous and would seem to have no evidential basis.

It has also been suggested that Mr Al-Hilli had arranged to meet someone and that this person killed him. This again is not credible. Who would he be meeting, and why. How did he arrange the meeting as it appears that he had made no recent calls? If there was such a meeting would he go with his whole family and mother in law? This did not happen.

There has also been talk of them coming across some sort of crime taking place. What could this have been to warrant such a response in such a remote location? The answer is simple, nothing. This is not the cause.

It has also been speculated that perhaps Sylvain Mollier was the target and that the Al Hilli family were simply witnesses. Although I do not think that the enquiry team have satisfactorily discounted him as the target, when looking at all the circumstances of the crime, on balance, I do not believe that he was the intended victim. There are perhaps reasons why some people had a dislike of Mr Mollier, however isn’t this again rather extreme. Another factor to be taken into account is that Mr Mollier did not leave his home until 2.30, less than an hour and a quarter prior to his death. Also, and what mitigates against this is the amount of bullets fired. If Mr Mollier was the target, would a killer have had so many bullets with him, and even if he did, would he have killed this many people who were simply potential witnesses? I do not believe so.

I will now give my reasons as to why I believe this was not the work of a professional killer.

Everything points against this. Firstly, the choice of location. It is at the top of a narrow single track road which leaves very little scope for escape. Although relatively remote, it is still busy with both walkers and cyclists. On the days I visited the scene, the area was quite busy with both. The chance of being identified, or even having the road blocked by police, another vehicle, or as we had, a herd of cattle being led across the road is quite significant. Also, the choice of targets and method of killing. Would such a professional shoot one person at least five times, and then shoot the others in the way they were, with many of the bullets being far off target. Just because the killer was successful doesn’t necessarily mean that he was accomplished.

And why, what could possibly be the reason. If the target was Saad Al-Hilli, there would have been plenty of opportunities when he was alone, and would the killer have followed him all the way from the UK, or known where he was staying. Talk of them moving campsites in order to avoid someone is ridiculous. If this was the case, then why move less than a mile. The reality is they most likely moved because it was to a campsite they knew, was less expensive, as well as being directly on the lake. Also, if the object was to kill the whole family, they were unsuccessful. Such a killer would surely have known the makeup of the family. It would also have been far simpler to carry this out in the UK. If the target was Mr Mollier, then there would have been far better opportunities to do this without the need for so many additional victims. The simple answer is that this was not carried out by such a person.

Although not a popular theory, this in reality leaves one option. That the murders were the work of a random killer and the choice of victims is in my view a tragic mix of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although I do not necessarily like this, it is more plausible than the other options, and is in reality the only other option.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. This, albeit the words of a fictional character is a sound basis for investigators to work on.

So what did happen on that fateful afternoon? I obviously do not know, only one person does for sure. Mr Al-Hilli knew the area reasonably well after having stayed at the campsite before. They decided to go for a drive having sought the advice of the manager of the campsite for places to visit. Witnesses say the family appeared to be happy. They then drove down the side of the lake through Doussard, stopping at nearby Arnand to take a family photo. This photograph has now been released by the French authorities, and would seem to show a family without a care. Clearly Mr Al-Hilli does not appear at all concerned. They then drove to Chevaline, and up the narrow road to the parking area. Although they could have driven further there is a no entry sign saying that further access is for forestry vehicles only. It is likely they stopped to have a look at the map. Mr Al-Hilli and his seven year old daughter would seem to have then got out of the car to look at the map, leaving his wife, four year old daughter and her elderly mother in the car. It would appear that when the bodies were found, both ladies still had their seatbelts on, perhaps indicating that they had not intended to stop for long. At about this time Sylvain Mollier arrived at the same spot. We can only guess at what happened next. Was Mr Mollier shot first as some reports said, or was it the Al-Hilli’s. I do not know, but if this is as I believe the work of a random killer, then is it relevant.

It would seem that at this point Mr Al-Hilli and his daughter were trying to get back to the car. Some reports suggest that Mr Al-Hilli was shot in the back whilst trying to reach the car. He then got in and tried to get away, but was killed before he was able to do so, with the vehicle in reverse and jammed against the verge of the lay-by. I am not sure if the tyre marks in a picture taken shortly after are from Mr Al-Hilli’s vehicle, but they could be. This would indicate that his car was facing inwards by the map, and he then reversed at speed no doubt with the intention of turning his car round and escaping down the hill. At some stage seven year old Zainab was shot in the shoulder. We will never know her father’s intention of picking her up and getting her away. I am of the view that the gunman would have been firing wildly at the car, and it was during this that all the occupants with the exception of four year old Zeena were killed. He has then gone on to club Zainab causing severe head injuries, possibly in an attempt to kill who he believes is the only remaining witness. Thankfully he was not successful, and both Zainab and Zeena who was at her mother’s feet miraculously survived.

The killer then made his escape. How was this, we cannot know. Brett Martin who discovered the bodies very shortly after mentions seeing a motorcycle. There has also been mention of a four wheel drive vehicle, no one knows, so there is nothing to be achieved by speculating.

Now to dispel some of the points raised. It is said that the visit to the bank in Geneva may have brought this on, and was suspicious. It is not remotely suspicious. Mr Al-Hilli was on holiday a 30 minute drive from Geneva. It would be only natural to go and speak to the bank. There is no relevance to this.

Possible calls made to and from Romania are of no significance. International letters of request filed by the French prosecutor in 2013 show these to apparently have been to and from UK landlines of other family members, and are not a major line of enquiry.

I also do not think that the discovery of the Taser gun at the Al-Hilli house, or the online chats he was involved in are of any relevance. The reality is that during a murder enquiry the victim’s lives are put under the microscope, and details are often discovered that very often take investigators in the wrong direction. This is even more likely when as in this case, there is no obvious motive.

Although I do not know, I am assuming that the investigators have checked to see if the bullets and cartridge cases recovered from the scene were fired from a gun previously involved in another crime, whether in France or elsewhere. The most advanced system in use by police forces throughout the world is called IBIS (Integrated Ballistic Identification System). Although the French do not use this system, the British Police do, so I am assuming this has been checked without any result. Also, metallurgical tests on the bullets could possible identify where they were manufactured. This could again point to where they were obtained.

Mr Al-Hilli’s brother Zaid has been arrested for conspiracy to murder, but after being on bail for some considerable time, has now been released from this. Why this was, and on what basis, clearly I have no idea. However, no arrest warrant has been issued by the French, and it would seem that this arrest may have been simply because of his refusal to travel to France to answer questions. I would hope that by now his movements around the time have been confirmed, his computers have been analysed and his phones and finances will have been checked. After this length of time, clearly nothing to implicate him has been found.

So where do the investigators go now. The French prosecutor has said that the reason lies in the UK. What is this based upon, wishful thinking perhaps, and not wanting the answer to be a local killer in an area dependent upon tourism?

It is my belief that if this is looked at objectively, the murders were not professional, and even to a degree disorganised. Many have said that because of the nature of the shots to the head that this was a proficient killer. It is not, they were in a car, shot through the windows. They would naturally be hit in the head or upper body. At least 21 bullets were fired, several off target, two women killed, and a child left for dead. This isn’t professional, it is frenzied. Wouldn’t a professional killer have carried this out more efficiently, and in reality how many such people are there. This happened in the real world, not in a movie.

The gun apparently used is very common in Switzerland, which is less than an hour away from the scene of the murder. The answers are in France, not in England. This is where I believe the focus of the enquiries should be. Have there been any unusual sightings or reports within the extended vicinity of the scene. Start from the scene and work out. Also, has anyone gone missing since then?
This was a British family murdered whilst on holiday in France. Everyone likes a conspiracy, and to make things complicated. In this case it isn’t. Tragically I believe that in all likelihood, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Finally, it is an old and trusted maxim that investigators should clear the ground under their feet. I agree. This means France, not Surrey, not Iraq and not fanciful espionage theory land. Investigators often want a crime to have a sexy motive; most do not have one. I do accept that in most murders the victim and the perpetrator are known, and are often members of the same family. However, this tends to be where the family member or other person close is the actual killer. This is not the case here, so normal close linked suspect theories can be discounted.

It should also be borne in mind that investigations in France are conducted differently. The enquiries are carried out under the direction of the local prosecutor as opposed to being led by the police as in the UK.

If my theory is correct, the killer is psychologically distressed, angry, and looking for some sort of release, an internal reason that we do not know as to why he carried out this act. Often this anger and stress will dissipate by itself, but now and again, albeit rarely, it will not. This is where the danger lies. Has he killed before? This is possible, but it is just as likely that he has confronted people in the past in situations that have not ended with such savage consequences. An act of this intensity is unlikely to have been the first time his anger has come to the surface. Have appeals been made in relation to any such incidents.

It appears that the investigation is focussing on this being a planned and organised offence. This obviously cannot be discounted, but until such time as there is direct evidence to show this, other options should not be dismissed.

Regardless of my thoughts, as with all such investigations, there are three main avenues; witnesses, suspects and forensics. Witnesses seem to be very few and appear to have been exhausted with no answers. Suspects, none credible would seem to have come to light. I am for the moment discounting yesterday’s arrest in France, until such time as there is more information about this. Therefore, simple, but reliable and trusted forensic analysis will be the only thing that produces an answer. The bullets, the gun, phones, local enquiries, and old fashioned detective work following the evidence. This is what will lead to the killer.

Ian Horrocks