The killer in the French Alps murder used a gun which may be closely connected to the region, the Sunday Telegraph has learned.
|Police around the BMW at the scene of the shooting in woods near Chevaline in the French Alps Photo: Daily Telegraph |
8:30AM BST 16 Sep 2012
Sources close to the investigation have disclosed that Saad al-Hilli, a British engineer, his wife, mother in law and a French cyclist, were shot with a Luger P08, a highly-distnctive weapon which was standard issue to the Swiss Army.
The disclosure raises the possibility that the killer is connected to the areas as the scene of the crime is less than 40 miles from Switzerland.
It comes as The Sunday Telegraph has learned that the French investigation on the ground is being “scaled back” with many of the 120 officers originally on the case returning to normal duties.
French sources said that by last night only 40 gendarmes remained on the case, with many of the Parisian detectives having returned to their base Rosny-sous-Bois in the capital.
In addition to the French forces, 40 British officers were working on the case in the UK, where the French detectives say they are convinced the cause of the crime will be found. A major forensic search was still under way at the family home in Claygate, Surrey, last night, conducted by British officers.
There was also confusion after reports in France that police are looking for a black Mitsubishi Pajero with British number plates in relation to shooting were denied by officers.
Mr al-Hilli, 50, his wife Ikbal, 47, Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, and Sylvain Mollier, 45, a local cyclist, were shot dead in a car park on a remote road, close to Annecy, in the French Alps. The family was on a camping holiday nearby.
Their daughter Zainab, seven, was shot and pistol whipped but their other daughter, Zeena, four, survived. Both are now being cared for in Britain by relatives.
However questions were raised last night by British experts over the conduct of the inquiry, including whether the crime scene had been properly examined and whether the couple’s two children were being used properly as witnesses.
It is now know that the investigators have concluded the gun involved was a Luger P08 gun, which fires highly distinctive 7.65mm calibre bullets and has a capacity of eight rounds.
Given that there were around 25 bullets fired, and the prosecutor confirmed that only one gun was used, the investigators think that the gunman may have used three magazines.
The origins of the gun will be of huge interest to investigators.
Chevaline, where the murders took place, is just 40 miles from the Swiss city of Geneva. The Luger P08 was standard issue for the Swiss army between 1900 and 1945.
Tens of thousands of weapons and ammunition were handed out to all men of military age, who were ordered to store it in their homes. The Swiss army has always been a conscript force made up of all men of fighting age.
The ammunition, which is 21 mm long, is now rare and is used with very few other weapons. The bullets for the Luger P08 are also all marked with their date of manufacture.
Philip Boyce, an internationally recognised UK firearms expert, said: “The ammunition would either have been stored in a dry place since the 1940s or would have to be specially purchased, and therefore would be easily traced. Most Lugers fire 9mm rounds.
“This sort of weapon, because of the non-standard ammunition, would be quite unusual.”
Last week, Eric Maillaud, the prosecutor for Annecy, confirmed that the weapon was a semi-automatic, firing 7.65mm ammunition. But he refused to go into detail about the type of gun, leading to claims that it was a Skorpion, a Czech-made machine pistol developed in the 1950s for use by security and special forces.
The prosecutor also refused repeatedly to discuss the specifics, but The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that the lethal shots were fired at close range - probably less than three feet away.
The significant development comes as questions were beginning to emerge about the inquiry into the multiple murders.
When local gendarmes arrived they had — as protocol dictated — “frozen” the scene, not touching the car or the corpses, until the forensic specialists arrived from Paris. This meant that the al-Hilli’s four-year-old daughter Zeena endured eight hours cowering beneath the legs of her dead mother before she was found.
Local officials were forced to wait until the Institute for Criminal Investigations for the National Gendarmerie arrived from their base in a Paris suburb.
Rivalries between the gendarmes and the police, a separate force, appear to have prevented them from calling in expertise from the National Institute for Scientific Policing, based near Lyon, only a 90 minute drive away - because that is a police rather than gendarme division.
In Britain detectives and forensic teams would have immediately gone to work, rather than “freezing” the scene.
“From the senior investigators point of view, the crime scene provides the best opportunity for evidence,” said retired Detective Superintendent Robert Bridgestock, who led 26 murder inquiries during a 30 year career at West Yorkshire Police.
“You would order a meticulous examination of the vehicle and the surrounding area. You would seal it off until such time as you had secure every scrap of evidence.
“More often than not there will be something, however small, or insignificant it may seem, that will lead you to him.”
There has also been surprise at the speed with which the forensic examination of the scene ended. Although the day after the murder, the area was still cordoned off, there was no visible tent erected to protect the crime scene from the elements - something that would be standard in Britain, and the family’s burgundy BMW was removed within 24 hours of the shooting.
There was also surprise that on Friday afternoon — 48 hours after the crime had taken place, the road up to the murder scene was reopened.
Tyre marks still visible showed the car reversed at speed, and television pictures showed bloodied pebbles and discarded bullet casings. Broken glass was left on the gravel — whether from this crime or a previous incident — and an ancient car radio, its wires yanked out, was still lying on the bank.
Whether the police performed a detailed “fingertip” search, on their hands and knees in the ravine and across the area, is not known.
Mr Bridgestock said: “It would be unusual to leave anything behind at the crime scene. British officers would remove and retain everything even if it appeared insignificant.”
Seven-year-old Zainab, who was shot and pistol-whipped in the attack, suffering a fractured skull, returned to England on Friday after telling authorities that she had seen “a nasty man”.
Zainaib’s life was saved by British cyclist Brett Martin, a retired RAF pilot, who found her in front of the car and administered first aid before leaving the scene to call emergency services. Her younger sister, although unharmed, has been dismissed as a witness and will not be questioned further. The French investigators insist she saw nothing.
Mr Bridgestock said British detectives would have taken a different approach. He said: “The fact is they are the only living witnesses who were there when the attack took place. It takes time and patience, but they would have seen and heard things no one else could and may provide the vital clue that leads you to the killer.”
French prosecutor Eric Maillaud, who is leading the investigation, said last week that three lines of inquiry were being followed and them as a family conflict over money; Saad al-Hilli’s sensitive work as an aeronautic engineer; and his “Iraqi origins”.
However Mr Bridgestock said: “It is easy for an inquiry to get sidetracked. To follow one theory at the expense of others. It is always a danger and you have to keep an open mind and follow the evidence. You must focus of what the crime scene is telling you. Follow the physical evidence and the witness statements. It is too easy to focus on, for example, one victim. There are four people dead and the target could be any one of them or it could be a random attack and they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Despite the questions French authorities are resolute that they will solve it.
“We’re determined to crack this,” said one senior French investigator.
“The focus may have shifted to Britain, but the French are set on solving it themselves. We want to see this through.”