The smiling boy whose murder haunts France

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The smiling boy whose murder haunts France
Grégory Villemin. Photo: AFP
16:31 CEST+02:00
The 29 years since four-year-old French boy Grégory Villemin was drowned have been marked by revenge, dashed hopes, anonymous taunting phone calls, and mystery. The case, which has gripped France, once again dominated the headlines this week.

Who’s Grégory Villemin?

He was a four-year-old boy found drowned in the Vologne river near Docelles, in eastern France in October 1984.

Why has he been in the news this week?

On Wednesday, a prosecutor in the city of Dijon announced that much-anticipated DNA tests on Grégory’s clothes, and on cords used to tie up his hands and feet, had been inconclusive.

The news came as an “enormous disappointment” for his parents, and prolonged what has been a 29-year mystery, filled with anger and despair at having their hopes dashed repeatedly.

These recent developments have once again gripped France, and the smiling face of Gregory has been omnipresent in newspapers, magazines and on TV this week.

Tell me more.

The “Affaire de Grégory”, as it’s become known, has fascinated and horrified the French public for almost three decades, and inspired at least seven books on the subject of his murder.

Here’s what we do know. On the evening of October 16th, 1984 Grégory’s parents – Christine and Jean-Marie Villemin – received a chilling, taunting phone call from an unidentified person, informing them “I have taken the boy.”

After a massive police search, Grégory’s body was found in the Vologne river, about 7 km from the family home in Lépanges-sur-Vologne.

The day after, the couple received an anonymous letter addressed to Jean-Marie. “I hope you die of grief, boss. Your money can’t give you back your son. Here is my revenge, you stupid bastard.”

We don’t know who sent the letter. But for four years before the murder, the Villemins had been plagued by anonymous phone calls, some of which they managed to record.

However, voice experts still haven’t been able to identify the caller. Years later, DNA tests, (of which there have been many) on saliva traces under the letter’s stamp were also inconclusive.

Are there any suspects?

Yes, quite a few. Initially the main suspect was Bernard Laroche, the first cousin of Jean-Marie Villemin, but that lead reached a brutal end.

Laroche’s 15-year-old sister-in-law had denounced him to police, claiming to have circumstantial proof he had murdered Grégory. Furthermore, handwriting analysis suggested Laroche had a strikingly similar signature to that found at the bottom of the letter sent on October 17th.

However, Laroche’s accuser later recanted and in February 1985, a judge freed Laroche from suspicion. But the same day, a furious Jean-Marie Villemin vowed, in front of journalists, that he would kill his cousin.

Incredibly, police refused to offer Laroche protection and, true to his word, Villemin shot dead his cousin on March 29th, as he left work.

Villemin was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 1993 for the killing, and Laroche’s widow, Marie-Ange, successfully sued the French state in 2002, for their failure to prevent Bernard’s death.

Does it get any worse?

I’m afraid so. In 1985, local suspicions began to turn to Christine Villemin, Grégory’s mother. She had been seen in a post office on the day of the murder, and cords identical to the ones used to tie up Grégory were found in the basement of the family home.

Further handwriting analysis also seemed to implicate her, and she was held under suspicion in July of that year, before being released. A judge eventually took the rare decision to issue an order forbidding her prosecution, which largely served to clear her name.

What’s happened since then?

There have been several rounds of DNA testing and voice analysis checks, all of which have promised to reveal the identity of Grégory’s killer, but all of which have disappointed.

On April 16th, French daily Le Parisien revealed that traces from the cords used to bind Grégory would be tested and compared with DNA samples from 10 individuals interviewed over the years, as "persons of interest" in the case.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the tests had shed no further light on the killer’s identity.

There may be more twists and turns to come, however unlikely, as Gregory's parents - pictured here just five weeks after the murder of Grégory - live in hope of police one day finding their son's killer.

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