French double murder saga takes new twist

The 28-year-long quest to find the killer of two young French boys who had their skulls smashed in with rocks took a new twist this week when a 65-year-old man was charged with the crime. But have French police finally found their man?

French double murder saga takes new twist
Alexandre Beckrich (left) and Cyril Beining who were murdered in France 28 years ago. The crime has still not been solved. Photo: AFP

A French court on Tuesday charged a man with the grisly murder 28 years ago of two young boys, the latest twist in a legal saga that has seen a serial killer and a teenager also accused.

Henri Leclaire, 65, a short and stocky former warehouse worker, was charged with killing eight-year-olds Cyril Beining and Alexandre Beckrich, who were found dead in September 1986, their skulls smashed with rocks.

Leclaire, who denies the charges, was released on bail and his lawyer said he would "demonstrate for sure that he is not involved in this case".

"There's nothing substantial against Henri Leclaire. The only problem with this case is the initial confessions," the lawyer, Thomas Hellenbrand, told reporters after a two-hour hearing in the eastern city of Metz.

Leclaire in fact initially confessed to the twin murders before retracting.

Detectives eliminated Leclaire from their enquiries, firmly convinced that Patrick Dils, a reclusive adolescent of 16 at the time, had committed the murders.

Dils was handed a life sentence before being acquitted and freed in 2002 after 15 years behind bars and a gruelling legal saga involving three retrials – the first time someone had ever been tried three times for the same crime in France.

He had also initially confessed to killing the two young boys and later retracted.

Dils was acquitted mainly because it emerged that Francis Heaulme – a notorious serial killer now serving a life sentence for nine murders – was in the area at the time of the murder.

But the trial of Heaulme, dubbed the "Criminal Backpacker" by the media, was suspended after dramatic last-minute testimony implicating Leclaire.

A witness said Leclaire had told her in 2012 that he had attacked the boys, although he denied killing them.

In response, Leclaire, who was appearing as a witness in the trial, said he had "made up" the story.

Leclaire's lawyer described his client as "a slightly frustrated old man who has lived alone since his father died" with few friends but very attached to his dog.

Leclaire himself told a newspaper in March that he just wanted to be "left alone" by the case which had "ruined" his life.

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French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.