En famille

Douglas Johnson

  • Little Gregory by Charles Penwarden
    Fourth Estate, 247 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 1 872180 31 0

When one thinks of crime in France, one remembers those who are considered to be the great criminals, those who have met the guillotine, which has been called Le Goncourt des assassins. There is the infamous Landru. There is the anarchist Jules Bonnot and his gang, who cried Vive la mort when they were encircled by the Police. Eugène Weidemant, who used to shoot his victims in the back of the neck and then rob them of ludicrously small sums of money: his was the last public execution in France, in June 1939, due to the shock caused by his admirers, who had soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood and kept them proudly. Dr Pétiot, a former mayor of his commune, who wore a neat bow-tie and who despatched some thirty bodies from his cosy den in the Rue Le Sueur. Pierre Loutrel, known as Pierrot le Fou, who was liable to shoot at anybody and who eventually shot himself. These were the stars who strutted on the boulevards of crime. But, perhaps more typical of France are the mysterious, enclosed, claustrophobic crimes which have distinguished many small provincial regions. There was the murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his family, at Lurs, in the Basses-Alpes, which revealed, as in a Giono novel, the unusual lives of the Dominici family, le clan Dominici. There were the activities of Marie Besnard, la bonne dame de Loudun, who fed arsenic to some thirteen relatives (but whose guilt was cast in doubt when it was discovered that one of the scientific witnesses at her trial suffered from acute myopia). A young working-class girl was murdered in Bruay-en-Artois, and the local notaire was arrested for the crime. When he was released, for lack of evidence, most French people believed in his guilt because they knew how grandees behaved in a place like Bruay-en-Artois. A certain Madame Weber, la diabolique de Nancy, is to stand trial for two murders and for falsifying a marriage.

The affair of le petit Grégory is in this category of provincial, family crime. On 16 October 1984 Christine Villemin was working at the textile mill in the small town of Lépanges, in the Vosges department. She was a modestly paid seamstress. When she finished her work, shortly before five in the evening, she went by car to collect her four-year-old son Grégory, in a neighbouring council estate, where he normally went to play with a friend after school ended at 4.30. As usual, she then drove, with her son, to her house about a kilometre away, at Paremont. Once there, she allowed Grégory to play outside whilst she did some ironing and listened to the radio. She was unable to see her son because the shutters on the double-glazed windows were closed. At about 5.30 she went out to fetch him because it was time for his bath. But he was not there. She looked in the garden, she called on neighbours, she drove back to his friend on the housing estate at Lépanges, but he was not in any of these places.

At about the time that Christine Villemin discovered that her son was missing, her brother-in-law Michel, some twelve kilometres away, received a phone call. The anonymous caller announced that he had taken Grégory and put him in the River Vologne. Michel told this to his parents, who lived next door. They telephoned their local gendarmerie. Having learned about the anonymous phone message, Christine Villemin also contacted the Police. Three hours later Grégory’s body was recovered from the swollen river. The next morning an anonymous letter, bearing the postmark of Lépanges, was delivered to the Villemins’ house. ‘Not all your money can bring you back your son.’ It was addressed to Christine Villemin’s husband, Jean-Marie.

The general public learned about the killing of Grégory and at the same time learned about the existence of le clan Villemin, an extended family of about seventy individuals and many more relations, all living in the same region, and how they had been subjected to a plague of poison-pen letters and vicious anonymous phone calls. These had been occurring for some years, and had been investigated by the gendarmerie and by private detectives, but all to no avail. Their author, commonly known in French as Le Corbeau, the crow, remained unknown. But it was assumed that it must be a member of the Villemin clan, since it was rent with family quarrels, hatreds, jealousies and rumours. Jean-Marie Villemin, who had been more successful in his profession than most of the family (he was foreman in a car-accessory firm) and who liked to think of himself as the leader of the clan, was a favourite target.

It was not then surprising, although it was revealing, that when Jean-Marie learned about the phone message, saying that Grégory had been thrown into the river, his reaction was to take his rifle and go to his brother Jacky’s house. He believed that Jacky, who was illegitimate, and his father-in-law, who lived with him, were the Crow, and that he would find Grégory there. But this was not the case, and the Police had arrived there before him (for reasons that Charles Penwarden does not explain), so that there was no shooting on that day. But it was in an atmosphere of suspicion, accusation and family hysteria that the local gendarmerie began their investigation.

The outline of the case is fairly simple, although the details lead one into a mass of complexity. The 15-year-old Muriel, interrogated by four gendarmes, revealed that her brother-in-law, Bernard Laroche, had, on the evening of 16 October, picked up little Grégory in his car and that they all had travelled a certain distance together, towards a bridge. Bernard had then disappeared with Grégory. He came back alone. Therefore, he must have drowned him then. Bernard Laroche was a cousin of the Villemins. He was arrested and put in prison.

But Muriel soon retracted her statement. She claimed that the gendarmes had forced her into making it, and when the head of the gendarmerie stated that this was not true, it turned out that he had not been present at the beginning of the interrogation. It was also admitted that before Muriel demonstrated, as well as she could remember, the route which Bernard Laroche had followed in his car, a gendarme had assisted her by drawing a sketch map. At the factory where he worked, Laroche was supported by his workmates, who signed a petition in his favour. The so-called motive for the crime, jealousy of the Villemins’ greater wealth and of their son Grégory’s lively intelligence, as compared to the Laroches’s somewhat backward child, Sébastien, was not, it was claimed, adequate to turn the placid Laroche into a child murderer. The handwriting experts who had found that Laroche’s handwriting resembled that of Le Corbeau in his wicked anonymous notes, had apparently been influenced by the manner in which the gendarmes had presented them with the evidence. After three months Laroche was released from prison and preparations were begun to withdraw the charges against him.

In any case, there was another suspect. The Police Judiciaire had by now taken over the case. They were interested in the fact that there were witnesses who claimed to have seen Christine Villemin posting a letter at the post office at Lépanges. This could have been the anonymous letter addressed to her husband and exulting in the death of Little Grégory. They timed Christine’s movements on that day. They believed that she could have drowned her own son. Gradually, they worked out that at the time when many of the anonymous phone calls were made, she could have been alone and could therefore have made them herself. They discovered that her phone bills were particularly high when the Corbeau was most active. Was it not she who was the Corbeau? There were discrepancies in her replies to their questions, about the ironing she was doing and the radio programme she was listening to at the time when her son was allegedly picked up by his killer. Was she not a rather odd, impulsive woman?

Naturally, if a mother is to be said to have killed her only child, it is necessary to explain why. It was not possible to prove that Christine Villemin was, in any distinct sense, out of her mind. Nor did she suffer from bouts of depression which might cause her to act, at certain moments, in an uncharacteristically violent manner. The only explanation which, according to Penwarden, was actually put forward, was that she was an outsider to the Villemin clan. It was as a very young girl that she had made the acquaintance of the man who became her husband. She, and her mother, felt superior to the relatives whom they had acquired by marriage. She was trapped in a religion, a family, a way of life. The symbol of her imprisonment was her son. Therefore she had disposed of him. The fact that shortly after the murder she decided to have another child – and she explained to an avid audience that she had removed her personal contraceptive device with this in mind, did not appear to change the Police Judiciare’s assessment of her original act. She was, for them, a scheming and unbalanced woman who was capable of anything. To quote Penwarden, ‘her partial use of truth’ alienated people. As the pressures grew on Christine, she and her husband determined upon an act of vengeance. They bought a powerful gun and began to shadow Bernard Laroche. They outlined their plans to a journalist from Paris-Match. They showed him the plastic bags they had prepared for their inevitable stay in prison. After several unsuccessful forays, on 29 March, some five and a half months after the death of his son, Jean-Marie Villemin, acting alone, shot and killed Bernard Laroche. He gave himself up and was put in prison. On 5 July Christine was arrested and charged with the murder of Grégory. She was six months pregnant when she was put in prison. Ten days later the Appeal Court ordered her release, because they were not satisfied that a convincing motive had been put forward to explain why she should have killed her son. But they admitted that she had had the time to kill him, and that the investigation had uncovered numerous clues which pointed to her guilt.

And, so far as one can see, some six years after the killing of a lively and well-liked little boy, that is how things remain. Jean-Marie Villemin has been released from prison, because of the attenuating circumstances which accompanied and explained the killing of his cousin. He, and Christine, have moved away from the valley of the Vologne and live in the Essonne department in the Paris region. Moves to prosecute her, or to bring the case to some other conclusion, have failed to materialise.

How can it be that a horrible murder should be committed within a known family circle and that the news of the killing reached the gendarmes within minutes of the act, and yet the murderer cannot be identified? The immediate answer is that this is, precisely, a family murder. There are those, it is said, who know very well what happened. In particular, Monique and Albert Villemin, the parents of Jean-Marie and the parents-in-law of Christine. Since nothing can bring little Grégory back to life, they believe that what is important is to protect the family. This is the argument that prevailed in the clan Dominici after the murder of the Drummonds at Lurs in 1952. There are those amongst the Dominici who, many suggest, could to this day explain what happened from A to Z. But they will not do so. Although a little girl is buried with her parents in the cemetery of Forqualquier, it is all une affaire de famille. As Giono put it, you get to a room in the family house, and it is triple locked. As in the Dominici affair, there is a strong element of violence supplementary to the murder. When three members of what even the unsensational Le Monde called le clan Villemin, presented themselves voluntarily at the Palais de Justice in Paris in order to register a complaint, they did not expect to be searched. But when they were searched, it was found that all three were carrying arms.

Whilst the Grégory affair was proceeding, several cases emerged which illustrated the manner in which crimes could be committed within a community which was determined to be silent and to observe nothing. For ten years in the hamlet of Artiguemy, in the Pyrenees, a young girl, Rachel, was abused and beaten by her stepfather, by whom she had had three children. Neither the mayor of the commune, nor the social security services which arranged for the children to be adopted, wished to enquire into the reasons why a 13-year-old child (for this was her age when she first became pregnant) was in such a state. Near to Bourgoin-Jellieu, in the Lyonnais, a 14-year-old girl began a calvary of similar humiliations, which were inflicted upon her by her father, also for a period of years. Even after these cases came to light, a barrier of silence was presented by the local communities when they were confronted by police and journalists.

The Grégory case, however, was in certain respects to turn out very differently. Neither the gendarmerie nor the Police Judiciaire could take a step without being followed, or indeed ‘preceded’, by posses of journalists. Microphones found those who were only too ready to speak, whether they were participants, officials or spectators. Bernard Laroche, who worked nights in a factory and who supplemented his mediocre wages by woodcutting, adapted easily to television. Christine Villemin, who had had little education and even less experience outside a small community, was soon ringing up those radio stations which she considered to be favourable to her cause and proposing subjects for interview, whilst establishing maximum publicity for herself with Paris-Match and Le Parisien Libéré. Families who had little acquaintance with Paris hired the best lawyers the capital could provide and fought successful libel actions against individuals and newspapers. There were times when the media were overwhelmed by those whom they were seeking to exploit.

Naturally there were reasons for this. The recently elected Socialist government had abolished the death penalty and those who disapproved of this latched on to the murder of a child as a means of embarrassing them. The absence of major national issues made it easier for the general public to take sides in the Villemin imbroglio. There was Bernard Laroche, the devoted trade unionist who received the support of his workmates. There were Christine and Jean-Marie Villemin, seeking to better themselves and to move up the social ladder. Their respective lawyers made sure that these implications were made prominent. As if there were not enough drama in Christine Villemin’s predicament, the novelist Marguerite Duras intervened with an extraordinary article. This was no sordid crime, she wrote. It was an act that only women could understand, whereby Christine, suffering in a society where men made all the laws, took sublime vengeance, like a modern Medea, by killing her son.

But much of the publicity, and most of the confusion, stemmed from the person who was at the centre of the enquiry, the juge d’instruction or examining magistrate, Jean-Michel Lambert – le petit juge, as he came to be called. Charles Penwarden seems determined to be very fair to him and ignores the legend that grew up around him and was widely believed: namely, that Lambert was a good socialist, with powerful friends in the party. Whilst no one had any belief in his legal ability, a job had to be found for him. So he was appointed to Epinal, where nothing much ever happened. It was most unfortunate that he found himself faced with a case of such complexity. The juge d’instruction has considerable powers: it is he who gathers information and directs the investigation. Le petit juge was not effective at either.

The trouble was that Judge Lambert talked too much, and allowed everyone working for him to gossip. He also talked, with extraordinary freedom, both to suspects and to witnesses. Perhaps there was something about le petit juge which recalled the ideals of the revolutionaries of 1968. He would say to those whom he was questioning that if they had suggestions to make concerning anyone whom he should arrest, then they should tell him. One cannot imagine a worse method of proceeding. Charles Penwarden stresses how the judge was to become emotionally involved. He also describes how Lambert wanted to show himself off as a caring judge, burdened by the heavy responsibilities of his office. He gave an interview to the magazine Elle in which he explained how this case had affected his sex life. He wrote an autobiography, filled with platitudes. He expressed an interest in working for a radio station. One wonders whether Christine Villemin was not correct when she said that Lambert was like a sponge, soaking up evidence, someone for whom the last person consulted was always the most important. When he was replaced by the laconic and cautious Judge Simon, it was not only that the media was prevented from continuing to shape the course of the investigation as they had done. A more meticulous judge uncovered areas which had not been properly investigated, and which could have been vital: at what time had Grégory been killed, what was the significance of a syringe which had been found by the riverside, what had been discovered about certain tyre marks. The suspicion grew that perhaps Grégory had been killed by several people, acting together, in a hate-filled family scenario.

Eventually, even Judge Simon could not avoid giving interviews to the media. They aroused expectations as well as controversy. But nothing followed. Judge Simon expressed the opinion that one day the Grégory affair would be resolved. Chief Superintendent Slipper, formerly of Scotland Yard, who has written an introduction to Penwarden’s book, does not think so. However, a certain Patrick Thomas, aged 24, was in March 1990 brought to trial, accused of having murdered a nine-year-old child in February 1984. The President of the Court, at Valence, defined some of the questions that came under discussion as being ‘surrealist’: nevertheless, after six years, the trial was a reality. Nothing is ever too late in French law.

The Grégory affair highlights a profound malaise in the French system of justice. In November 1989 a meeting of barristers discussed whether the office of the juge d’instruction should not be abolished. But the judges’ representatives refused to be treated as if they were dinosaurs, and they were not impressed by the fact that Italy has abolished the office and Britain has never known it. The present Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, has promised that 1991 will be the year of justice in France. Perhaps it will also be the year when the murderer, or murderers, of Grégory Villemin will be discovered, accused and tried. But Charles Penwarden, in his clear and objective account of this case, does not hold out much hope.