Skip to main content

Mystery surrounds French shooting case as police seek leads

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 4:44 PM EDT, Fri September 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Surrey police "facilitating" French investigators' visit to England
  • A witness described seeing a 4x4 vehicle and a motorbike near the site of the shootings
  • The 7-year-old girl injured in the attack cannot be questioned yet, prosecutor says
  • The brother of Saad al-Hilli went to see police voluntarily, says he denies conflict

London (CNN) -- Investigators have identified two of the four people killed in a mysterious attack in the foothills of the French Alps this week as the parents of two young girls found alive at the scene, a prosecutor said Friday.

They also said a witness reported seeing a green 4x4 vehicle and a motorbike near the site of the killings, in a mountainous and wealthy area of eastern France.

But investigators seemed no nearer to giving any answers as to who might have carried out Wednesday's brutal attack, which has captured headlines in British and French media -- or why.

British nationals Saad al-Hilli and his wife were among three people whose bodies were found in a car, shot to death in a secluded parking lot, French prosecutor Eric Maillaud said. Police in Surrey, the English county where the family lived, identified the wife as Ikbal.

Alps murder mystery
What led to fatal shooting in France?

The couple's identities were confirmed to investigators by al-Hilli's 4-year-old daughter, who spent hours in the vehicle hiding behind her dead mother's legs, apparently immobilized by fear, Maillaud said.

The girl, identified as Zeena, has not been able to give investigators any more information about who carried out the attack, he said.

Her 7-year-old sister was found, severely injured with a fractured skull and bullet wound to her shoulder, outside the car. She is still in a medically induced coma and cannot yet be spoken to, Maillaud said. He described her survival as "a miracle."

"We hope that she will be able to tell us what she went through, provide us with descriptions of the murderer of murderers," Maillaud said of investigators' hopes for when she gets out of the coma and can be interviewed.

The identity of a third person who was killed in the car is not yet clear. She was an older woman with a Swedish passport, but her relationship to the others has not been confirmed, Maillaud said.

The fourth victim, French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, was named Thursday. He was found with a gunshot to the head in the same parking lot off a forested road, near the village of Chevaline in the Haute-Savoie area.

Maillaud said that it seemed likely that Mollier, a local man who had a young child, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that it was too early to say for certain that he was not the intended target.

A British cyclist came upon the older girl Wednesday near picturesque Lake Annecy, and spotted the bodies inside the car before alerting authorities. The younger girl wasn't found until nearly eight hours later, under her mother's legs and surrounded by bags.

The witness told police he saw a green 4x4 vehicle and a motorbike heading away, the prosecutor said, before adding that such vehicles are not unusual in the area.

A former serviceman, the cyclist did not hear anything but pointed out to police that he was carrying out strenuous exercise at the time, Maillaud said.

Maillaud has opened a judicial investigation for murder and attempted murder in the case, Joelle Robert of the Annecy prosecutor's office told CNN.

Autopsies on the four bodies are being carried out, with the results expected late Friday, the French prosecutor said.

He confirmed that all four killed had been shot at least three times, including in the head.

Still-pending ballistic reports may indicate the type and number of weapons used. Maillaud said 25 spent cartridges have been found.

The grisly case has sparked wide speculation about motives for the killings, from a family feud to a drug deal gone wrong.

But Maillaud sought to dampen rumors about a family conflict, saying al-Hilli's brother had gone to police voluntarily Thursday -- after learning from the media that his relatives had been shot -- to find out what happened.

He went back to police Friday to say there had been no conflict with his dead brother over money, as had been reported, Maillaud said.

By Saturday, four French investigators will be in the United Kingdom working on the case in collaboration with their British counterparts, he said. Surrey police officers have been stationed outside the Claygate house identified by neighbors as that of al-Hilli.

In a news release issued Friday night, Surrey Police said force members are "facilitating a visit by French investigators."

"This is a complex and ongoing investigation being led by French authorities, and Surrey Police is providing any assistance possible," police said.

French authorities hope to return the 4-year-old girl to family members in Britain soon, once they assess to whom she can be entrusted, the prosecutor said. Although physically unharmed, she is being cared for by specialist pediatric medical personnel under the watchful eye of police and British consular officials.

Her 7-year-old sister, who has been named in media reports as Zainab, is also being protected by police in case of a further threat to her safety.

What is known about the victims is that Saad al-Hilli was an Iraqi-born engineer who lived in Claygate in Surrey, south of London, with his wife and two daughters. He was born in 1962 and was a naturalized British citizen.

He was completely unknown to French and British counterterrorism and intelligence services at the time of his death, Maillaud said.

Neighbor Jack Saltman, whose home backs onto the family's garden, said al-Hilli and his wife had come from Iraq "many years" ago and both spoke "perfect English."

"They were a delightful family," Saltman said.

The neighbor said al-Hilli's wife, Ikbal, was a dentist and the two daughters were "absolutely beautiful."

An accountant for Saad al-Hilli, Julian Stedman, said the engineer had at least one business registered locally.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he and French President Francois Hollande discussed the "terrible killings of ... the British family" during a meeting Thursday in London.

He promised that British authorities will cooperate "very closely with the French authorities" to "help those poor children" and "get to the bottom of what happened in this clearly very tragic and awful case."

"Both a French and a British family have been impacted by this terrible event, and we will do our utmost to identify the perpetrators," said Hollande in a joint news conference after the two leaders met.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT