By William Langley
Across Lepanges-sur-Vologne, a hamlet in the Vosges mountains of eastern France, spreads the reproachful shadow of L'affaire Gregory. Every year, thousands of visitors come to this remote place in a valley thick with spruce and dogwood to see the grave of four-year-old murder victim Gregory Villemin, and soak up the atmosphere of France's very own 'Village of the Dammed'.
For almost 25 years the gripping twists and feints of this famously unsolved case have exercised an enduring fascination on French minds. Gregory's death has been so comprehensively investigated, debated and written about that today virtually all the important facts are known. Except the name of the killer. This may be about to change.
Last week the Dijon Appeal Court ordered a reopening of the case based on the possibility of new DNA techniques providing fresh evidence.
The 1,000 inhabitants of Lepanges are bracing themselves for the worst. The discovery of Gregory's body - bound with twine and thrown alive into the Vologne river - heralded the start of a painful national journey beneath the beguiling veneer of French rural life and into a noxious mire of feuds, scandals, cruelty, lies, and infidelity.
“I have taken his son and put him in the river... My vengeance is done.”
"When I look back now I see L'affaire Gregory as the beginning of the end of the romance between the French and the countryside," says Laurence Lacour, author of Le Bucher des Innocents, the best book yet written on the case. "We went to this lovely place in the valley of our dreams, and we came back with our hands dripping with slime."
Gregory's parents, Jean-Marie and Christine Villemin, were part of an extended family which had lived in the village for generations. Gregory was their only child. Late in the afternoon of October 16, 1984, while Jean-Marie was working at the local textile mill and Christine was at home, Gregory disappeared.
At 5.32pm his uncle Michel, who lived a short distance away, picked up the telephone to hear someone, speaking in a distorted voice, say: "Now I have my revenge. I have taken his son and put him in the river. His mother will look but she will not find him. My vengeance is done."
Late that night the boy's body was found. The following morning a letter arrived. Written in a coarse scrawl, it said "Ha, ha! I hope you die of sorrow, boss. Even your money cannot give you back your son. This is my vengeance."
The Villemins claimed that the phone call and letter had come from 'Le Corbeau' (The Crow) - a sinister presence who had plagued their lives for years. The name was taken from a celebrated 1943 French film, in which a small village is terrorised by an anonymous letter writer.
Jean-Marie took a rifle, drove to Bernard Laroche's house and shot his cousin dead.
Three weeks after Gregory's death, Bernard Laroche, a cousin of Jean-Marie was seized at his home in Lepanges and charged with the murder. He too had a four-year-old son, but the boy was retarded, and late at night, while deep in drink, he had been heard to rage against his cousin and the perfect child called Gregory. The police, however, soon developed doubts about Laroche's guilt. Partly because they now had another suspect – Christine herself!
The writing on the letter was said to be her own, and the knots used to tie Gregory identical to those Christine used on the family's Sunday roast. There was talk in the village that her marriage was in trouble, and darker suggestions that she and Laroche were lovers.
Christine was arrested and charged on March 25, 1985. During her interrogation she collapsed and miscarried one of the twins she was carrying.
Four days later, after a visit to her bedside, Jean-Marie took a hunting rifle, drove to Bernard Laroche's house and shot his cousin dead in the driveway. The country could barely believe what was happening. The celebrated novelist Marguerite Duras wrote a furious polemic in Liberation stating that Christine was "unquestionably" the murderess.
Christine served almost eight years prison for Gregory's murder before being cleared on appeal. Jean Marie received a four year sentence for killing Laroche, and today the couple live in an upmarket Paris suburb. Attempts to contact them are referred to their agent. "The Villemins are very happy with this development," says a spokesman for them. "They only want the truth."
Somehow France doubts that it will ever be known.
Source: First Post Daily