Updated: Sept. 6, 2012 at 9:55 a.m. EST
The scene of multiple shooting deaths in France became even more macabre late on Wednesday, when a 4-year-old girl was discovered hiding in a car amid the bullet-pierced cadavers of three adult victims. The girl was found lying unharmed beneath the lifeless bodies inside a car that French officials believe belonged to a family from the U.K. vacationing in the French Alps. Both the brutality of the crime and the mystery surrounding it have sent shock waves around the normally peaceful Lake Annecy area, where the killings took place, as well as throughout France and the U.K.
That enigma seems to deepen even as more about the murders is known. Some news reports on Thursday identified the driver of the bullet-strewn BMW as Saad al-Hilli, 50, an Iraqi-born resident of Claygate, Surrey. Others stated that the women slain were al-Hilli’s wife and mother or mother-in-law. But during a press conference later on Thursday, Annecy prosecutor Éric Maillaud said neither the identity of the driver, nor those of the two women killed with him, have been confirmed.
Maillaud said two of the victims died of what appears to have been deliberate kill shots to the head from outside the car. He stated that the exact cause of death of the third person will be confirmed in an autopsy.
The chronology and details surrounding the killings are similarly tormented and astonishing. The car and victims were discovered Wednesday afternoon by a passing cyclist. After inspecting the vehicle, that rider also found a gravely injured 8-year-old girl unconscious on the side of the road. He then saw the dead body of another cyclist who’d passed him in the remote, wooded area just minutes earlier, and who had apparently been killed after arriving as the murders were taking place. The locked car was still running when discovered, Maillaud said on Thursday and all victims had been shot through the windows by an assailant who fired over 15 bullets.
It turned out that was only the start of the terrible drama. Maillaud said the police avoided searching the car or moving bodies to avoid “polluting” critical evidence before the arrival of forensic experts. Though heat scans of the car had been taken to detect additional bodies, Maillaud said the 4-year-old had remained motionless under the corpses and had pressed herself so hard to her mother’s legs that she was “totally invisible” from the outside. But when officials got a tip from a nearby campground, where the family had been staying, that the group had contained two little girls, not one, police decided to approach the car anew.
“She began smiling and speaking English when a gendarme took her in his arms and lifted her from the vehicle,” Maillaud told reporters present early Thursday morning. “She heard noises, shouts, but she can’t say more. She’s only 4 years old.”
But even that tender age wouldn’t have earned the little girl any mercy from the killer she so wisely and successfully hid from. Maillaud confirmed that though the 8-year-old girl had at least one gunshot wound in the shoulder, the skull fractures she suffered apparently resulted from severe blows to her head. The killer clearly left believing she was already dead, or would be soon.
“This little girl was very violently struck in the head,” he said.
Given the mystery surrounding the killings, the police said they’re examining all possible theories and motives. French media reports speculate the drama could have been the result of a roadside robbery gone wrong, or of the family and unlucky cyclist interrupting a drug deal whose participants decided to kill all potential witnesses. Maillaud refused to elaborate on various theses or rumors — and wouldn’t touch a flurry of media reports suggesting that the car owner’s Iraqi origins may indicate the killings involved a clock-and-dagger element explaining the extreme violence and mystery of the killings. However, he did confirm that the owner of the British passport used to register at the campground was thought to be from a naturalized U.K. citizen and that two other passports — one Swedish, one Iraqi — were also found in the car.
Though Maillaud noted the 4-year-old girl was traumatized and under psychological care, he said she is starting to speak more and “ask about her family.” As brutal as it will be when the time finally comes, what that little girl can tell police about the final moments of her family’s life together may be the only way of resolving the mystery about who ended it.