French police probing missing family make macabre find

21st April 2011, Comments 0 comments

French police opened a murder probe Thursday after their search for a missing family yielded a severed leg then five buried bodies -- believed to be those of a mother and her four children.

A 50-year-old business manager, his 49-year-old school assistant wife and their children -- boys aged 21, 18 and 13 and a girl aged 16 -- went missing from their home in the western town of Nantes earlier this month.

Before the family's disappearance, the father, identified in an appeal for information as Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes, told acquaintances that he was a secret agent and was leaving to join a witness protection scheme.

Police probing the disappearance found a section of human leg in the garden of the grey stone two-story house on Thursday morning then gradually unearthed five bodies throughout the day, Nantes prosecutor Xavier Ronsin told journalists in the city.

Three bodies, "probably" those of mother Agnes, 49, and her two oldest sons, Thomas, 21 and Arthur, 18, were exhumed first from under a patio of the house, said the prosecutor, adding they died "in all likelihood by firearm".

Later in the day, a statement said that "a fourth body, that of 16-year-old Anne, was exhumed with those of the family's two dogs".

In a later update, the prosecutor's office said a fifth body, that of 13-year-old Benoit, "in all likelihood killed by a firearm" had been dug up.

"So the investigation of a worrying disappearance has become one for kidnap and murder," said Ronsin, adding that there was no sign of violence in the house itself.

The prosecutor described the father's tales of espionage as "self-contradictory ravings", adding the family had settled their children's private school fees, claiming they were planning to emigrate to Australia.

Investigators said, however, they could find no records suggesting the family had made any major bank transactions or passed through a port or airport.

In Nantes, local people described a quiet and respected Catholic bourgeois family with no history of odd or criminal behaviour.

The father sold advertising space, while his wife Agnes volunteered for church activities and taught the Catholic catechism to school children.

"I saw her at the diocese. She was a very good woman, very involved," said neighbour Florent Chotard, adding that he had never heard of anyone having a problem with the family.

Near the family home, a middle class townhouse on a main Nantes boulevard, was parked a black Volkswagen Golf that neighbours said belonged to Agnes.

Someone had scrawled with his or her finger in the dusting of pollen on the car bonnet: "You had no right. We miss you. PK."

A small white piece of cardboard was taped over the family letter box reading: "Please return mail to sender. Thank you."

The couple were originally from the wealthy Paris suburb of Versailles. Their sons Thomas and Arthur were students, while Anne and 13-year-old Benoit attended the Perverie Sacre Coeur private high school.

Perverie headmaster Olivier Bouissou said that when he had received word the family were leaving for Australia he had thought they were "moving not disappearing", adding that the children had not been problem pupils.

"When we got the letter it was with a cheque that covered the entire rest of the school year," he told AFP.

Police had sealed off the house and were conducting a painstaking forensic examination behind a screen of black plastic sheeting on Thursday.

After the remains of Benoit were found, a statement said the grave "does not contain any other bodies", adding that investigators would provisionally withdraw from the crime scene on Thursday night.

Autopsies on the five bodies will be conducted at Nantes' institute of forensic medicine on Friday, authorities said.


© 2011 AFP

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