French police hunt dad in Riviera after family killed

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Police hunting a Frenchman suspected of shooting dead his wife and four children and burying them under the garden patio turned their attention to the Riviera Friday after his car was found.

Officers made the gruesome discovery of the corpses in the northwestern town of Nantes on Thursday, but switched the hunt to France's Mediterranean coast, 770 kilometres (480 miles) further south, after tracing the use of the suspect's bank card.

The father withdrew cash in Roquebrune-sur-Argens outside Frejus a week ago, and on Friday police found his missing car, a metallic blue Citroen C5, outside a hotel where he is now thought to have stayed on April 14.

Forensic investigators were at the scene, a small town in the Var, the region in which the suspect -- 50-year-old small businessman Xavier Dupont de Ligonnes -- and his family had lived before moving north to Brittany.

Police are concerned that there might be a link between the suspect's return to the Var and the disappearance of a woman in her fifties, Colette Derome, from her home in the village of Lorgues, where the family lived until 2003.

But no connection has yet been proved.

Detectives were studying tapes from video surveillance cameras that confirm he had been at the scene, and conducting a meticulous search of his room in the Formule 1 budget hotel and his car.

On Thursday, police in Nantes found five bodies buried in a trench under the terrace of the family's townhouse, around three weeks after the family told their children's school they were emigrating to Australia.

The Nantes prosecutor said that shortly before his disappearance Dupont de Ligonnes had made bizarre claims to friends that he was a US secret agent and was leaving to join a witness protection programme.

Autopsies will confirm the identities of the victims and the cause of their death -- believed to be gunshot wounds -- but police are proceeding on the assumption they are the suspect's 49-year-old wife Agnes and four children.

A first autopsy on one of the sons showed that he had been killed by two rounds fired into his temple at close range from a .22 calibre rifle of a kind owned by the suspect, Nantes prosecutor Xavier Ronsin said.

Neighbours described them as an ordinary middle class family with no history of crime or odd behaviour. Agnes worked as a teaching assistant and volunteered in her local Catholic church.

The older sons, 20-year-old Arthur and 18-year-old Thomas, were students, while 16-year-old daughter Anne and 13-year-old Benoit attended a fee-paying private Catholic school, la Perverie Sacre Coeur.

The headmaster said he had recently received a letter withdrawing the children from the school, settling their fees until the end of the academic year and explaining that the family was moving to Australia.

Police said there was no sign of a struggle in the house, and the family appeared to have prepared a departure. Their clothing was packed and missing, along with three of the family's cars.

Before his disappearance, Dupont de Ligonnes bought hessian sacks and cement of the kind used to hide the corpses. A neighbour also saw him loading heavy bags into one of his cars.

The lease on the house expired 10 days previously and all the family's bills were settled, investigators said.

The Dupont de Ligonnes were originally from Versailles, a wealthy suburb of Paris once home to the French kings. The family has aristocratic roots and still lived a comfortable, well-to-do but not flamboyant lifestyle.

Some locals said the father ran a small business in the Breton tourist and fishing port of Pornic, but others thought he sold advertising space or had investments in tourism and hospitality.

He was often absent from the family home on business, according to Nantes prosecutor Ronsin. Police issued a description of the suspect as having short brown hair, a round face and metallic glasses.

© 2011 AFP

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