There are hundreds of unsolved murder cases across the globe. Some fade into obscurity, and some go silent for years, only to be reopened and solved by a miraculous feat of investigation or science. But there are some that never quite leave us; imprinted in cultural memory due to their gruesome nature, bizarre details, or simply the attention of the mass media.
The murder of Grégory Villemin is one such unforgettable case.
In 1984, the four-year-old disappeared from the front yard of his home in a small village called Vosges, in France. The same night, his body was found in the nearby Vologne River – he was believed to have been thrown in alive. The aftermath of this terrible crime disturbed the nation for decades, with twists and turns that no one could have ever imagined.
Before we get to what happened to Grégory on that fateful day, we need to start with what was happening to the Villemin family in the preceding years. Grégory’s father, Jean-Marie Villemin, was a prosperous man, and had been promoted to foreman at the car parts factory where he was employed three years before his son was murdered. There is evidence to suggest that some of his family members were jealous of his success.
There was no better evidence than the threatening phone calls that he and his wife Christine began to receive shortly after the promotion. The caller was clearly familiar with the family, knowing things that only a relative could have possibly known.
Shortly after the calls began, the Villemins alerted the police and started to record them. The calls stopped, but the threats continued. This time, they arrived in the form of anonymous letters. Many of these letters directly threatened “the boss” – it’s assumed that this was a term for Jean-Marie – and his family.
This anonymous sender became known as “Le Corbeau” (“The Crow”) by the media. His terrorizing letters to the Villemins continued right up until Grégory’s death in 1984 – the last letters even took responsibility for the crime. The one that arrived on the day after Grégory’s body was found reads, “I hope you die of grief, boss. Your money will not bring your son back. This is my revenge, you bastard.”
The Murder of Grégory Villemin
On the afternoon of October 16, 1984, Christine Villemin gave her son a woolen hat to wear so that he could go out and play in a sand pile in front of their house. She then did some household chores, but when she returned to check on Grégory, he was nowhere to be found. She reported him missing at just after 5pm.
A massive search of the area was organized, with police and civilian volunteers combing everywhere they could think of in search of the child. In the chaos, an anonymous phone call was made to Michel Villemin, Jean-Marie’s brother. The caller took responsibility for murdering Grégory, saying that he had taken him and thrown him into the Vologne River.
Despite hope that the call was just a prank, the boy’s body was indeed discovered in the Vologne at approximately 9pm. His little hands and feet had been found with a rope, and the woolen hat his mother had given him was pulled down over his face. The initial judge on the case failed to have a full autopsy conducted, but the preliminary examination found that the little boy had been alive when he was thrown into the river, and had drowned.
Another Death in The Family
About a month after Grégory’s murder, a cousin of Jean-Marie’s was implicated – his name was Bernard Laroche. The evidence against him came from handwriting analysis on the final anonymous letter and a statement from his sister-in-law, 15-year-old Murielle Bolle.
Murielle initially stated that Bernard had picked her up from school on the day of Grégory’s murder and driven her towards the village where the Villemins resided. She said that Bernard had then picked up a small child and driven towards the river. He and the child had left the car, and when Bernard returned the child was not with him.
This statement would have made prosecution a slam-dunk for police, except that Murielle Bolle recanted this testimony shortly after giving it. She accused the police of coercing the statement from her and proclaimed her brother-in-law’s innocence. She continues to do so today.
There are numerous debates on which of her statements is true. Some believe that she had been telling the truth when she told the police Bernard was guilty, but had been physically abused by her family into making her recant the testimony. Others point out that there are details within her statement that the police could not have known, and thus couldn’t have forced her to say.
Whether her initial statement was true or not, it was the only concrete evidence against Bernard Laroche. He denied being involved in Grégory’s murder or being The Crow, and was released on February 4, 1985 for lack of evidence.
Jean-Marie Villemin believed wholeheartedly that his cousin had killed Grégory, and his vitriol towards him was obvious in interviews. On March 29, 1985, Jean-Marie ambushed Laroche as he was leaving for work, shooting and killing him. He was arrested shortly after, and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released after serving two and a half, in December 1987.
The Nation Turns on Christine
Meanwhile, handwriting experts had changed their findings. They now implicated Grégory’s mother, Christine Villemin, in the writing of The Crow letters. While her husband was imprisoned for the murder of Bernard Laroche, Christine was charged with the murder of her son. While awaiting trial, she launched a hunger strike that lasted 11 days, despite the fact that she was pregnant at the time.
Despite the public’s liking for the theory that Christine had killed her son, there was very little evidence to support the allegations. Re-enactments of Christine’s movements that day made it clear that it would have been nearly impossible for her to commit the murder and be home in time to report her son missing. Further, there was no coherent motive for her to kill Grégory – there was no family strife, no life insurance, and no evidence of psychosis.
In the face of all of this, an appeals court freed Christine, but the ordeal was not over for her. The media launched what amounted to a smear campaign. She was appearing in articles and on magazine covers all over the world, all speculating about how and why she had killed her son.
When her second son was born, photos of her with the baby were again splashed all over the tabloids. Some even worried that she was an unfit mother that would kill the new baby, just as she had killed Grégory. Fortunately, the French justice system did not agree with the court of public opinion, and Christine was cleared of all charges on February 2, 1993.
With both Bernard Laroche and Christine Villemin seemingly ruled out, the case began to turn cold. There were plenty of suspects, but no evidence against any of them. The work on the case turned completely into speculation – there are still forums today that run rampant with conspiracy theories and rumors about various suspects.
In 2000, there was new hope: DNA testing. The case was reopened to allow testing to be done on a stamp that had been used to send one of the letters from The Crow. Unfortunately, this hope was unfounded. The testing on the stamp proved inconclusive, as there was not enough DNA material to form a profile.
In 2008, the Villemins applied to have the case reopened again. This time, DNA testing was to be done on the rope used to bind Grégory, the letters, and various other pieces of evidence. This testing again proved inconclusive, as did tests conducted on Grégory’s clothes and shoes in 2013.
On June 14, 2017, three people were arrested – Jacqueline and Marcel Jacob, Grégory’s great aunt and uncle. The pair were charged with kidnapping and an additional charge of confinement. Both denied involvement and were remanded in custody.
The new development came from new analysis techniques used on The Crow’s letters and phone calls, which indicated that there were two authors, a man and a woman. Progress had also been made thanks to the use of a new artificial intelligence-driven analysis program called Analyst’s Notebook, or ANB. The program places all the suspects in time and space before, during, and after a crime and uncovers inconsistencies and evidence that could have been missed by a human analyst.
It’s uncertain what exactly this evidence encompasses, and there has been no news as to what will happen to the Jacobs. We can only watch and wait for what comes next. Meanwhile, in 2018, Murielle Bolle published a book about her experiences with the Grégory Villemin case. She stills proclaims her innocence, and the innocence of Bernard Laroche. The debates about her involvement remain.
35 years after the crime, the murder of Grégory Villemin remains burned in France’s cultural subconscious. The senseless killing of an innocent child, surrounded by family strife and jealousy, has fueled hundreds of articles, books, and documentaries. It’s unknown whether the identity of The Crow, and thus of the killer, will ever be known, though the recent developments in the case give hope that it will one day be resolved.