COLD CASE- Justice for Christelle

For 18 years, a pair of maverick lawyers helped a mother hunt for her daughter’s killer

Lucy Ash Updated: Dec 20, 2022 22:50:15 IST
2022-12-20T22:43:27+05:30
2022-12-20T22:50:15+05:30
COLD CASE- Justice for Christelle

Christelle Blétry quickly adjusted her hair in the mirror, then shouted “Goodbye!” to her parents, Marie-Rose and Gilles, before slamming the front door. It was cold that evening of 27 December 1996, and the 20-year-old with a dark bob and wide smile, wearing the new jeans she got for Christmas, looked forward to spending some time with her friends.

 

Christelle, her parents, and younger siblings lived in the small town of Blanzy, near the Burgundy wine routes of east-central France.  She loved tennis, dancing in night- clubs and ballads by Celine Dion and French singer-songwriter Jean- Jacques Goldman. She volunteered for the Restos du Coeur charity and was planning to train in Lyon as a paediatric nurse.

That evening, Christelle hung out at her friend Séverine’s apartment in the town centre, along with three guys who were also close friends, en- joying a movie and chatting over po- tato chips and a few beers. At about midnight, as Christelle headed out for the 15-minute walk home, she said her goodbyes. It was the last time she was seen alive. 

"Talk to her friends again,”

the officer advised Marie-Rose Blétry when she called the police the next morning. He sounded bored. But Christelle’s mother was in a panic after finding her daughter’s bed empty. She called the hospitals and probed Séverine.

“Christelle said she was worried about her ex-boyfriend who was stalking her,” Séverine told Marie-Rose who, now desperately anxious, called the police several more times. Finally, they asked her to come to the station.

As Marie-Rose waited in the entrance hall, her spine turned to ice when she heard through the crackle of police radios: a body had been found. Minutes later, the local post- man, whom she saw most days on his rounds, walked into the station and told the receptionist that he had come to make a statement about finding a corpse. “Is it my daughter?” cried Marie-Rose. He did not answer.

What happened next was a blur. A sergeant took notes, then told her to go to the hospital to identify a body. She and her husband Gilles endured hellish hours of waiting before the forensic doctor asked them to return the following day. They only found out from the next morning’s paper that their daughter had been stabbed more than 100 times and left by a forest path near the Blétrys’ house.

image-89_121922041902.jpgThe Blétry family in 1993 (left to right): Marie-Rose; Christelle’s brother, Nicolas; Christelle; Gilles; and Christelle’s sister, Myriam.

 

As if the tragedy of Christelle’s death wasn’t horrific enough for the Blétry family, the ensuing police investigation was bungled from the outset. The forensics team was short-staffed because of the holidays, so an anti-fraud squad from Dijon was sent. By then, dozens of people had trampled the crime scene, contaminating vital evidence. Dijon police questioned Christelle’s former boyfriend, but his alibi ruled him out. The investigation stalled.

At first, Marie-Rose was too devastated to leave her bedroom. Getting up, having a shower, dressing—it was all a struggle. But her passivity did not last long. In March 1997 she created the Association Christelle to bring awareness to the crime, to raise funds to finance a search for their daughter’s killer and to find perpetrators of other unsolved murders.

The family was not well off—Marie Rose was a part-time secretary and Gilles worked in construction—and they wanted to hire a lawyer to help them navigate the judicial system.

To raise money, friends and relatives sold flowers and pastries and organised garage sales and dinner dances. But the first lawyer they hired seemed out of her depth, while the second asked for a huge fee despite not making any progress.

Then, one day in 2001—four years after her daughter’s murder— Marie-Rose saw a TV report about an intrepid female legal investigator in Paris, and immediately knew she wanted to hire her. At long last, the Blétrys felt a glimmer of hope that one day they might find justice for Christelle.

Corinne Herrmann has been called ‘Queen of the Cold Cases’in France. The 59-year-old, who became a lawyer in 2010, first attracted attention in her mid-30s for her dogged work as a legal analyst on a cold case. ‘The Missing Women from the Yonne’ case had been abandoned by the justice system.

Between 1975 and 1979, seven young women with learning difficulties who were in the care of social services had gone missing in Yonne department, southeast of Paris. Most of them had no close relatives and local authorities recorded them as run- aways. In the 1990s, when Herrmann heard about the disappearances, she began digging. She reconstructed each victim’s history in detail, studied documents, went on stakeouts and even consulted a private detective.

Herrmann was convinced the perpetrator was a serial killer but was confronted with official apathy. She recalls how one examining judge “didn’t even bother to pretend he would investigate. For the justice system, these girls never existed.”

Eventually, in 2004, the work of Herrmann and her colleague Didier Seban paid off: A retired bus driver named Émile Louis, who had shuttled the young women between their hostels and a day-care centre, was convicted of their murders and given a life sentence.

The two lawyers are fighting what they see as a travesty of indifference when it comes to what the French call affaires classées—things that are filed away. Cold cases, which are unsolved investigations that remain open pending discovery of new evidence, may make gripping TV drama but break- throughs are rare in real life.

Herrmann and Seban, co-authors of Nous, Avocats des Oubliés (We,Lawyers of the Forgotten), believe that the way evidence is stored is partly to blame. Herrmann recalls being in the basement of a provincial court building where a serial killer was being tried. There, she saw a dirty beige sofa, which had been taken from a crime scene, surrounded by dusty chairs and half-opened boxes. “It looked like a flea market,” she recalls.

image-91_121922042006.jpgCorinne Herrmann has been called France’s “Queen of the Cold Cases.”

Items of evidence from civil and criminal cases are often not organised, she says; a bicycle from an accident standing next to a blood-stained handbag; a rifle used in a murder laying on the rotten wooden frame of a stolen table. She says that forensics teams are often instructed by prosecutors not to collect too much evidence in order to save money.

The combination of cost-cutting and apathy means it is up to victims’ families to appeal to the media and galvanise authorities and police. According to the Ministry of Justice, there are more than 200 murders under investigation in France. “But it is impossible to know the true figure,” says Jacques Dallest, the city of Grenoble’s attorney general, who recently chaired a working group on improving the management of back- logged cases. Among 26 recommendations in his March 2021 report to the ministry was a call for the creation of specialised cold-case units across the country.

In France, 550 juges d’instruction (judges who are also investigators) deal with at least 100 cases at once, ranging from unsolved homicides his passion is cold cases, and since Herrmann joined his practice, they have worked to retrieve files gathering dust in prosecutors’ offices. Herrmann focuses on investigative work while Seban generally represents murder victims in court, often for free.

In France, 20 years after a murder, alleged culprits usually cannot be tried; until 2017, the time limit was just 10 years. (In many countries with an Anglo-Saxon system of law there is no deadline by which such to everyday crimes. Herrmann and Seban have long called for some investigating judges to exclusively handle cold cases. They argue that when judges are moved from place to place every few years, vital intelligence about a region’s past crimes is lost. Dallest agrees: “We have to be sure we can find stuff years later. A cold case is spread out over time.”

The walls of the Paris office Herrmann and Seban share are covered with maps. Photographs of victims are stuck on them, and red dots mark the locations of dozens of crimes and disappearances. Though Seban runs a large law firm, crimes must be tried.) Inherited from Roman times and enshrined under Napoleon, the French principle is that the chances of finding a perpetrator diminish with time.

But such arguments are obsolete today, thanks to advances like DNA tracing and access to cell-phone data. Seban denounces such “legal amnesia.” “Perpetrators should not have that right,” he says.

Herrmann is often asked why she is devoted to seemingly hopeless cases. “It’s curiosity, but also outrage for the families deprived of justice,” she says. Her empathy stems in part from an incident in her childhood. At age 14 she took her little sister shopping but lost sight of her. The girl was kidnapped by a man who thought she was a boy because of her short hair. Disappointed, the paedophile released her hours later and was never caught.

“You never forget an incident like that,” says Herrmann. “Our family was never the same afterwards.”

image-93_121922042632.jpgLeft to right: Lawyers Corinne Herrmann and Didier Seban, and Marie-Rose Blétry, attend a press conference in 2014 after a suspect was arrested for Christelle’s murder.

In August 2001, Marie-Rose and Gilles Blétry travelled to Paris and met with Herrmann, who immediately agreed to take the case. But despite several meetings with officials from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior, and senators, the Blétrys and Herrmann made little headway. For one thing, they wanted DNA analysis of Christelle’s clothes.

Because her jeans had been new, any DNA on them was likely that of her killer. But the authorities said it was too expensive, insisting that because Christelle was found fully dressed, there had been no sexual assault.

The turning point came when a new judge accepted Herrmann’s request. One September day in 2014, Marie Rose and Herrmann were summoned to the judge’s office, who gently told them that a lot of DNA had been found. It came from semen matching a police database sample, and it belonged to a 54-year-old named Pascal Jardin, who had been arrested. The man who robbed Marie-Rose of her daughter had finally been found.

Says Marie-Rose now, the revelation of the rape was horrible, “but it helped us identify her killer.”

image-95_121922042721.jpg

At the time of the murder, Jardin was 36 and lived in Le Creusot, a short drive from the Blétrys’ home. He worked for a frozen-food company and was the son of a policeman. His profile had been in the database since 2004, the year he was jailed for attempted sexual assault. Released the following year, he moved to southwest France, married and led an ordinary life until his arrest for Christelle Blétry’s murder. On 2 February 2017, he got a life sentence, which was upheld in 2018 and 2019 on appeals.

If Marie-Rose Blétry had waited for justice, the case might have been closed or forgotten years earlier and the murderer might be enjoy- ing his retirement. Now a widow (Gilles died in 2004), she hopes France’s new cold-case unit, opened in March this year, will do better; three judges will focus on “serial and unsolved crimes” at their base in western Paris.

“The pain will be inside me until my last breath,” says Marie-Rose, “but I had to fight for the truth. When you do not know who killed your child, nothing is worse than being ignored.

 

GLOBAL PROBLEM

Unsolved murders are an issue everywhere. For example, accord- ing to FBI data, the United States had 2,50,000 cold cases on the books in 2019. In Latin America and the Caribbean—where roughly 30 per cent of the world’s homicides occur—the sheer volume means law-enforcement agencies cannot investigate each one thoroughly, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

As for Europe, says Jacques Dallest, the attorney general in Grenoble, France, it’s difficult to find reliable figures, partly because each country has its own definition of what a cold case is.

The Netherlands is approaching the problem boldly. To tackle its more than 1,700 cold cases, each Dutch police unit has a dedicated cold-case team with up to 23 investigators, who use a wide variety of tools, including genealogy websites. The feasibility of accessing private DNA databases is being explored. Volunteers such as former police officers and academics re-read cold case files, and police are developing AI tools to comb through files as they are digitised.

Systems need to be overhauled to prevent future tragedies; in France, hopes are high for the new cold-case unit that launched in March. Its three investigating judges have their work cut out for them: 15 to 20 per cent of the country’s murder cases are un- solved each year (of the estimated 800 annual total), so there is a large backlog. For now, the team is working on solving at least 240 cold cases.

“It is important that the justice system shows more empathy to- wards families who have suffered a terrible tragedy,” says Dallest. He believes that specialised magistrates will allow that, and adds that the bereaved deserve respect from police, judges and prosecutors, who should communicate more with families even if they have no new leads. “Sometimes,” he says, “our justice system just seems a bit uncaring.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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