French cold case: Arrests over 1984 killing of 4-year-old

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It seemed to be the coldest of cold cases, an intractable criminal riddle that long gripped France and swallowed up countless police hours, all without answering the essential question: Who killed 4-year-old Gregory Villemin in 1984?

Until this week, when more than 32 years after the child's body, bound hand and foot, was pulled from a freezing river in eastern France, police arrested his aunt, a great-aunt and a great-uncle.

Prosecutor Jean-Jacques Bosc, the latest of many investigators to have worked on what is known in France as the "Little Gregory" case, told a news conference Thursday that he still doesn't know the identity of the killer or killers.

"It's a very complicated case," he said. "I haven't come here to tell you, 'I've solved the Villemin case. I know who did it.' I don't know."

But new tests conducted since the case was reopened in 2008 have produced "interesting" results, he said. Specifically, handwriting analysis on an anonymous death threat that was sent to the Villemin family in the year before the child's death led investigators to the great-aunt now in detention, he said.

The investigations "appear to show that several people contributed in carrying out the crime," he said. "I think we are getting closer to the truth."

Testifying to France's continued fascination with the case: The new twist got top billing on afternoon news shows Thursday, with the prosecutor's news conference broadcast live and commentators poring over diagrams of the Villemin family tree to show how those detained were linked to the child.

The case was reopened in 2008 to make use of improved forensic techniques, notably in DNA and handwriting analysis.

DNA tests produced no new leads, the prosecutor said. Handwriting analysis was more fruitful. As well as the lead that led to the great-aunt, it also showed that Gregory's grandmother, Monique Villemin, "could" be the author of an anonymous death threat sent in 1989 to an investigator who worked on the case, the prosecutor said. The grandmother was questioned by police on Wednesday but not arrested, he said.

The investigation has involved family rivalries, judicial bungling and 12,000 pieces of evidence — including about 2,000 anonymous letters. A relative was initially jailed but released — and then killed by Gregory's father. Then Gregory's mother was accused of killing her son, before being cleared.

For now, officials aren't saying what will happen next. The prosecutor said he would give another update Friday, when the period of detention for those arrested was due to end.