Each year, thousands of Brits flock to the French Alps for their holidays, eager to soak in the tranquil surroundings and take a break from their daily stresses and routine. But in 2012, it became the setting of an unthinkable tragedy, when four people were shot dead on a winding mountain road. This is episode 8 of the Case Remains podcast: the unsolved murders of Suhaila al-Allaf, Saad and Iqbal al-Hilli, and Sylvain Mollier, otherwise known as the Annecy Shootings.
In September of 2012, the Al-Hilli family left their home in Claygate, England, and headed to France’s Lake Annecy for a camping holiday. Annecy is a historical mountain town, with sparkling lakes and rivers, cobbled streets and pastel-painted buildings with a unique, old world charm. The al-Hillis had their own caravan and would often take it away with them to enjoy the great outdoors, and Annecy was the perfect spot for some respite from the daily grind. Altogether there were five family members on the trip: 50-year-old Saad, his 47-year-old wife Iqbal, Iqbal’s 74-year-old mother, Suhaila, and Saad and Iqbal’s two daughters, Zainab, aged 7, and Zeena, aged 4. The 5th of September was a sunny and peaceful afternoon in Annecy, and the al-Hilli’s set out for a drive in their burgundy BMW.
Bret Martin, fellow Englishman and a former RAF pilot, had also decided to make the most of the weather. Bret owned a property nearby and had taken his bike out for a ride. Cycling up ahead of him was French native Sylvain Mollier, who Bret had first spotted in the village of Chevaline. At about 3:30, the al-Hilli’s passed Bret in their car, arriving at a layby on Le Martinet within a couple of minutes. Just 60 seconds later, four people would be dead.
As Bret came up the road at around 3:40, he saw Sylvain’s bicycle lying on its side. He then saw a little girl, Zainab, stumbling around, visibly injured and dazed. The 7-year-old girl had been shot in the shoulder, and hit in the head with a gun. Bret then saw Sylvain lying dead on the ground. Reports vary, but in total, he had been shot between 5 and 7 times. The BMW was backed onto the verge, the car engine still running and the wheels spinning in the earth. Bret went around the side of the car to see if there was anyone inside, and found Suhaila, Saad and Iqbal dead in their seats. Bret put Zainab in the recovery position and tried to call the police, but was unable to get a signal on his phone. Instead, he cycled back to the nearby village to try and get some help for the little girl. En route, he came across a group of French hikers, who called the police at 3:48.
Zainab was rushed to hospital, and police arrived to process the scene. It wasn’t until around midnight that police discovered another survivor. 4-year-old Zena had managed to hide under her mother’s skirt, where she had remained, frozen with fear, for 8 long hours
No one knows where exactly the Al-Hillis had been heading that day, though French police believe that they may have ended up at Le Martinet by mistake. According to what little evidence they could get from 7-year-old Zainab, her father had said he wanted to go for a walk. There were photos on Suhaila’s phone from only half an hour before the murders, the family posing happily in the nearby village of Doussard. The French police soon got to work to try and piece together the series of events.
The evidence suggests that Saad and Zainab were outside of the car when the gunman opened fire, although it’s not exactly clear why. As Saad ran back to the vehicle he tried to drag Zainab, who had been shot in the shoulder, with him, and was then shot once in the lower back as he got into the seat. He attempted to reverse into the layby to turn around and escape, accidentally dragging Sylvain under the car, but the wheels got stuck in the soft earth of the verge. The gunman then shot Saad, Iqbal and Suhaila through the windscreen of the car. They were each shot twice in the head.
Sylvain had already been injured from the initial gunfire, and was laying on the ground when the killer came back and shot him several more times. Zainab was still outside of the car at this point, where the gunman beat her with the handle of the revolver and fled the scene, leaving the 7-year-old girl for dead.
Police weren’t able to find any DNA evidence, but they were able to determine the gun that was used from both the bullet casings and a fragment of the gun’s handle that had come off during the beating. The gun was an unusual choice for a murder weapon - the Luger P06 is a small pistol that was issued to Swiss army officers in the 1920s and 30s. But despite being old, it’s not unheard of to have one - in Switzerland alone there are 30,00 of them, although they are mostly found in museums or in private collections.
But it’s certainly an odd choice for a hitman. The Luger P06 carries 8 cartridges total in the magazine and the barrel, but 21 bullets were fired in the Annecy shootings, meaning that the gunman would have had to reload twice - not exactly ideal for a speedy getaway. One thing is for sure though, whoever did fire the gun was no amateur. 17 of those 21 bullets hit their targets, with absolutely no damage to the Al-Hilli’s car.
No one heard any of the 21 shots that were fired that afternoon. Brett Martin, the cyclist who discovered the scene, was only minutes away, but heard nothing, which at first seemed odd considering they were up in the mountains with no traffic or buildings nearby. However, once the police conducted some tests, they realised that the sound of the river Ire, just 50 feet below the road, was enough to drown out gunfire from where Brett had been.
While the road is up in the mountains, it’s not exactly remote, frequented by hikers and cyclists even outside of the summer holiday season. But it’s well positioned for a getaway. The border of Switzerland, where the gun is likely to have come from, is only a 30 miles drive away, while Italy, too, can be reached in less than an hour and a half.
With no DNA to work with, the police were dependent on the evidence from the gun and eyewitness accounts to try and find out who had committed the murders. Bret remembered seeing a man on a motorbike driving in the opposite direction as he approached the layby where the Al-Hillis and Sylvain were killed. He remembered the man, because he was going, as he put it, abnormally slowly.
A local forestry worker has since said that he was also coming down the road just minutes before the shooting happened. He saw a black and white motorbike pulling into the layby, ridden by a man dressed all in black and with his visor down. He said that he also saw a new looking 4x4 with British licence plates coming from the opposite direction and driving at speed. Though he couldn’t see the driver well, he described him as balding with dark skin. Ten minutes later, a couple of the man's colleagues also saw the man with the motorbike in a spot further along the road. They called out to him, because he was in an area that motor vehicles weren’t allowed, and the man briefly lifted his helmet.
It’s not clear if it was from their description or not, but more than a year after the shootings, police released an e-fit of a man wanted in connection with the murders. The e-fit had been created at the beginning of the investigations, but according to French police, had not been made public for strategic reasons - they were worried that it would give him time to change his appearance and avoid arrest.
The drawing showed a dark haired man with a goatee, and an unusual, dark coloured motorcycle helmet. Police deduced that the only helmet that matched its description was a the ISR-type GPA helmet, that is unique in that it opens from the front. Only 8,000 were ever made in a dark colour. After more than a year of investigations, they were able to identify the man from the e-fit, but he turned out to be a local business owner who was on his way from from a paragliding trip. He was subsequently ruled out of the investigation. With their leads dwindling, the police began to delve into the lives of the Al-Hilli family for clues.
Saad Al-Hilli’s parents were originally from Iraq, and had come to England in the 70s when Saad was a child. They lived a normal family life, his father a businessman, his mother a teacher. Growing up, he had a close relationship with his older brother, Zaid, who he lived with, alongside his family, at the time of the murders.
Saad worked at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited as a freelance industrial designer, and was part of a team working on a secret defence contract for European Aeronautic Defence and Space. Based in the Netherlands, the company builds both commercial and military aircraft, space systems and missiles. Once the French police learned the nature of Saad’s work, they began to suspect that the killings may have been a hit. According to colleagues at Surrey Satellites Technology, Saad’s job was working on basic industrial designs, and didn’t even require him to sign the Official Secrets Act. His brother Zaid confirmed this, saying that he didn’t think his work pertained to any kind of sensitive data.
But back at their campsite, a search of the Al-Hilli’s caravan uncovered a number of computers, USBs and documents - a strange thing to pack for your family caravan holiday. French authorities claimed to have found important information on Saad’s computer that went well beyond anything he would have needed for his work. They began to suspect that maybe Saad had been trying to sell the information to foreign powers, but they have never revealed the nature of the data they found.
The French joined forces with the British police, who found out that there was some lingering conflict over their property back in Iraq. Saad’s father, Khadem, owned several businesses and a house in Bagdad, but after the fall of Saddam Hussein the house was taken over by squatters. Saad had gone back to Iraq to try and reclaim it, but was beaten and threatened by the people who were living in it. Shortly before the trip to France, Saad told a friend that the situation with the house had been ‘sorted’, but didn’t give any information as to how.
This wasn’t the only property battle in the Al-Hilli household. Khadem had bought a flat and retired to Mijas, a mountainside village in Spain, after his wife died in 2003. Saad and Zaid would often go and visit and Zaid had originally found the flat for his dad, putting his own name on the deeds. But when Khadem found out, he insisted that his name be on it as well, so he and Zaid owned the flat together. For some reason, Saad’s name was nowhere to be found.
Khadem had already given the house in Claygate to both brothers when he decided to move to Spain, and they both lived there together alongside Saad’s wife and two children. Khadem came back from Spain to visit the brothers in Claygate the year before the murder, where he allegedly told Saad that Zain had got him to sign a blank will. Saad found the will, and instant messaged a friend with his concerns, telling him he thought it was fraud. He also said that his name did not appear on the will. During the investigation, the French police found two versions of Khadim's will - one with everything split down the middle, and one with everything left to Zain.
The will caused a rift between the two brothers, who stopped talking in October of 2011. On one occasion, Saad called the police to the house after an argument broke out over a document, and Zaid moved out of their Claygate home and into a flat that he, Saad and Kadem had bought. Saad later discovered, however, that once again there was only Zaid’s name on the deeds. A month after Zaid left the Al-Hilli home, Saad changed the locks and installed a security system. In the property, police also found a taser and a stun gun. He confided in a friend that he thought Zaid was going to try and get hold of his half of the house - at a value of approximately £400,000.
Some reports also refer to a number of calls that Zaid made to different numbers in Romania, which mysteriously stopped after the murders had occurred, but it appears that there was no link between those calls and the Annecy shootings.
There was also a link between Switzerland and the Al-Hilli family. Kahdem had opened a bank account in Geneva in 1988, deposited 690,000 pounds, and barely touched it again. A year before Khadem died, a bank worker raised the alarm when a strange request was made for two credit card for the account. The request had come from England, not Spain where Khadem was living, and the worker thought that the signature looked odd. It soon transpired that it was Zaid who had lodged the application, allegedly forging his father’s signature.
Saad had taken the records of the disputed inheritance with them to France and had taken out a legal block on his father’s will. He had also registered his interest in the flat that Zaid had moved into, preventing his brother from selling it. Saad had plans to go and visit the bank in Geneva where their father’s account was held, and called them only 2 days before he was killed.
10 months after the murders, Zaid was arrested, but was released on bail after a couple of days due to a lack of evidence. He has refused to go and be interviewed in France, and at the time of his release, French police stated that he was still their main suspect. Zaid, however, is adamant that Sylvain Mollier holds the key to the murders.
Sylvain’s job, like Saad’s, also brought into question whether it was in fact him who was the target of a hit. Sylvain Mollier was local to the area, and lived just 10 miles from where he was shot dead. While initial reports referred to him as a ‘nuclear scientist’, he actually worked as a technician at a nearby factory that was involved in the nuclear industry. But again, his job wasn’t said to involve any top secret or sensitive information. His family have chosen to keep some details of his life private, and didn't even release a photo of him to the press until 2014.
One thing that immediately struck police as odd was the type of bike that Sylvain had been riding that day. He was on a top of the range racing bike, worth about five thousand euros, which was an unusual choice for up in the mountains, travelling along a rough, potholed road. Though no one can ever know for sure, it brings into question whether that was Sylvain’s intended route that day.
Though it’s not clear where the information has come from, some people have suggested that the wealthy family of Sylvain’s new girlfriend, Claire Schutz, didn’t approve of him, and that it was her father who suggested he take that mountain road on September the 5th.
Police investigated people in the area known to Claire’s family, looking for someone who perhaps had a military background, capable of the kind of precision shooting that occurred in the Annecy murders. Their search brought up a man named Patrice Menegaldo, a former French Foreign Legion soldier living in the same town as Sylvain. In May of 2015, 50-year-old Menegaldo was brought in to the station as a witness and was questioned for an hour before being sent home. Two months later, he wrote a 7-page suicide note before shooting himself in the head. Police say there was no evidence linking him to the murders, and have come to the conclusion that Sylvain was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In another strange detail in the case, Iqbal Al-Hilli’s ex-husband died on the very same day, found slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck in Natchez, Mississippi. Iqbal met James Thompson in 1999, when she was over in the states visiting friends and scoping out locations to set up a dental practice. Their marriage was allegedly one of convenience, so that Iqbal, who was going by the name Kelly, could get a green card and work in America. Following the wedding, James and Iqbal moved into separate bedrooms at James’s parents house. Iqbal didn’t stay in America for long. Her dental qualifications weren’t accepted in Louisiana, where she was living, and her dental assistant salary wasn’t what she had in mind when she had moved there. It was only a few months after the wedding that she decided to return to Dubai, and it was there that she met her second husband, Saad. Some reports suggest that Saad never found out about her marriage to James.
At the time of his death, it was determined that James had suffered a heart attack, and he was shortly laid to rest. But once French police began to investigate the Al-Hilli murders, they began to suspect there could be something more sinister at play. They sent multiple requests to the US authorities that Thompson be exhumed, so that his body could be tested for poisoning, but they were denied.
The years passed with little development in the case until 2017, when French police discovered a potential serial killer in their midst.
34-year-old ex-soldier, Nordhal Lelandais, was questioned in connection the Annecy shootings after being arrested for the kidnap, and subsequently murder, of Maëlys de Araujo. 8-year-old Maelys had been at a wedding when she disappeared in August of that year. Though at first Nordhal denied any involvement, he later admitted to killing the little girl after traces of her DNA were found in his car, and led police to her body in February of 2018.
As police started to look into other crimes in the area, they began to suspect that Nordhal may have been responsible for other murders. An examination of his phone revealed that he had been in the region as 23-year-old Arthur Noyer when he had vanished after hitching a ride from a disco in April of 2017. His skull was found by hikers just five months later. Not only was Nordhal’s car captured on CCTV near the disco, but he had made some disturbing searches on his phone in the couple of weeks following Noyer's disappearance. Included in his search terms was the phrase ‘decomposition of a human body’. He was charged with the murder in December that year, and is also a suspect in the disappearance of two men in 2011 and 2012. Nordhal lived less than an hour's drive away from Annecy, and after his arrest, police announced that they would be looking into any connection between him and the Al-Hilli murders. Although if any link has been found it has not been made public knowledge.
After their ordeal, Zainab and Zeena Al-Hilli were placed in the care of social services, before eventually being allowed to move in with a relative of their mothers. A claim was made on the girls' behalf to the French criminal injuries compensation body, seeking funds that would help support the orphaned girls as they grew up. The first claim was rejected on the grounds that no crime had been established, because no one has been charged for the killings. Though a law firm took the claim directly to a tribunal in 2018, the compensation money, if they are granted it, could take several years to come through. Since the murders, both girls have been given new identities and are said to be doing well.
6 and a half years have now passed since the Annecy shootings, a quadruple murder that rocked a community and tore a family apart. We may never know what really happened on that mountain road - a place once known for its beauty, now haunted by the ghost of an almost perfect crime.