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COLUMN ONE : The Long Shadow of ‘The Crow’ : For years, the Villemin family was terrorized by an anonymous letter writer who claimed responsibility for their little boy’s death. Now a French court struggles to resolve this tale of murder and revenge.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Crow knew the Villemin family intimately. He knew when they were home and where they dined. And he also knew their secrets.

He knew how they shunned a relative born out of wedlock. He knew about the grandfather who hanged himself and the son who had begun putting on airs since his promotion to factory foreman.

The Crow hated them all, especially the ambitious son, whom he called “the little boss.”

For four years, in hundreds of anonymous letters and phone calls boiling with anger and jealousy, The Crow terrorized the Villemins. And he often threatened murder.

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“He was near us, that is certain,” said Albert Villemin, patriarch of the clan, an extended family of factory workers scattered among the deceptively quiet villages of the Vosges Mountains. “Every single word we said at home, he knew.”

Then, one autumn evening, The Crow slipped his last letter into a box at the Lepanges post office. Four hours later, the authorities found 4-year-old Gregory Villemin, the only son of “the little boss,” in the chilly waters of the Vologne River. The boy’s hands and feet were bound with rope, and a woolen cap was pulled down over his face.

Gregory’s father, Jean-Marie Villemin, received the letter the next day. It read: “I hope that you will die from sorrow, boss. Even your money cannot give you back your son. This is my vengeance. . . .”

Nine years have passed since little Gregory was buried with Kiki, his stuffed toy monkey, in the church cemetery here, high on a hill above the river.

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Now, for the first time, a judge and jury, sitting in the 16th-Century Palais de Justice in Dijon, are hearing all the grisly details, all the fragments of evidence and all the accusations that have fascinated this nation for nearly a decade.

At first, back in 1984, authorities accused Bernard Laroche, one of Jean-Marie’s cousins. The charge was dropped, but Gregory’s distraught father wasn’t going to let him get away. He calmly waited at Laroche’s house and fatally shot him.

Then, officials turned their attention to Christine Villemin, Gregory’s mother. In 1985, she was charged with killing her son, but earlier this year that charge was dropped too.

Technically, all that is left for the judge and jury in Dijon to decide is the fate of Jean-Marie, who admits killing his cousin to avenge his son’s murder.

But Judge Olivier Ruyssen, in a rare departure for French justice, has turned this trial into a freewheeling public investigation into “l’affaire Gregory.”

Who is The Crow? Who killed Gregory? And did French justice fail the Villemin family?

Judge Ruyssen, son of a decorated admiral and one of the country’s most respected jurists, has vowed to find the answers.

“This abominable affair has been made of suspicions and gossip,” Ruyssen said. “We must take advantage of this trial to wash it out. Only the truth can bring a bit of peace from all this sadness.”

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The case of a little boy’s death, the anonymous and terrifying Crow, the quintessential French family feud and the gossipy small town of Lepanges have enthralled the nation.

Tour buses still visit Gregory’s gravestone. And, from the cafes of Paris and Marseilles to the tiniest rural villages, the French still debate the case.

Many believe that Christine wrote the anonymous letters, then killed her son--perhaps to spite her husband. Others blame Laroche. And still others believe that the true culprit has yet to be unmasked.

Even today, copycat “Crows” plague some family members, other witnesses and even the judge.

Ruyssen has put the French justice system itself on trial.

Along with pathologists, relatives and handwriting experts, the court has heard from the prosecutor who bungled the original investigation, police who may have pressured witnesses and reporters who traded information for access to the Villemin family.

“When prosecutors are called to testify,” as Le Monde, the respected French daily newspaper, observed recently, “it is not a sign of the good health of justice.”

Outside the courthouse, built by one of the last dukes of Burgundy, dozens of spectators wait in subfreezing temperatures for the chance to squeeze onto the hard benches of the gallery.

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Ruyssen, his two assistants and nine jurors sit on risers facing the courtroom. Each of those 12 people will have a vote when the trial concludes this month.

On one side of the courtroom are the five black-robed lawyers representing Jean-Marie.

The 35-year-old defendant, who wears wire-rimmed glasses, conservative suits and a stoic expression, sits behind them in a bulletproof glass box. He has already spent 2 1/2 years in jail for his cousin’s death.

Jean-Marie’s attorneys hope to prove that their client had good reason to take the law into his own hands because Laroche was, in fact, Gregory’s killer.

Across from them is Laroche’s widow, Marie-Ange, and her four lawyers. She doesn’t blame her husband’s killer.

Instead, she blames an incompetent investigation and the media for whipping Villemin into a murderous frenzy, for which he could be sentenced to life in prison.

“One must be human in this affair,” Marie-Ange said during a break in the proceedings. She agrees with Jean-Marie’s lawyer that the defendant “is not a killer. He’s a victim.”

But her goal is to clear her husband’s name.

The case’s roots are several hundred miles away, in Lepanges, population 1,017, one of dozens of villages among the low mountains, evergreen forests and winding rivers near the German border.

It was here that the trouble began within Gregory’s extended family of more than 100 cousins, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers.

The Villemins and their kin are part of what the French fondly call la France profonde --average people, the silent majority, punching time clocks in the area’s iron, steel and textile factories.

Gregory’s grandfather, Albert Villemin, was the first to receive the anonymous letters and phone calls in 1979, but other relatives, especially Gregory’s father, were harassed.

The calls to Albert stopped abruptly after the police tapped his phone. But the letters continued to arrive, rambling missives written in longhand in low-class slang.

They urged Albert to disown his son, Jean-Marie. They chided him and the rest of the family for mistreating a son born to the elder Villemin’s wife before they were married.

Though the letters were never signed, the family began referring to the writer simply as le corbeau , or “the crow.” The name came from “Le Corbeau,” a 1943 film in which a small French village is terrorized by an anonymous letter writer who signs himself “The Crow.” The movie, made in Occupied France during World War II, has been shown on French television a dozen times over the years, inspiring successive generations of crows.

Everyone in the Villemin family knew about the letters and calls, and each had his own suspect.

But one thing was certain: The Crow hated Jean-Marie.

Jean-Marie, slightly built, was 26 at the time. He had recently become foreman, a $15,000-a-year job, in a car upholstery factory.

Ambitious and intelligent, he made no secret of his success.

He and Christine, who worked in a textile mill, had a new $50,000 house, and he liked to point out that his dining room furniture was oak and his couches were leather.

The couple had one son. Gregory, a bright, delightful youngster with long, curly brown hair, was the apple of his father’s eye.

Bernard Laroche, Jean-Marie’s cousin, was also a factory foreman. In fact, Bernard and Jean-Marie played together as children. But they had grown apart over the years.

Laroche was an unkempt, often profane man with a mustache. He and his wife had a 4-year-old child who was slightly retarded.

They didn’t socialize with Jean-Marie and Christine, but one of Jean-Marie’s brothers was a good friend of Laroche. And Laroche chafed at the way he was treated by the other Villemins.

“They’ve got what they deserved,” he shouted at Jean Ker, a writer for the weekly magazine Paris-Match, soon after Gregory’s murder. “They’ve paid for what they’ve done. I’m the poor stupid fool, because each time they (the Villemins) need me, I come. And they never invite me to their house on Sundays.”

Gregory was playing outside the house that October day in 1984, around sunset, when he was abducted. His mother said she was inside, ironing and listening to the radio.

The body was found at 9 p.m. in the Vologne River, about four miles downstream from Lepanges.

There were no bruises on the body, and pathologists attributed death to drowning and contact with the cold water.

But experts disagreed about whether Gregory had drowned in the river or in tap water; the water in his lungs contained none of the microscopic organisms one would expect to find in river water.

The local gendarmes, the soldiers who work as police in small French towns, were called to investigate.

Although they assigned 50 officers to the case, they were swiftly outnumbered by reporters. And the young prosecutor reveled in the attention, often leaking confidential documents.

A few days later, the gendarmes found a hypodermic syringe and empty vial of insulin in a box near the riverbank. An injection of insulin could have rendered the child unconscious, the pathologists said, but it would not be detectable during the autopsy. None of the pathologists had thought to look for needle marks on the body.

Laroche emerged as a suspect after his sister-in-law, Murielle Bolle, then 15, admitted that he had picked her up after school that day and that they had picked Gregory up from his front yard and driven to the river. Laroche and Gregory took a walk, and Laroche returned alone, she said. Laroche had no alibi.

But after a few days at home with her parents, her sister and Laroche, Bolle recanted. She said the gendarmes had forced her to implicate Laroche.

He was released for lack of evidence. The prosecutor took the investigation out of the hands of the gendarmes and gave it over to their rivals, the national police, who immediately focused their attention on Christine.

The case against her was weak. Police found strands of rope, similar to that used on Gregory, in the Villemin attic, though many believe that the police planted them in their determination to find a culprit in the highly publicized case. Four of Christine’s co-workers said they saw her mailing a letter at the local post office, about the time Gregory disappeared. Christine couldn’t remember what was said on the radio program she claimed to have been listening to when her son was kidnaped.

To the police, and to many in France, that was evidence she was The Crow.

She was portrayed by newspapers and magazines, with the help of the prosecutor, as an evil witch who harbored a deep-seated anger for her husband. Even Marguerite Duras, the well-known author of “The Lover,” traveled to the Villemin home and, without talking to Christine, wrote an article pronouncing her guilty.

As suspicions around Christine grew, Jean-Marie became obsessed with killing Laroche.

Mired in sorrow over the death of his child, and fed daily by rumors delivered by reporters, Jean-Marie decided that Laroche’s lawyers, the police and the prosecutor were conspiring to cover up Laroche’s guilt.

Jean-Marie bought a shotgun and plotted several times to kill his cousin.

“The Crow said I would die of grief,” Jean-Marie testified. “Maybe. But I wanted to have him first. It’s true. I wanted to have him.”

Laroche, 29, was fatally shot in front of his wife and father-in-law on his front lawn in March, 1985, five months after Gregory’s death. On his gravestone, his family wrote: “Here rests Bernard Laroche, innocent victim of a blind hatred.”

Four months later, Christine was charged with murdering her son. Pregnant with her second child, she was jailed for a few days, then released.

By the time charges against Christine were dropped, last February, the Villemins had moved to a town near Paris and had two children.

Christine wrote a book, “Let Me Tell You,” declaring her innocence, though a court later ordered her to give the proceeds to Laroche’s children.

Jean-Michel Lambert, the first prosecutor, known as a juge d’instruction in French law, was replaced after Christine was charged. But in his autobiography, “The Little Judge,” he said he remains convinced of her guilt.

In court in Dijon recently, Lambert, now a magistrate, defended his early investigation. But other witnesses contended that the inexperienced prosecutor, then 32, had made many errors.

Among other things, Lambert had stopped pathologists from collecting enough samples at the autopsy. Referring to Lambert’s book, Judge Ruyssen observed: “The case can do without this literary monument.”

The only thing both sets of attorneys--and the French newspapers, magazines and television stations--agree on is that justice has failed the Villemin family.

“It’s stupidity,” said Paul Prompt, the Laroche family attorney. “All the mistakes in an investigation that could have been made have been made here.”

Henri-Rene Garaud, Villemin’s lawyer and one of France’s most respected litigators, added: “The institutions only function if the people in them function. In this case, the people didn’t function.”

Meanwhile, the trial in Dijon has been filled with contradictory testimony.

Under Ruyssen’s rules, no topic is off limits. Witnesses with conflicting testimony have been called together to provoke debates, and the judge, jurors and even the defendant join lawyers in chiming in with questions.

But few believe that the crucial riddles--who killed Gregory and who was The Crow--will be answered.

“The judge is like everyone else who has come to this case,” said Pierre Bois, a court reporter for Le Figaro, a Paris daily newspaper. “He wants to know the truth. But it will never happen.”

Murielle Bolle holds fast to her latest story, saying she took the bus home from school the day of Gregory’s murder and was never with Laroche.

But the bus driver said she wasn’t on the bus, and a neighbor testified that he saw a mustachioed man and a red-haired girl, fitting the descriptions of Bolle and Laroche, park outside the Villemins’ house that day.

A nurse who treated Bolle’s diabetic mother in the early 1980s testified that she had showed Bolle how to administer insulin. But she no longer remembered if it was before Gregory’s death, as she told Paris-Match, or after. (The personal lives of few have been unaffected. The nurse also admitted to having an affair with the brother of a Paris-Match photographer and, later, one of the investigating gendarmes.)

Christine angrily denounced accusations from four handwriting experts that she wrote the last letter from The Crow to her husband. A fifth handwriting expert isn’t sure. And she contends her co-workers are confused about the day she was at the post office.

But the most emotional moment has been reserved for Jean-Marie. The ordinarily strait-laced defendant delivered a tearful monologue of grief and anger, saying he decided to kill Laroche after visiting Gregory’s grave.

“I thought he spoke to me and told me, ‘Go ahead, Papa,’ ” he said.

He blamed the prosecutor, the police and the media for egging him on and leaving him no alternative but to kill the man he still believes is guilty.

“Gregory was lively, tender,” Jean-Marie said, pausing periodically to sob before collecting himself. “He grew up in happiness. You always had to eat lollipops with him. He danced to Michael Jackson music. I can show you the tape. He was a marvelous child.”


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