Ex-judge in unsolved 1984 French toddler murder case found dead

A judge who investigated the unsolved murder of a four-year-old boy has been found dead shortly after a dramatic development occurred in the case

French judge Jean-Michel Lambert shown during the 1984 reconstruction of the murder of Gregory Villemin, 4, in the Vologne river in Lepanges-sur-Vologne
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French magistrate Jean-Michel Lambert, 65, has been found dead with a plastic bag over his head late Tuesday in his apartment in Le Mans, France.

Lambert was the legal official who first investigated the 1984 murder of Gregory Villemin, known in France as “Little Gregory”, a case that became a long-running staple of the French newspapers.

Villemin was found drowned in the cold waters of the Vologne river in eastern France in October 1984. His hands and feet had been bound.

The case captured the French public’s attention and is known as one of the country's most notorious post-war murder mysteries. The hunt to find suspects was made more difficult by the web of fierce family rivalries, anonymous phone calls denouncing each other, and false leads.

Lambert was 32 and the only investigating magistrate in the district when the case opened. He was accused by some of bungling the investigation into the small boy's murder.

The case was eventually put in the hands of another investigating judge, Maurice Simon. Simon’s work, which is what the current investigation is based on, often contradicted that of Lambert’s.

Earlier this year, nearly 33 years after the murder, police arrested Marcel Jacob, an uncle of Gregory's father, and his wife in an area of the Vosges mountains.

A month later, Lambert's body has been found by a neighbour. Police are investigating but local media report that there were no signs of a break-in, nor any signs of a struggle.

“I'm devastated. It's infinitely sad ... I have no animosity towards him,” said Thierry Moser, the lawyer acting for the dead boy's parents. He added: “I criticise the conclusions he drew from his investigation but I won't ever criticise the man.”

On the evening of October 16, 1984, Gregory’s parents – Christine and Jean-Marie Villemin – received a chilling, taunting phone call from an unidentified person, informing them “I have taken the boy.”

After a massive police search, his body was found in the river about 7km from the family home in Lépanges-sur-Vologne.

The day after, the couple received an anonymous letter addressed to Jean-Marie. “I hope you die of grief, boss. Your money can’t give you back your son. Here is my revenge, you stupid bastard.”

For four years before the murder, the Villemins had been plagued by anonymous phone calls, some of which they managed to record. Voice experts have been unable to identify the caller and DNA tests on the letter’s stamp have been inconclusive.

A month after the killing a cousin of the boy's father, Bernard Laroche, was arrested when his sister-in-law, Muriel Bolle, testified against him, and handwriting analysis suggested Laroche had a strikingly similar signature to that found at the bottom of the letter.

The following year she retracted her statement and he was released. Shortly afterwards, Laroche was shot dead by the boy's father. He was jailed for the shooting.

Investigators working on the case in 2017 are trying to understand why she rescinded her accusation. Prosecutors believe she was forced to do so by relatives and she was placed under police investigation last month. Her lawyer says he intended to call Lambert as a witness.

After Laroche was murdered, Judge Lambert then turned the inquiry towards the boy's mother, Christine Villemin. She was accused of carrying out his murder in 1985 but was cleared eight years later.

In 1987 Lambert was replaced by Simon, who wrote at the time in his personal notebooks of Lambert's "intellectual disorder", according to French news channel BFMTV.

"I am in the midst of a miscarriage of justice in all its horror," he wrote of the accusations made against Gregory's mother.

The case was reopened in 2010 to take advantage of new DNA techniques.

Current investigators have questioned around 100 witnesses, some for the first time. They also analysed more than 2,000 anonymous letters received by those involved in the affair, including some to magistrates working on the case.

The boy's great-uncle Marcel Jacob and his wife Jacqueline were placed under formal investigation for kidnapping resulting in death. They were later released from custody.

Ginette Villemin, half-sister to Gregory's father Jean-Marie Villemin, was also detained in the same region, police sources told AFP.

Gregory's grandparents were questioned but were later released.

Muriel Bolle was also arrested. Fifteen at the time of the murder, she declared her innocence and went on hunger strike. It ended on Tuesday, the same day the former judge was found dead.