The gunman who murdered three members of a British family on holiday in the French Alps has "without doubt" killed before, French investigators have said as they focused on theories that the shootings were a random act by a deranged killer.
Detectives investigating the killing of Saad al-Hilli, his wife Iqbal, her mother Suhaila al-Allaf and French cyclist Sylvain Mollier say they have still not managed to establish a motive for the murders two months ago.
But renewed attention is being focused on the possibility the gunman was a lone psychopath, rather than a professional hitman hired as a result of a financial dispute or international espionage.
The al-Hilli’s two daughters Zainab, seven, and Zeena, four, survived the shootings and are now back in Britain.
Eric Maillaud, the French prosecutor leading the investigation, told the BBC: “Without doubt we are looking for someone who has killed before, someone who puts no value on human life.
“We are not sure whether that means it’s a professional hit but if it was done on a contract it was very badly done. We are looking for unbalanced people – capable of extreme violence.
“People who have access to weapons; hunters, collectors, shooting club members, some of whom could have had psychiatric problems. We are searching a huge area stretching into Switzerland and Italy – and that includes a large number of people.”
However, Mr Maillaud admitted that police, who have taken 800 witness statements and examined hours of CCTV footage, are still struggling to establish the reason why Mr al-Hilli and his family were targeted.
He said: “We are further than day one, but still no motive. When I have the motive, then I’ll have my suspect. But for now, all lines of inquiry remain open.”
Forensic tests of bullet trajectories, position of the bodies and tyre tracks from the al-Hilli’s vehicle have revealed that Zainab and her father were outside the car when the gunman approached, firing from the forest trail above them.
Mr al-Hilli appears to have bolted for the car before reversing in a u-turn and possibly running over Mr Mollier.
The car slammed into the bank at the rear of the forest lay-by, where its rear axle became stuck – allowing the gunman to shoot Mr al-Hilli, Iqbal and Mrs al-Allaf at close range.
Zainab has told British police that she was outside the car with her father when the shooting began, and that she was pistol-whipped and shot in the shoulder.
Some have suggested that the attackers might have been torturing her to pressure her father, and that the situation then spiralled out of control, possibly when Mr Mollier stumbled on the scene.
Although the Frenchman bore the brunt of the gunfire police have ruled him out as the target.
Mr Maillaud: “We are 99 per cent sure he was nothing to do with it.”
Mr al-Hilli, 50, was a Baghdad-born satellite engineer, who had moved to Britain with his parents when he was a boy.
One theory is that Mr al-Hilli had arranged a meeting with Mr Mollier to exchange nuclear and technological secrets.
But colleagues and relatives of both men have denied that they were involved in any secretive work and it seemed unlikely that Mr al-Hilli would take his entire family to such a potentially sensitive rendezvous.
Initial reports pointed strongly towards the murder being a professional “hit”.
In particular, it was noted that Mr al-Hilli, Iqbal, 47, and his mother in law Suhaila, 74, were each killed with a so-called “double tap” of two bullets to the head each — a classic hit man’s technique.
However, as The Sunday Telegraph revealed shortly after the killing, the murder weapon, a Luger PO8, was a First World War relic — liable to jam, comparatively easy to trace, and not the first choice of professional assassins.
The gunman also left behind spent cartridges – vital clues for the police – and did not kill all the witnesses, as both daughters survived the attack.
Photos recovered from a digital camera found at the scene show the family smiling in front of a pretty flower-covered stone farmhouse, suggesting they had not been lured to the remote forest site but had spent the day happily sightseeing.
Another theory suggested that the death of Saad al-Hilli was connected to an inheritance dispute.
Khadim al-Hilli, Saad’s father, had died a year before, leaving a £1 million home in Claygate, Surrey, plus cash in a Swiss bank account.
Mr al-Hilli was reported to have changed the locks on his doors before he left, and frozen his father’s estate — blocking his brother Zaid from accessing his share of the inheritance until lawyers resolved the dispute.
But Zaid al-Hilli immediately handed himself over to Surrey police for questioning once his name was mentioned, and has vehemently denied having anything to do with his brother’s death.
Mae Faisal El-Wailly, who was a childhood friend of the al-Hillis in Baghdad, and rekindled her friendship with them in later life, told The Telegraph from her home in Arizona that she did not believe Zaid had anything to do with Saad’s murder.
Relations between Saad and his brother Zaid were said to be strained, with the two communicating through lawyers.
“But it was just a bit of a row,” she said. “There is no way it would escalate like that. I know Zaid, it’s nothing to do with him. I just think Saad got into something over his head.”
While Mr Maillaud, has dismissed suggestions that such a cash fund even existed, one theory holds that a criminal gang might have become convinced that Mr al-Hilli knew the fund’s whereabouts and tried to extract information on how to access it from him.
Another scenario lies in the claim that the Annecy area used to be known as a secret hiding stash for Basque terrorist weapons.
Questions are being asked as to whether the al-Hillis and Mr Mollier could have all been unfortunate passers-by, stumbling upon an illicit act.
By Patrick Sawer Telegraph.co.uk