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September 19, 2007 updated June 22, 2009
Nine recent cases of infanticide in France are causing the French to ask what is it in their psyche that makes the nation's mothers kill their newborns.
Infanticide is a crime no one living in France can commit; it is a crime that does not exist. Page through the French Penal Code and you won't even find the word. Yet, mothers killing their newborn babies is a French phenomenon. It is just that in France infanticide is called by another name.
Under Art. 221-4-1 of the French Penal Code, infanticide is qualified as the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15." It is "assassination" and not "homicide," because French law makes a distinction between slaying someone in a burst of sudden anger, like a crime passionnel when a spouse kills an unfaithful partner, and a premeditated taking of life. When there has been no medical supervision during pregnancy, no preparation for the confinement, and the pregnancy was concealed from everyone, even from the father of the child, then, French law declares the slaying as "premeditated." Thus, the crime becomes an "assassination," or, as it would be called in the United States, "first-degree murder." Until France abolished the death sentence in 1977, as a rule, punishment for first-degree murder was death on the guillotine; that of second-degree murder was life imprisonment, perpéte in French underworld slang, though it, too, could have fetched a sentence of capital punishment.
There are, according to legal statistics, between 60 and 100 suspected infanticide cases in France annually. Most of these cases come to light when suspicious hospital staff members draw the police's attention to a patient with gynecology problems that indicate she'd recently given birth despite her denials. For various reasons—cost of an investigation being a major one—the hospital's suspicions do not proceed beyond becoming a statistic in police archives, but, since September 2007, the month this article was first published on crimemagazine.com eleven infanticide cases warranted further investigation and resulted in indictment.
So many cases in such a short period emphasize exactly how real a problem infanticide is in France.
The first 5 of the 11 cases
The first of the eleven cases came to light in July 2006. As it was summer with millions of French on their annual vacation, first reports of the case went almost unnoticed. If it did draw attention then it was only because some "foreigners" were accusing two respectable and respected French nationals of having twice committed infanticide. The "foreigners" were the South Koreans and the alleged infanticides had taken place in Seoul, the South Korean capital. It was there where the two French nationals—Véronique Courjault, 40, and her 41-year-old engineer husband, Jean-Louis—lived and worked. Back in France on home-leave, they were shown on television, looking bewildered as they were being rushed into a police station house. Within hours the presses were rolling to churn out the next day's headlines. The "Babes in the Freezer Case" had begun.
Véronique and Jean-Louis hail from the town of Chinon, on the River Vienne, 177 miles (285 kms) south of Paris. In Chinon, its population of 8,000 live in clusters of 15th and 16th-century houses with gray-slated roofs. Over the roofs tower the ruins of France's oldest fortified castle, the Chateau Chinon. Small may the town be, but it's one with historical significance; it was there that the French maiden, Joan of Arc, told the French king, Charles VII, that God had, with visions and voices, told her to tell him that he must go to war against the hated English invader, then ruling France, so that their country could once again be free.
In Chinon, the Courjault family was known as quiet and decent. The only time a member of the family had perhaps drawn attention was when Mademoiselle Véronique Fiévre dressed in black from head to toe to marry Jean and Geneviéve Courjault's son Jean-Louis, in 1995. What the town's people did not know was that the bride wore black because she was five months pregnant and she hoped that a dark color would hide her rounded stomach.
Véronique and Jean-Louis went to live in Villeneuve-la-Comtesse, a village of 700 rural souls close to France's Atlantic coast and not far from Chinon. Eighteen months after the birth of Jules, the son who had hastened their march down the aisle, the couple appeared to welcome the birth of a second son, Nicolas. Content they seemed, but Jean-Louis lost his job and, as Véronique was a full-time housemother with no salary coming in at the end of each month, doom settled over the household. Not until 1999 when the four set off for South Korea where Jean-Louis took up a job with a Seoul-based car parts manufacturer, did more prosperous and happier days return.
At his work in Seoul, the bespectacled Jean-Louis was highly regarded. Véronique, short, plump, dark-haired and rather plain, was known as a shy but polite member of the local French community. She worked as an auxiliary teacher at a kindergarten for the children of the ex-pats, so far from their homeland. Her colleagues said she was not only an excellent teacher, she was also a super colleague. There was also no doubt in their minds that she was an exemplary mother to her and Jean-Louis's sons, then 9 and 11 respectively.
In June 2006, the four Courjaults back in Chinon on vacation, Jean-Louis had to rush back to Seoul to resolve a crisis at his office. On July 23, back at the family's luxurious apartment, he opened the freezer and nearly fainted. Running to the apartment building's supervisor, he babbled something about the bodies of two babies being in the freezer. The supervisor followed him up to the apartment and, yes, in the freezer, wrapped in plastic bags, were the bodies of two babies. The South Korean police allowed the greatly shocked Jean-Louis to return to France, but not before he had supplied a DNA sample. They already knew that they could obtain Véronique's DNA from a hospital where she had undergone an ablation of the uterus (this procedure makes a woman unable to bear children but without removing the womb). Both the DNA samples matched those of the two dead newborns. Autopsies would establish that the boys had weighed 7.5 lbs and 7.9 lbs (3.4 kilograms and 3.5 kilograms) respectively on birth and had been perfectly formed. Information to be given to French police by Véronique later established that the births had taken place in 2002 and 2003.
The South Korean police, having alerted their French counterparts to the DNA results, and the case being prime-time and front-page news, the Courjaults, still free but indignant, denied that they were the parents of the two murdered newborns. Giving "South Korean media lynching" as reason, they refused to ever return to Seoul. The French public seemed as outraged at the allegations that such a nice couple could have committed such an atrocious crime. French police meanwhile carried out their own DNA tests and theirs confirmed those of the South Korean's.
Promptly arrested, Véronique and Jean-Louis still continued to deny having killed the two newborns. They did not, they insisted, even have any knowledge of the presence of the bodies in their freezer. It took Véronique three months to break down and confess. She said that she suffocated the babies immediately after birth. Jean-Louis, she stated, didn't know about the births; he never even knew that she was pregnant.
She had more to say.
She said that she had already killed a newborn in France before they set off for Seoul. This was in 1999, in the financially troubled time, living in Villeneuve-la Comtesse. As with the two babies in Seoul, she suffocated the baby immediately after birth. She burnt the little body. She had done so in the fireplace in the family home and buried the charred remains in the garden. Police started to dig in the garden and found the remains. Was it a boy or girl? She couldn't remember, she said.
The South Koreans wanted the Courjaults to be extradited to stand trial in Seoul. France, who hardly ever extradites one of her nationals, rejected the extradition request. "We will conduct our own investigation and should our examining magistrate find sufficient evidence to successfully bring this couple to trial, the trial will be held here," the ministry of interior told Seoul.
Duly, Véronique was charged with the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15.” She was to spend her pre-trail detention in the prison of the town of Orléans. Jean-Louis was released sous contrôle judiciaire sans caution—under control order without bail—but he remained under investigation for the "non-assistance to a person in danger" which in the French Penal Code is a punishable offence; the police's investigation was to find whether he could have stopped his wife killing the babies after they'd been born. He went to live at a secret address with the couple's two sons described as "traumatized." Both the Fiévre and Courjault families made it clear that they were supporting him – not only him but also Véronique.
At the end of March 2009, some eight months after he was first arrested, the police announced that their investigation of Jean-Louis's role in the infanticide was over. Chief Prosecutor Philippe Varin had notified Marie-Dominique Boulard-Paolini, the judge on Jean-Louis’ case, that the police had found no evidence that he had known about the killing of the babies. He had not even known that Véronique was pregnant, said the chief prosecutor. There would therefore be no case against him.
"The decision is a great relief after an 18-month nightmare. It is a great relief to everyone, but mostly to my children (two teenage sons) who have suffered because of all of this. After all the things they've heard and read, they are happy to know that their father is innocent. I will now be able to devote all my time to support my wife, who I love," he said in a statement to the media.
Véronique's fate was however to be decided by nine jurors chosen from the voters’ list assisted by a presiding judge and two assessors (magistrates). If they found her guilty of assassination, she could be sent to prison for the rest of her life.
On Tuesday, June 9, 2009, an unseasonable cool and rainy summer’s day, Véronique Courjault was driven in a small police car 71 miles (115 kms) to the town of Tours; her trial was to commence. The round journey of 142 miles she would have to make each day for the duration of her trial, which was expected to last two weeks. When she stepped into the courtroom dressed in blue she did not at all resemble the plump murderous mother as the French remembered her from those days in 2006 when she had first denied any knowledge of the two babies in the freezer in Seoul. She was pale and, for the first time in her life, thin. Her eyes searched for those of her husband; then, the couple exchanged a long, tender look. “I am very very tense. I am here to support the woman I love,” Jean-Louis had told journalists outside the courthouse. During her three-year pre-trail detention he had visited her every week. Often he had taken their two sons with him.
Véronique’s defense team had requested for the trial to be held behind closed doors but, no, it would not: the “babes in the freezer case” would be reported on television screens worldwide.
The woman’s story was that she had not planned to kill the babies. Speaking in a voice hardly above a whisper, she said: “From the moment when I said that I had killed the babies it was logical to think that I had planned to kill them. But I never planned to kill them.” Asked about having lied at first claiming that she knew nothing about the dead babies, she explained that she had wanted to tell her husband before the media got hold of the story. She said: “I did not have the courage. I really wanted to tell him, but I could not. And then there was all the media interest. It was something that I just could not deal with.”
Jean-Louis would, in his evidence, tell of how he had found the little bodies in the family freezer. He had bought some mackerel fish and he wanted to freeze it. The freezer was one that had small compartments. He had opened one. “Suddenly, I saw a hand. The baby’s body was wrapped in a towel, in a bag. I did not understand a thing.”
Then, in another compartment he had found the second little body.
Asked why he had not immediately contacted his wife, he replied: “But how could I have connected her with that? Véronique was no longer able to have children.” He told of how, after she had denied in public and in front of television cameras any knowledge of the dead babies, he had asked her whether she had given birth to those babies and had then killed them. “I asked her, ‘You did it?’ And she replied, ‘Yes, I did it’,” he said.
According to the police officers who were with the couple at that moment, Jean-Louis, having heard the terrible truth from his wife, had taken her in his arms and had hugged her very hard. Both of them were in tears.
Véronique would tell psychiatrists that she and her husband had decided after the birth of their second son that they would not be having any more children and that she consequently concealed the three subsequent pregnancies from him. And not only from him. From all in both their families. Even from a sister-in-law who was a medical doctor. “I could not feel them move inside me. As far as I was concerned they were never children. It was just part of myself, an extension of myself that I was killing,” she said.
She had also not told Jean-Louis about her very first pregnancy. She was already four months pregnant before she did so; he immediately told her that he would marry her.
But how could she hide her pregnant bump?
“Véronique was always round and she always wore loose dresses and blouses to hide her shapelessness so when she was pregnant she looked just as she always did and there was no way that anyone could tell that she was going to have a baby. This also explains why she wore a black dress on her wedding day. She wanted to wear something loose as always, and that black dress was the only loose dress that was smart enough to get married in that she could find,” a relative explained in a television interview.
Psychiatrist called in by Véronique’s defense team had their own explanation for why she had never been one to accept and admit pregnancy. They said that she suffered from “pregnancy denial.” It was, they claimed, not something that should be punished with incarceration; no, it should be treated because it was an illness.
Judge Georges Domergue would not hear of it. He said that Véronique had killed her three babies because “she did not want them; she said so on her arrest.”
The chief prosecutor asked the jurors to find her guilty of premeditated murder – assassination – and of the judge he requested a 10-year imprisonment.
On Thursday, June 18, half-way through the day, the jurors withdrew to an antechamber to commence their deliberation in the presence of the judge and the two assessors who had been present throughout the trial, although by French law, they had been forbidden to take any part in the proceedings.
Late in the evening, the jurors returned. They found Véronique guilty of assassination. She portrayed now emotion. The judge sentenced her to eight years in prison. Again she showed no emotion. Jean-Louis went to give the “good” news to his two sons by phone. “I can tell you there is great joy at home,” he told journalists. He added that he was certain that his wife would be home in “a few months” and she would be able to be “with her children again…We will be able to reconstruct our family,” he said.
He was right about his wife being home soon again; legal experts predict that as she has already done three years awaiting her trial, she will be released by the beginning of next year.
“What I had done, I had done. I will regret it all my life. I killed my children, today, I know this,” Véronique had said at one stage of her trial.
“She is not a monster,” one of her lawyers had said of her in court.
Cases 2, 3, 4,
In November 2006, with the "Babes in the Freezer" case still primetime and front-page news, the second infanticide case came to light.
This was the case of a 39-year-old woman identified only as "a woman from Toulouse." The city of Toulouse is no backwater. Four hundred and thirty-three miles (697 kms) from Paris and only 200 miles (322 kms) from the Spanish city of Barcelona, it has a population of almost half a million, which makes it France's fourth most populous city. It was again the baby's father who discovered the body. And the little body was again hidden in the family freezer.
This infanticide was committed in 2004.
The "woman from Toulouse," already the mother of four children of whom the eldest, a daughter, was 15, found herself yet again pregnant. Although the baby's father was her long-time partner (he was the father of the other four children too) she decided that she did not want another child. The couple's relationship was falling apart and soon it ended and the partner left. He was not told of the pregnancy. Remaining an attentive father all the same, he continued to call in at the house, always carrying food parcels. Then, in November 2006, he did so again. No one was home. He had brought along meat and it needed refrigeration. Opening the freezer, he found the small, naked, frozen body of a baby. The body was in a transparent plastic bag. He summoned the police and his ex-partner, called from her work, quickly confessed to having smothered the baby, a boy, in the minutes after his birth. As she said, "I didn't want it." She was arrested, soon charged with the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15" and incarcerated. Her trial should also open towards the end of 2008. Her eldest daughter, now 18 years old, faces the charge of "non-assistance to a person in danger." She allegedly knew that her mother was pregnant and that she was going to kill the baby. Presumably, she also knew that the tiny corpse was in the freezer. She is in prison.
That November 2006, the third infanticide was also being reported. This murderous mother was named Aline Leliévre and she was 19 years old.
It was a cold night, the people's minds already on Christmas, when Aline, in great distress, summoned police to her tiny one-roomed apartment in the town of Redon (pop.100,000) in the county of Ille-et-Vilaine of the administrative region (département) of Brittany. David, her son, 14 months old, had been kidnapped. Police wondered who would want to kidnap the child of someone so obviously in dire straights; she surely had no money to hand over to kidnappers. All the same, they waited for the kidnappers to make contact and claim a ransom.
The media alerted to the kidnapping, Aline's bespectacled, pimply, tearful face appeared on television screens and on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. Some photographs showed her cuddling a chubby, smiling, blue-eyed baby David. All France cried with her. And all France was furious to hear and read that the little boy's nanny had stopped taking him in despite Aline's pleas that she would lose her job as waitress in a pizza bar if she had to take the child to work with her.
A sad story certainly, but the experienced police decided that what she was saying about David's kidnapping did not hang together. She told them that she had put the little boy to bed and that she had then gone to chuck out the garbage and to have a smoke outside on the sidewalk before returning to the apartment. Absent for only a few minutes, she had found David's bed empty on her return.
The police were right. Before long they got from Aline that she had killed her child. She confessed to having suffocated him. She had dumped the little body, wrapped in a pink sheet from his bed, in a nearby pond. How did she get to the pond in the dark? On her scooter, the little pink bundle tied to the pillar seat. The police quickly found the pink bundle. It was trapped between stones at the bottom of the pond.
Why had she killed the child? She had no explanation to give the police, only the story of her life.
She was born and grew up in Fégréac (pop. 2,000) 12 miles (19 kms) from Redon. Her father worked in a mattress factory there and her mother in a school canteen and the family lived in a small, white-walled house that stood at the end of a gravel lane. She, though, wanted more to her life than a dead-end gravel lane and her job cooking pancakes in a créperie. She wanted to go places. Aged 18, her aspirations hit a problem; she found herself pregnant, but her boyfriend, a Portuguese immigrant working as a waiter, didn't want to get married. Hearing that he was to become a father, he even pushed off; he went to Switzerland. Later he would tell French police that he wasn't ready for fatherhood and certainly not for settling down.
Pregnant and her boyfriend gone, Aline turned to her parents and they helped her as much as they could. They loved little David as if he were their own. Aline did not, though, stop craving for a better and more exciting life. Nearby Redon started to look like a gilded metropolis. That was where she and David would go, she decided. She waited until the boy was 14 months old and then she made the move.
She'd been in Redon just two months on the night she summoned the police. She'd been dropping David off with his nanny on her way to the pizza bar and picking him up again on her way home at the end of her working day. On the last few days of the child's life, the nanny, having refused to take him in, she had taken the child with her to work despite her employer's objections. It wasn't the life she had envisaged for herself. There were no bright lights, no laughter in Redon. Each day the gilded metropolis looked more and more like an iron cage, she its prisoner.
Locked up, Aline tried to commit suicide by drinking detergent.
Her trial opened on Tuesday, February 10, 2009 in the Assize Court of Rennes, capital of Brittany and 41 miles (66 kms) from Redon. She hobbled into the courtroom with the help of crutches: She had broken a leg working out in her prison’s gym. Once in the box of the accused she would at first only murmur tearfully, “I don’t know anymore,” to all questions asked her by the judge and the chief prosecutor. But after a while she loosened up and of why she had murdered her little son, she said: “I can’t come to terms with it. It hurts too much to talk about it.” Questioned about her childhood she told of having been sexually abused, of learning difficulties, of not having liked her body - “I thought I was too fat,” she said. When the chief prosecutor interrupted her by saying that she was lying, she retorted, “It is the truth!” Soon again she took refuge in claiming loss of memory. But not when she spoke of the young Portuguese waiter, who had not after all fathered her child as DNA tests had shown. “I loved him. I loved everything about him,” she said. It was another lover who had fathered the child.
When she did finally speak of her dead son, she said, “I had a problem coming to terms with having a child.” She spoke of being bored when he was sleeping because it was “difficult to be on my own, alone.” She had therefore invented a friend whom she called Noémie. When her colleagues at the pizza bar asked her who was looking after her child, she told them that she had left him with Noémie when she had in fact left him on his own at home. So she did too when she wanted to go out partying at night; she would stay out all night.
She was sentenced to 25 years in prison. “She did not want her child. He had become a burden,” the judge said before passing sentence.
The fourth case of infanticide was revealed nine months after that of Aline, in August 2007.
A retired couple bought an old house in the village of Contres in the picturesque Loire region south of Paris, so popular with tourists. Digging in the garden, the couple came across the body of a baby. The police, having been summoned to the property, brought in dogs, and soon they found another tiny body, also buried in the garden. They found still another body; this one was hidden in the fireplace in the living room. The house's previous owner, Marinette Pezin, 39 and divorced, was soon found and questioned. She admitted to having killed the three babies right after their births. She had no explanation for what she had done other than that she was in a bad marriage and, already the mother of four children, she didn't want more.
An alcoholic, she was released on control order without having had to post bail. Her ex-husband Edmond is not facing any charges; he was deemed to be unaware of the three pregnancies.
The name Marinette Pezin was still on everyone's lips when the fifth infanticide case hit the headlines. Another murderous mother had killed three of her newborns.
This case happened in the mountainous Savoy region in Eastern France. Virginie Labrosse, 36, and her partner, the 40-year-old Philippe Viguet-Poupelloz. A plumber by profession, Viguet-Poupelloz had served a seven-month incarceration in2001 for having sexually molested a female hitchhiker. The couple would have celebrated their 16th anniversary of being together that August of 2007. But Virginie had left the elegant double-story house with white shutters that stands in the green hills above the town of Albertville, site of the 1991 Winter Olympics they had bought the previous year. To the surprise of family, friends and neighbors who had considered the childless couple very much in love and happy together, she had moved in with a 20-year-old, a former neighbor who has not been named.
It was again the murderous mother’s “man” who discovered the bodies. Alone at home, her ditched partner, Viguet-Poupelloz, started to rummage through cupboards. Having gone through all those in the house, he went down to the cellar. There was a rather odd smell down there, and a large box caught his attention. Opening it, he found the decomposed bodies of two babies. Horrified and almost incoherent with shock, he summoned the police. Virginie was brought to the house and led the police to another box. In it was yet another tiny decomposed body.
Quickly Virginie confessed. Yes, she had killed the three babies immediately after their births. First, she had refrigerated them, then she had transferred them from the freezer to boxes. She was not "maternal" and had no wish to have a child, she said. She had killed the first in 2001; it was a boy. The second, a girl, she had killed in 2003. Both births had taken place in the bathroom of the apartment where she and Viguet-Poupelloz had then lived. The third baby she had killed in 2006 – just the previous year; she couldn't, she said, remember whether it was a boy or girl. As she had by then already begun her love affair with the 20-year-old, she said that she didn't know who had fathered the child – her partner or her lover. (DNA tests showed that it was her partner.) She had given birth to the first baby "in the toilet" and the baby had "drowned" also "in the water in the toilet bowl." She had hidden all three pregnancies; the first two from her partner and the third from both the men. The 20-year-old's mother though told police that her son had told her that Virginie was pregnant and later he had returned to tell her that Virginie had miscarried while on the toilet. "Virginie had put on a lot of weight and often complained about stomach ache but she wouldn't consult a doctor, and then when I saw her again, that was last October (2006) she had suddenly lost a lot of weight," said the woman.
The police wanted Virginie’s mental state assessed. She told the court-appointed psychiatrist that she kept the bodies because she did not want to abandon the babies. "I considered them part of myself," she said. First, she had kept the bodies in the freezer, then started to move them around the apartment. When moving from the apartment to the house, the bodies had gone along, packed into a box. The psychiatrist’s explanation for her having kept the bodies was that she had turned them into "dolls" and that she was playing "dollies and mummies" with them. But as one of the police on the case said, "When the couple started to carefully wrap the crockery to move from the apartment to the new house, she took great care to wrap the little bodies as well. Make no mistake, they were going along."
Both her partner and her lover were taken in for questioning, but neither was charged. Viguet-Poupelloz’s family described him as a “broken man” while he himself told journalists: “There I was thinking that I will never father a child, but from one day to the next I learn that I had fathered three. Put yourself in my place… Frankly, I don’t know whether I will ever get over this. If she did not want my babies, then she could have had abortions. But to have given birth all alone and then to have killed the babies and to have put them into the freezer, this is something I did not think she was capable of.” Explaining how he could not have known there was a little body in the freezer, he said: “I worked hard. When I got home I was tired. I didn’t do the cooking so I never had to open the freezer. That was her domain and she certainly made use of it.” Of not having seen that she was pregnant, he said: “She told the police that pregnancy caused her to lose weight rather than to put it on, so this is probably why I had no idea that she was pregnant.”
Cases inspire French novelist
With all of France devouring news of the five cases, the French novelist, Mazarine Pingeot, 35, love-child of the late President François Mitterrand and museum curator Anne Pingeot, decided to put pen to paper and write a novel about infanticide. The novel, La Cimetiére des Poupées—The Cemetery of Dolls—written in the voice of a murderous mother writing letters to her husband from her prison cell to explain her deed, was published at the end of September 2007. Rapidly it reached No. 1 on all France's best-seller lists.
On publication of the novel the Courjault family complained that the fictional murderous mother's story resembled that of Véronique too closely. Jean-Louis Courjault's mother, Geneviéve, wrote to Pingeot; she wanted the novel to be withdrawn. She said the "Babes in the Freezer" case has caused the family enough heartbreak. It had even killed her husband, she said; Jean-Louis's father had died of a heart attack. The people of Chinon backed the family. Said Marie-Françoise Canal, who drew up a petition to be presented to the publishers to request the pulping of the novel, "The Courjault family is very highly regarded here and they have suffered enough. We are also considering Jean-Louis and Véronique's two boys – they must be protected. Jean-Louis's father had even died because of this tragedy that hit the family."
Pingeot, at the time expecting her second child, strongly denied that she had drawn inspiration from the "Babes in the Freezer" case. She said she had studied all five infanticide cases in order to get into the head of a mother who would kill a child she had carried in her womb for nine months. (The late President Mitterrand had successfully hidden Pingeot's existence from the French people as well as from his wife and two sons. Journalists had however been aware that Mitterrand had a love-child, but none had dared to break the story until the French Magazine "Paris Match" did so in 1992 with a cover story. Pingeot's writing career has enjoyed ups and downs. Le Cimetiére des poupées was her fourth novel and fifth book. Her first novel, Premier Roman (1998) sold 60,000 copies, whereas sales dropped to 12,000 for the second and third. Her autobiography Bouche Cousue – Not a Word!, however sold 200,000 making it a best-seller in France. She shares her life with the Moroccan-born Mohamed Ulad-Mohand, 41, a movie producer.)
Yet another case, the 6th
Pingeot was still making television appearances to talk about infanticide when, on October 19 of that year (2007) yet another infanticide case—the 6th since the "Babes in the Freezer" case—hit the headlines.
First reports spoke of the discovery of the bodies of "several" newborns in garbage bags in a cellar of an apartment in the town of Valognes (pop. 7,412) 210 miles (338 kms) north of Paris. Gendarmes thought that there might be four or five bodies, but they were waiting for pathologists to name the number. (Gendarmes "police" rural areas and towns of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Unlike the French police who fall under the jurisdiction of the "Ministry of Interior", "gendarmes" fall under that of the "Ministry of Defense" and they hold military ranks.)
Reporters rushed to Valognes, This murderous mother was at first identified only as Céline L. Later, as Celine Lesage. By her own confession she had killed six of her newborns. She had started to do so in August 2000 and the last she had killed in September 2006, or 13 months previously.
Yet again, it was a partner who made the grizzly discovery. Luc M. went down to the cellar of the couple's first-story apartment in a government-housing complex for people of low income, and almost overcome by a nauseating odor, he started to search for its source. There were quite a few garbage bags down there. In one he found the decomposed body of a baby. He ran upstairs to "have it out" with the woman he had been living with for two years.
What was said between Luc M. and Céline is not known, but it persuaded him to summon the gendarmes. He was almost incoherent on the phone to the duty officer. Later he was to learn that DNA tests showed that he had fathered the dead baby. He was also to learn that killing her newborns was not new to the 34-year-old Céline; she had already killed five, all fathered by her previous lover, Pascal Catherine.
Pascal, apprehended, claimed he didn't know a thing about his former lover having killed the children he had been fathering. He did however know that she did not much care for bringing up a child. They had a child, a boy, and when their relationship broke up, he had taken the child with him so that his new partner, identified only as Nadége, could bring up the 9-year-old. "She didn't want to look after him, so we recuperated him," said Pascal to the gendarmes.
However, the boy (his name has not been revealed) ended up living with his paternal uncle and aunt. Having been told about the arrest of his mother and father, the couple could not get him away from the television screen; his eyes red from crying, he had to know more about what had been going on at home.
Céline confessed to having given birth to the babies all on her own in the bedroom and to having suffocated them immediately after birth. "I put my hand over their faces and kept it there until I could see that they were no longer breathing," she said. Not sure on two occasions that the babies were indeed dead, she next strangled them. She claimed that she could no longer remember whether the babies were boys or girls.
Why did she kill her newborns? The gendarmes wanted to know. The only explanation she would give was, "I wanted them, but I also did not want them."
Her relatives, friends and neighbors told reporters that they had often suspected that she was pregnant. "She always denied that she was and we couldn't be 100 per cent certain because she was always wearing large sweaters," said one friend.
All described her as "very charming" and "an intellectual," she wore metal-framed "granny" glasses and never used make-up.
Pascal’s mother told journalists of how her son had one day in 1996 brought Céline, then pregnant but denying it, to her house to try to get the young woman to admit that she was going to have a child. “He shouted at her ‘tell my mother that you are pregnant, tell her!’ He forced her to admit it,” said the woman.
Céline had not however told anyone else that she was pregnant and having admitted to her partner’s mother that she was, she had had no choice but to let the child – the boy who could not take his eyes off the television screen – live. She had given birth to him in hospital, but no one had accompanied her to give her support.
At the time of her arrest, she was unemployed and augmenting her unemployment allowance by babysitting for her neighbors. She was also doing voluntary work at a local child care association. A spokesperson for the association told journalists, “She was a devoted worker. She was always ready to listen to the children, to give me advice and to take them out on day trips. We knew that we could count on her. Never before had we had someone who we could trust so totally with the children.”
But as a policeman said: “While killing her own children, she was devotedly looking after those of other mothers.”
Both Céline and Pascal are awaiting trial. It was established without reasonable doubt that he knew that Céline was killing his babies. He faces 10 to 15 years imprisonment for "non-denunciation of a crime". Nadége, the woman who had taken in Céline's son when she took in Pascal, does not face any charges. When Pascal had moved in with her, he had kept his dark secret to himself. Luc M. is free; he did really not know about the killings.
A 7th Case
There was almost relief in France's legal chambers when 2007 ended. Hopefully the wave of infanticide had passed. Not so. In March of 2008, just as the nation was returning from the Easter break, a new case came to light. This infanticide was committed on a horse farm outside Guingamp - Pop. 8,008 and 300 miles (483 kms) south of Paris – in the county of Côtes-d’Armor, which, like Redon, is in the administrative region of Brittany.
Frédéric and Valérie Le Gall and their two children aged 5 and 3, went away for Easter. As the horses had to be fed and exercised, Frédéric's father went to stay on the farm. Every day he fed the horses and walked them around the paddock. He got bored and started to rummage through boxes and bags in the outhouses. In one of the outhouses stood a freezer; he wanted to see what was in it. To his horror he found the body of a baby; it was in a transparent freezer zip bag. Not waiting for the return of his son and daughter-in-law, he summoned the police. They brought the couple back to the farm.
Valérie, 35, arrested, first denied to the police that she had killed the newborn, but quickly she admitted that she had given birth to the baby in July 2007 in the bath without anyone present. She had then killed the child. An autopsy on the little body pointed to strangulation as cause of death, but cranial lesions and bruises on the little torso caused pathologists to venture that the newborn could have been battered to death – Unless the injuries had been caused by a rough unassisted confinement.
Frédéric was arrested too, but he was released without charge; he convinced the police that he did not know there was the body of a baby in the freezer in the outhouse. He also had not known that his wife was pregnant, he said. Neither had anyone else in the couple's acquaintance known. "Valérie was a well-built woman," said a neighbor.
This murderous mother's explanation for having kept her pregnancy secret from everyone was that her 9-year marriage was under pressure and she feared her husband's reaction on hearing that another child was on the way. She was incarcerated in the prison for women in the French town of Rennes, 216 miles (348 kms) from Paris.
There, six months later, on Wednesday, September 3, she was to surprise all: her cellmates, her jailers, the prison doctor, even her husband – “stupefied he was,” a relative described him – by going into labor and giving birth to a little girl. She had started to complain of stomach cramps that a doctor had quickly identified as contractions. He had immediately summoned SAMU, France’s emergency paramedics to take her to hospital, but before the ambulance could reach the hospital, the one-month premature baby was born.
Valérie had been in her third month of pregnancy on her arrest, but, true to herself, she had again made it her secret. And the doctor who had carried out the compulsory routine medical examination on her on the day of her admittance to prison had failed to detect the fetus in her womb.
“Valérie Le Gall was medically followed like all inmates. On her arrival at prison she had certainly undergone a medical examination. This shows that a woman can hide a pregnancy even to those most observant,” said Yves Bidet, the director of prisons for that region of France. He added that he was alarmed because the birth could have resulted in yet another drama. He did not explain but it was generally thought that he meant that the woman might yet again have killed the newborn.
DNA tests were carried out and the results showed that husband Frédéric had fathered the baby. “We now have the proof that he had not known of the previous pregnancy and of the murder of that baby,” said Gérard Zaug, chief prosecutor on the case.
By law, a baby born in prison may remain with its mother for two years. This little baby girl though remained behind in hospital when its mother returned to jail to await her trial.
Valérie’s trial opened at the Assize Court in Saint-Brieuc 20 miles (32 kms) from Guingamp on Tuesday, June 9, 2009. She stood trial under her maiden name of Serres; Frédéric had divorced her.
Asked to explain her act, she said: “I do not know …I am incapable of …” Then, her voice trailed away.
She was sentenced to eight years incarceration.
Finally, she had something to say. She spoke of having “flashes” and “visions” of giving birth and of the little dead body.
“I want to understand,” she said. “Know that for every day of the rest of my life, I will have to live with what I had done.”
She added that she should not be locked up.
“I need my children. I want to be with my children if I have to continue to live,” she sobbed.
The eldest two are living with their father. The baby is with foster parents.
The 8th Case
On July 30, 2008, a woman turned up at a hospital in Roanne, (pop. 42,000) 242 miles (389 km) south from Paris and on the River Loire. She had severe stomach pain and vaginal bleeding. It was quickly established that she had recently given birth. She denied that she had. The hospital summoned the police.
Forty-eight hours later a "breaking news" banner during prime-time television newscasts revealed that there was yet another—an 8th—infanticide case in France.
Chrystéle Labouré, 35, a supermarket cashier in the village of Cherier (pop. 445) 12 miles (20 kms) from Roanne, confessed to having given birth to a baby on Monday, July 28—48 hours previously—and that she had burnt the little body in a nearby wood. But, she insisted, she had not killed the baby; he was a stillborn. She took police to the wood. They removed the infant's charred remains, buried in a shallow grave. Pathologists would have to establish whether the baby was stillborn.
Chrystéle's stunned husband, who is deputy mayor of Cherier, is now caring for the couple's two daughters of 7 and 9. They are staying at a secret address so that journalists can't get to them. As for this murderous mother, she's in jail and there she will stay for perhaps the next two years before her case will be heard in court.
And then yet another three cases
The year of 2009 had hardly started when France was rocked by a 9th infanticide case.
On Monday, February 2, a tenant in a four-story apartment building in the town of Montluçon (pop 44,000) 204 miles (329 kms) south of Paris, went down to his cellar in the basement when he was almost overcome by a very bad odor. It emanated from behind the closed door of one of the other cellars; in France in modern buildings all apartments have cellars (caves) and belowground parking bays. The tenant alerted the supervisor and the two of them descended together. They found the source of the smell: The naked decomposed body of a baby. It was in a black plastic bin-liner. Immediately, the supervisor summoned the police who discovered a second tiny decomposed body in the cellar. This little body was in a portable “picnic” freezer bag.
Finding the one who’d dumped the tiny bodies in the cellar was not a problem. The building, an HLM (habitation à loyer modéré) – government housing at moderate rents for low-income families – was subject to rigorous documentation. Therefore, records led the police to a 38-year-old unemployed waitress (unnamed) who had moved from the apartment the cellar belonged to some twelve months previously. A single mother, she was living in another HLM with two young children. Taken in for questioning for the next two days she denied any knowledge of bodies, small or large, adult, child or baby, in the cellar of her previous apartment.
Police, keeping her locked up, began questioning dozens of the apartment building’s former as well as current tenants. Those who had come across the woman described her as ‘gentile and discreet’. The police also started questioning her current lover; he was flabbergasted and shocked on hearing about the dead babies. So were the woman’s former lovers. There were quite a few of those and two readily acknowledged having fathered the two ‘living’ children. But not one of the lovers admitted knowledge of the dead babies.
On her third day of custody the woman began to talk. She had not, she said, murdered the two babies. She had merely abandoned them on birth. One was born in 2003, the other in 2005. It was one of each sex. “They cried on birth, so they were not stillborn,” she told the police. Had she taken them down to the cellar immediately after birth? She would not say, but she did say that each baby took two days to die. How come she was so certain of this? Oh, she said, she had looked in on them to see whether they were still breathing.
This murderous mother, like the other eight, has been charged with the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15." Her case won’t come to court for another two years at least.
On Friday, April 17, in the town of Troyes (Pop 63,000) 93 miles (150 kms) south-east of Paris in the county of Champagne-Ardenne of the administrative region of L’Aube, a man summoned the police to his family home. When the police arrived, his story was that his wife, 37, had gone out to work (she was a maid in a hotel) and on her return she was “covered in blood.” As he could not get a word out of her about the blood, he thought it best to telephone the police.
Quickly, the police got from the woman what was going on. She had earlier that morning given birth, she said.
So where was the baby?
She directed the police to a garbage bin on a nearby street. In the bin, they found the little body. She had given birth to the baby secretly that morning at work and had then smothered it. On her way back home she had dropped the body, wrapped as it was in a plastic freezer bag, into the bin. Hemorrhaging badly, she was admitted to hospital. On her discharge she went straight to jail: she was in fact known to the police: In August 2003 she was a suspect in a case of abandonment of a newborn in a toilet of a supermarket in a nearby town. A customer had heard whimpering coming from behind the closed door of a cubicle in the restroom and found a newborn in the toilet bowl. The healthy, full-term baby was handed to foster parents. The police must now explain how, despite the possibility of DNA testing, they had failed to pinpoint her and her husband as that baby’s parents.
This murderous mother’s husband was taken in for further questioning, but as he had genuinely been unaware of his wife’s pregnancy and her subsequent murder of their child, he was released. He is now caring at home for their four children aged from 5 to 17.
The 11th case
The town of Metz (Pop 322,526) is a place of yellow limestone buildings and green parks, known in the 9th century as Divodumum – the place of the holy mountain. There is however nothing “holy” about its past: Because of its proximity to Germany it has twice been annexed by the Boches, the derogatory name that the French employ when they speak of Germans in anger. (The first annexation was during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the second during World War II.) It was also there that in the 15th century a mother accused of infanticide was burned at the stake, her head down and her “guilty” hand – the one with which she had strangled her newborn child – nailed to the stake above her head.
And it is in Metz where France’s 11th murderous mother ended the life of the baby she had only moments before birthed.
The case came to light in the afternoon of Monday, May 18, 2009. A 15-year-old youth returned home to his foster parents after having spent the weekend with his biological mother. He had gone straight to school that morning on setting off from the small apartment in the HLM where his mother, 32 and unemployed, and his 2-year-old half-brother lived. He had another two half-sibling and they were, like him, also being brought up by foster parents.
The youth had something he needed to tell his foster mother: That weekend while with his real mom he had gone to get an ice-cream from the freezer and there was the body of a baby in there. The little body, as he said, was in a transparent plastic bag. His foster mother immediately summoned the social services to her home and they called in the police.
This murderous mother has not been locked up; she was taken in for questioning, kept for 48 hours and charged with “abandoning a minor that resulted in death,” but released on control order without having had to post bail. Her toddler was taken away from her and, like his four half-siblings, he is also now being looked after by foster parents.
At the time of writing the police were still waiting for the results of an autopsy. The woman claims that the baby was stillborn, but should the autopsy show that she’s lying, then she will be indicted for infanticide. Or rather for the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15."
What is it with the French?
The French, apart from now wanting to know what in their psyche makes the nation's mothers kill their newborns, also ask themselves what this says of French men as fathers. How can a man, who does not only share a woman's daylight hours but so too her nights, not know, not see, that she's pregnant, especially when she's in an advanced state of pregnancy?
Another puzzle is why a woman would carry a child to termination that she really does not want and then to slay it brutally on birth, when she lives in a country where she may undergo an abortion legally. Abortion was legalized in France in 1975 and can be obtained on demand and free of charge on the state's health scheme, the Securité Sociale. Adoption is also a viable option.
In 1976, the first year of legal abortion in France, 134,173 women underwent the procedure here, whereas in 1975, the year before legalization, there had been a reported 36,400 illegal abortions in the country. In 2002, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, 134,797 women underwent an abortion. Of these the majority (34,887) were aged between 20/24, while 968 were 45 and over, and 6,137 were aged between 12/17.
The abortion rate, or its medical name IVG (Intervention Volontaire de Grossesse) meaning termination of pregnancy, is increasing though. In 2006 there had been 209,699 terminations. A termination is legal up to 12-weeks after conception and each “applicant” is given a compulsory “period of reflection” of one week. A minor (girl under the age of 18) and an unmarried woman must also consent to meet with a counselor. The minor would not need her parents’ permission to undergo the procedure and neither would the unmarried woman need that of the man who had caused her condition. A non-resident visitor may also undergo an abortion. A doctor, however, has the right to refuse to perform the procedure, but, by law he must direct the patient to a doctor who would be willing to do so.
With so many infanticide cases coming to light in France now, the country’s non-partisan and non-profit Fédération Nationale des Familles de France (National Federation of Families of France) that promotes family values has now spoken up. It wants the state to become more watchful when it knows there are hardships such as single-parent households or where a parent is in jail or there is a history of alcohol, drugs and domestic violence.
The federation also wants the state to rethink its policy on surrogacy. Currently, both traditional surrogacy (pregnant with own biological child but will relinquish the child on birth to others) and gestational surrogacy (pregnant via embryonic transfer to relinquish the child to others on birth) are illegal. The federation however feels that traditional surrogacy should be legalized. A pregnant woman who is unable or unwilling to keep and bring up her baby should therefore be allowed to give the child to someone else for legal adoption.
Others women’s right movements however argue that with the easy availability of the contraception pill as well as that of RU-486 (France was the first country in the world to legalize its use in 1988) no unwanted child should be conceived or come into the world.
The Véronique Courjault – “babes in the freezer” – case has now however made it possible for murderous mothers in France to claim that they are suffering from “pregnancy denial,” which would mean that the life of a murdered newborn would not count for much.
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