The Dominici affair, by juge Carrias
2 - How my investigation proceeded.
The various commentators on the Lurs triple murder have not had much to say about my investigation. I have to agree that it was of less interest than the first one carried out by Roger Périès. Moreover it pleased neither those who claimed Gaston Dominici’s guilt, nor those who said he was innocent. The first wanted to know nothing about it, because, as it came after the court sentence, it stood to put the verdict in question and was contrary to all principles. The second preferred forgetting about it, as, having been called for by those lawyers who advocated Gaston Dominici’s innocence, it failed, despite the role played by two of France’s leading policemen. The recent works of William Reymond, who believes he has found the real culprits outside members of the Dominici family, might bring it back into the news again.
o The condemned man confides in his jailers.
The confession really began with a statement made by Gaston Dominici to one of his lawyers on 28 November 1954, immediately after receiving the death sentence, and even before he was taken to St Charles prison. During the trial Gaston had vehemently taken his son Gustave to task, ordering him to tell the truth and suggesting that he was being tried in his place, but Gustave remained evasive. Gaston confided in his lawyer that he felt let down by his son, saying that, shortly after the crime had been committed he had overheard a conversation between his son and his daughter in law Yvette. He claimed that they had talked of the fact that on the night of the crime, his son in law Roger Perrin had helped Gustave carry Elizabeth’s body. Knowing the lawyer well, I cannot for one moment imagine that he in any way misinterpreted the old man’s declaration. But I also imagine that he immediately saw what advantage could be gained, perhaps not for a re-trial but at least a pardon for his client. The next day therefore he asked Gaston to repeat what he had confided to him to the entire defence team, after which they forwarded the statement to the Ministry of Justice.
The statement arrived in Paris at a difficult time. The trial had divided France between those who thought Gaston Dominici guilty (perhaps mainly in the south where a media campaign had been running against the old man) and those who thought he was innocent, led by people such as Jean Giono, the famous novelist and native of Manosque, close by to Lurs, who had the support of most of the Paris press.
The Ministry of Justice thought the revelations made to the lawyers should be taken seriously and ordered the condemned man to be questioned by a magistrate. As Dominici had in the meantime been transferred to another prison (Les Baumettes), he was questioned by a magistrate from Marseilles. He repeated what he had said about overhearing Gustave and Yvette and that their conversation had convinced him that Roger Perrin was somehow or other involved.
The Minister then asked his colleague at the Ministry of the Interior for names of reliable inspectors to handle the business. The names of Chief Superintendent Chenevier and his assistant, Detective Superintendent Gillard, were suggested. They had a first-class reputation as being among the best in France and worked in Paris. Unfortunately, for reasons that were not apparent, they loathed Superintendent Sébeille in Marseilles. They knew the case well, however, and Gillard had even been present at the trial. He had also looked into the case of the criminal in Germany who claimed to have been involved in the crime.
On 15 December 1954, these two policemen were given the mission of verifying Gaston Dominici’s claim and were given permission to question him in prison. It has to be said in passing that such a move – which could have put a verdict in question - would never be allowed today. However, the mission provided few results.
The transcript of their interview of Gaston Dominici is very long and showed Dominici’s hesitations and changes of opinion. Initially, Dominici confirmed what he had previously stated; then he said that he had seen Gustave and Roger Perrin carrying Elizabeth; then he retracted what he had said, returning to the conversation overheard between Gustave and Yvette, but also bringing his other son Clovis into the story.
o The investigation begins.
Based on the transcript and the police report that accompanied it, the Ministry of Justice ordered an investigation against X on a charge of wilful murder, and I was named investigating judge on 3 February.
The procedure was opened by an introductory brief by Louis Sabatier on 25 February 1955. I had already studied the case in sufficient depth to move forward immediately. On the same day, I wrote to the director of prisons in Marseilles inquiring into Gaston Dominici’s health, which was showing signs of deterioration. I then decided that he had to be confronted by Gustave and Yvette regarding the overheard conversation. But there was a problem: the condemned man was being held at Les Baumettes and it did not seem a good idea to bring him to Digne, even though I was only allowed to operate in the Lower Alps in those days!
With the agreement of the Marseilles court, an investigating judge was appointed to act as a substitute for me. Gaston Dominici now no longer talked of having seen Gustave and Roger Perrin carry little Elizabeth. He confined himself to the story about overhearing Gustave and Yvette – a story which both of them denied. The Paris police subsequently accused me of having carried out this face-to-face too soon as they wanted to have it performed during their investigations, but, given the rather haughty attitude adopted towards them by Gustave and Yvette, I doubt whether they would have obtained more information than my substitute, Judge Batigne.
For my part, I spent time at the Grand’Terre checking that Gaston Dominici could only have heard with difficulty any conversation between Gustave and Yvette, unless they were speaking in a very loud voice, which seemed rather improbable. I then collected observations by the defence team, Commissioners Chenevier and Gillard and from Captain Albert, the chief of the Forcalquier police force.
We agreed with Captain Albert that his gendarmes would lend their assistance in checking the statement of Antoine Llorca, a threshing machine operator, who suspected two of his colleagues of leaving their workplace in Pierrerue on the night of the crime to go to Lurs where they intended to murder the English family and rob them. This statement had been revealed by the magazine Jours de France. The gendarmes spoke to local farm workers, with whom they were on good terms and more at ease with than policemen from Paris. It’s worth pointing out that if the two men had been found guilty, Gaston Dominici and any of his relatives under suspicion would have been innocent. But it soon transpired that Llorca was a bit of a storyteller and that his workmates’ movements had nothing to do with the Lurs crime.
However, the issue of whether I should use Chenevier and Gillard became more pressing with each day that passed. The Chancellery wanted them to be used and there was no doubt that they were competent criminal investigators. But their behaviour was not to my liking, especially their way of seeming to give credence to press revelations, and I was afraid that this would affect their inquiries. At the same time, if I didn’t use them, I would be giving the impression of not seeking the entire truth, as they had already been involved in the affair and the public, under the influence of the press, was expecting them to demonstrate their talent.
The first rogatory commission I gave them (mainly to avoid censure by the criminal chamber of the Court of Cassation, which strictly forbade general rogatory commissions) was to was to check on the movements and behaviour of Gustave Dominici and Roger Perrin between noon on 4 August 1952 and noon on 5 August 1952; this seemed to me sufficient for them to make enquiries about Gaston Dominici’s statement regarding the overheard conversation and the moving of Elizabeth’s body. But this constraint displeased them and they began several investigations, interviews and confrontation of witnesses, which had already been carried out by Superintendent Sébeille and Judge Périès during the first investigation. Like others before them they immediately came up against the main obstacle: the irrational attitude of several members of the Dominici family. The strategy that they had proposed to me was to ask specific questions stemming from careful study of the file and intended to trap liars with irrefutable logic and get them to admit the truth. The total lack of logic shown by the main witnesses was an insurmountable obstacle to them. They therefore came back to me with a brief report pointing out the contradictions they had found.
Taking over from them, I confronted Gustave Dominici with the main witnesses and investigators from the first investigation. As usual, he varied and contradicted himself about the statements, the content of which he refused to accept, while speaking more prudently than he had with the two inspectors. I forwarded his statements to Judge Périès.
By now I imagined that the inspectors from Paris were getting used to things and I gave them another investigation to find out if they might be any complicity in the murders. They worked on it for four months, focusing especially on the contradictions in statements by members of the Dominici family.
A year had gone by and in January 1956 it had to be admitted that, despite their commitment and determination, the inspectors had not found anything new. Their strategy had fallen foul of the Dominci’s irrationality. It was a failure, all the more annoying for them as they had been announced by the press as going to put Sébeille’s mistakes right and because their investigation had been closely followed by the public at large.
But in order to mask this failure or at least to blame it on someone else, they laid a trap for me. They reminded me of the suspicions about Gustave Dominici that Superintendent Sébeille and Judge Périès had harboured and they spoke of the even greater suspicions that Gustave’s cynical behaviour had aroused in them. They told me that they had enough evidence for an investigating judge in Paris to bring charges against Gustave for being an accomplice to the crime. As naïve as I might have seemed, their intention was obvious to me – they wanted me to have Gustave arrested so that they could leave on a cloud of glory. But I would certainly have noticed the weak points in their argument after a few days and I would have had to release the prisoner. I would have taken the blame for a botched job. The trap was too obvious and I didn’t fall into it. Gustave Dominici remained a free man, left to his own conscience.
Back in Paris, Superintendents Chenevier and Gillard sent me a report 300 pages long, dated 15 February 1956, that was interesting in its intelligent description of how the affair had proceeded but making no judicial headway.
o Case dismissed
The investigation continued in quiet conditions. I checked out several details in the inspectors’ report or on request from the public prosecutor, before dismissing the case on 13 November 1956 (a date I will return to). However, the dismissal could be overturned if circumstances changed. But circumstances did not change within the prescribed time and judicial action therefore ceased.
The weaknesses and lack of evidence were clear to me. But I had got to know the initial dossier well and it had to be admitted that some more or less points remained obscure. I will now speak of these.