The Dominici affair, by juge Carrias
5 – The reasons of my intimate conviction
o The spontaneity of Dominci’s admission of guilt
If there were one thing alone which would have sufficed to convince me of Dominici’s guilt it was in the first investigation dossier of Judge Périès and Superintendent Sébeille. The circumstances in which Gaston Dominici made his admission of guilt, on the evening of 14 November 1953 are well known. But as much fiction has been mingled with the truth, the facts need to be recalled.
We know that following the discovery of the crime weapon. Sébeille’s investigation became bogged down. For a short time he was even replaced by Chief Superintendent Fernand Constant, who hailed from the area, and who made one major new discovery – that Gustave Dominici had seen the wounded child alive, but had not come to her aid. At the beginning of the investigation, the Dominicis were not suspects, being considered honest farmers, which was in part responsible for the negligence about the drying trousers. But they had to be questioned to settle particular details and, progressively, Gustave’s lack of sincerity and contradictions struck the investigators. This is why, from February to November 1953, Sébeille worked like a Trojan to gather patiently all the facts and witness statements in order to iron out all the contradictions. This method of ‘little details’ was often held against him, for reasons I can’t work out. It seems normal to me that a policeman should exercise psychological pressure on a suspect, bringing out even the smallest points on which he thinks the full truth has not been revealed and if the witness changes his statement, confronting him with the contradictions.
After this preliminary work, he moved into action together with Judge Périès. From the morning of 12 November, they interviewed Gustave several times, brought him to the crime scene to face several witnesses and made him so confused in his contradictions that, in Digne, early in the afternoon of 13 November, he broke down in tears on Sébeille’s shoulder and told him that it was his father who had told him on 5 August 1952 at four o’clock in the morning that he had committed the crime. He repeated this statement the next morning before Judge Périès, stating that his brother Clovis was also aware of the father’s admission. Clovis admitted as much himself to the Judge and the Superintendent.
These admissions obviously led to Gaston Dominici being taken in for questioning. There were no special rules on custody at the time, but everybody knew that new rules were about to come into force. In order to pre-empt the old man claiming that he had been maltreated while in custody, the judge and the policeman decided, as they had done for the son, that the father would be questioned at the court in Digne. As the session led by Sébeille and his team on 14 November ended in the late afternoon without a result, it was decided to continue the next day to avoid tiring the old man too much. A camp bed was brought in and a meal foreseen in the court library, which had been turned into an interview room for the purpose. Superintendent Pierre Prudhomme, of the Digne police, organized the guard duties. He had played no part in the investigation and did not know the case. However, while getting the library ready for the night, he fell to talking in an affable way with Gaston Dominici. He gave the first shift, from 6pm to 8pm, to Victor Guérino, who would achieve fame by becoming the first person to hear Dominici confess.
The two men struck up a conversation. After a few commonplaces, the talk, half in French, half in Provencal, turned to hunting, which both were keen on, then to Dominici’s house and family. Speaking of his grandchildren, Dominici started to weep. Noticing this, Guérino said to him: “You know, if there’s something you want to say, it’s better to get it out straight away. We’ll take your age into account”. Then after a few moments’ silence, he added: “Perhaps it was an accident.” To his surprise, the reply came: “Yes, it was. It’s an accident. They attacked me. I killed all three of them.” It was about 7pm and the hour that remained for guard duty seemed to go on forever to Guérino’s mind.
But he had the presence of mind to do two really useful things. First, he asked Dominici to repeat what he had said to Sébeille. The old man stoutly refused but promised to talk of it to the “judge”, his name for Prudhomme, whom he liked. The other thing was to get the old man to repeat this in front of those taking over from him at 8pm. These were Joseph Bocca and the concierge Simon Giraud, an ex-policeman. These two listened while Dominici told Guérino to bring his boss so that he could confess again. But once Guérino and Giraud had left, the crafty old man pulled a trick on the policemen. Talking of the murders, he claimed to Bocca that it was his son, Gustave, who was the murderer, saying “He did it, but I’m being accused of it.”
When Prudhomme arrived, Dominici mumbled a rough confession, while proclaiming his innocence. But as Prudhomme refused to accept this, and after the two had remained alone for a while, the old man reluctantly confessed again, this time giving sexual arousal as a motive at Prudhomme’s suggestion. Then Sébeille arrived to take down the statement.
Next morning, Dominici again did an about face, this time on the judicial system. The old man told Judge Périès and his clerk Barras that he was not the murderer, but that he was ready to admit guilt to save the honour of his grandchildren. As the oldest member of the family, he announced that he had to sacrifice himself for them. After this, the judge left, only to return a few minutes later to obtain a full confession. Gaston and Gustave were brought face to face that afternoon. The son admitted that the father had told him at four in the morning that he had done it. Gaston replied “Thank you, Monsieur Gustave.” Finally, a month later, Yvette Dominici told Judge Périès that after getting out of bed for a while on the night of the crime, Gustave came back saying that his father had just committed murder and couldn’t understand what had made him do it.
Subsequently, Gaston, Gustave and Yvette all retracted, the first never ceasing to pin suspicions on the second by making general and inaccurate accusations. Only Clovis maintained his position, which saw him cast out by the family.
During the four days in November, we can trace a dramatic progression which led Gustave to break down in tears under the psychological pressure exercised on him by Sébeille and Judge Périès. The two of them must have been surprised, as he had been the prime suspect, that instead of confessing his own guilt, Gustave blamed his father. But their doubts were banished when, knowing that his brother had talked, Clovis had no difficulty in admitting that it was their father who had committed the crime. On being told of his two sons’ accusations the father found himself in a state of psychological distress which prevented him from resisting any longer. But wily as he was, he made sure that Sébeille would not have the satisfaction of being the first to hear his confession. In a moment of emotion and also sobbing, he spontaneously confessed to the least important actor in the drama, and then to the inspector who had won his trust without even trying to obtain it. It was this spontaneity, coming at the end of a logical progression that gave me my conviction.
You can confront me with all the repentances, denials, contradictions and even improbabilities that litter the statements made in this process. I acknowledge that they can develop doubt according to a person’s sensitivities, and I respect this. But I have already said that on the contrary, as far as I am concerned – and I am not alone – they only strengthen my conviction. It all has to do with the Dominici’s language: they couldn’t say anything without attenuating it, modifying it or retracting it. Once you are used to this language and know how to decipher it, the solution is evident.
The pro-Dominici lobby is obviously uneasy about this spontaneity. The film in which Jean Gabin plays Gaston Dominici argues the defence point of view. The director was advised by Gaston’s legal counsel, and, unsurprisingly, the confession scene is rather brief in the film.
o Material evidence
This psychological element regarding conviction would itself be a determining factor. Though not skimpy, the material evidence does not seem so compelling to me. The first investigation team found shells, unfired rounds and an empty magazine at the crime scene, as well as the carbine itself nearby in the river bed. Six or seven shots only were heard during the night, while the magazine held 15 rounds. In addition, after using all his ammunition, the murderer had to use the butt of his gun to kill Elizabeth. It can therefore be concluded that he did not really know how to use a semi-automatic weapon. On this type of gun, it only requires the cocking lever to be operated before firing the first shot; after this the carbine re-arms itself after each shot fired. if the user re-cocks the lever, a cartridge is ejected without firing, and ammunition is wasted.
The rumour was persistent among policemen and journalists covering the affair, and continues to persist even today, that during the reconstitution of the crime on 16 November 1953, this was how Gaston Dominici acted. If this circumstantial evidence was established, it would be damning material evidence against him; in short, it would have been a signature for the crime. But none of this was mentioned in the minutes of the reconstitution. On the contrary, it appears that in the procedure that followed, the old man’s gestures did not allow establishing whether he knew how to handle the weapon (which he claimed to have used for the first time on the night of the crime) or not. In fact, he was supposed to have confined himself to miming each shot, without indicating whether he re-armed or not as the murderer probably did. It is true that the mistake would have been understandable in a man who did his military service in 1898, when semi-automatic weapons did not exist. A young man, more used to modern weapons, would not have made the same mistake, and certainly not a professional killer.
Moreover, Roger Périès himself told me that, during the reconstitution, while re-enacting chasing the girl, the old man pointed the rifle at Inspector Amédée, who was playing the girl’s part, and said “Bang, one in the bridge!” The impact of a bullet was found on the parapet of the stone bridge, in the direction in which he had aimed.
The circumstances of the shooting give the impression of an improvised act. Whatever the case, they kill off the notion of a crime committed by a team of professional criminals. Imagine these killers preparing their crime with great care, armed with a lashed-up rifle that none of them knew how to use correctly. Doubtless, William Reymond believes that there was a second or even a third weapon used, but we shall see later on that he cannot prove it.
Should all suspicion be lifted from Gustave Dominici? I will also answer this question further on. Let’s look first at other factors, in addition to the spontaneity of Gaston Dominici’s confession and the material evidence mentioned, which fortifies my intimate conviction that he was guilty.
o The second investigation
There are some less important aspects in the first case that were laid before the court. I found them when I was preparing the second investigation.
The failure of this second investigation actually did no favours to Gaston Dominici. It had been requested by his legal team following revelations he had made to them, The investigation was led by top policemen, who were supported by the press which favoured the theory of a judicial error, and who were aware of the value of good press. They certainly did all that was possible to succeed. After detailed study of the first investigation, they drew up a strategy based on a group of questions intended to catch suspects in a web from which they could not escape and to fill the gaps that they had found in the first investigation. The strategy was doubtless not properly adapted to the atmosphere surrounding the affair and it would have been better if they had tried to understand and translate the Dominici’s strange language. They certainly had time to do this. But they found nothing new other than a few other suspect things about Gustave, which, despite their claims, were insufficient to get him in hot water and even less to get his father out of jail. While only considering it to be partial, they did recognize Gustave’s responsibility.
I was unable to go to Marseille to interview Gaston Dominici or to bring him face to face with his next of kin. At the time, I really regretted this as a major part of the investigation had to be carried out without me being present. But on reflection I think it was better this way. Judge Batigne was much older and much more experienced at getting to the truth than me. His know-how was well up to that of the policemen from Paris. Naturally, we talked together extensively on how it would carry it out before each of his interventions, as well as afterwards in order to try to reach conclusions. After having questioned Gaston Dominici, and especially after having observed his behaviour when faced with members of the family who were against him, often in an extreme way, he became convinced of his guilt. Several times in his presence, the old man flew into a rage against one of them, mainly Gustave, and seemed in his anger to be about to reveal some new fact. Each time, however, he took control of himself at the last minute as if what he was about to say would compromise the other, thereby making things worse for himself. At that time, he was still under a sentence of death and had not yet been pardoned. Judge Batigne thought that Gaston Dominici was without any doubt guilty, but was not alone in his guilt, meaning that the official theory fell by the wayside. It was also the opinion of Chenevier and Gillard who did not hesitate to write in the conclusions to their report that they believed the murderer to be Gustave, without being able to offer irrefutable proof.
This is also my opinion. I have the intimate conviction that Gaston Dominici was guilty, but I’m not sure that he was the only guilty party. Who then could the others be? Obviously, Gustave was a main suspect, but I won’t go as far as the Paris policemen in their report, because their suspicions seem insufficient to make for a convincing conviction. It might have been interesting to see if, having belonged to the Resistance, he knew how to handle the US-made weapon better than his father. No one thought of this, neither myself nor anybody else. This is a pity. However, I believe that, on this point, he would have thrown up a smokescreen to prevent the truth being reached. I won’t go any farther down this road and I won’t go as far as to try and imagine what part other possible accomplices might have played. What is the point after so many years in smearing the memory of these people and trampling on the feelings of a family that has suffered so much?
However, I don’t think it probable that anyone outside the family is in any way implicated. I don’t see how the behaviour of Gaston Dominici and his son Gustave, during both investigations, could be interpreted as being that of inhabitants of a house in which a crime has been committed yet who have nothing to feel guilty about.
During the first investigation, what happened after Gaston Dominici spontaneously confessed to Victor Guérino? A just as spontaneous retraction to Joseph Bocca, who wasn’t even interviewing him. It was this smokescreen method that we now know well. And who was the old man to blame? Strangers? No: his own son Gustave did it. But he is taking the blame. Then he tells Judge Périès that he wants to save his grandchildren’s honour and that being the eldest in the family he must sacrifice himself. The family all the time. But, why, if it played no part in the crime?
You could object that during November 1953, Gaston Dominici was, directly or indirectly, constantly under police pressure, which was applied to both him and his family. I have already spoken of the precautions taken to avoid any suspicion of confessions extracted by force; I have also mentioned the spontaneity of Gaston’s first admission of guilt. But, for sake of argument, let’s accept that the objection and leave November 1953 behind. What were we to hear a year later during the trial, when the accused man was able to speak without constraint, assisted by his lawyers, before a divided audience and a press which was far from being hostile to him? To deny his guilt, he turned on his own sons, shouting first at Clovis: “I’ve got nothing on my conscience; you and your brother have. Then to Gustave: “You tell the truth… The dishonour you’re bringing down on the family is shameful… I’m in prison instead of you.”
His behaviour was the same during the second investigation. Which is why I believe that it was actually useful, given the theories developed by William Reymond, which claim that the triple murder was carried out by agents of a foreign power. The condemned man was no longer addressing himself to policemen, judges, the public or even his family, but to his lawyers, who, devastated by the death sentence, were doing all they could to save him. And what new argument did he give them? Who did he blame to save his own head? Foreign agents? Let’s suppose he didn’t know who they were, just third parties with whom he and his family had no links whatsoever. No; he blamed his own son Gustave, then his son-in-law Roger, then his two sons Clovis and Gustave. He repeated these accusations all through the investigation, with the usual camouflage that no longer surprises us. Thus Judge Batigne, Superintendents Chenevier and Gillard and, even, while on a visit to him in prison, his family, heard him accuse his two sons and his son-in-law.
Could Gaston Dominici have wanted to take advantage of the drama to assuage some old hatred towards his family? This is highly plausible. Nothing suggests that the family was divided before the murder of the English family. Police, court and press dug into their past and present in minute detail; we would have known if there had been something serious. The old man was possibly unhappy at home and there was not much harmony between Yvette and her parents-in-law. But these are fairly run-of-the-mill facts that have no apparent incidence of the affair. On the other hand, we see the old man lashing out at all and sundry. Clovis, Gustave and Roger are three branches of the family tree. It is possible that some old secret nurtured hatred between the father and one of these three, but with all three together would be asking too much. The divides in the family only appeared after the drama and when suspicions began to fall on it.
This is why I think Gaston Dominici was guilty, but perhaps was not the only guilty party; and that all attempts to pin the blame outside the family are doomed to failure.
o My opinion
This is the conviction that I gained from having been involved closely with the affair. I was only required to express it once in public, in my ruling to dismiss the case on 13 November 1956. After 13 pages of exposition and discussion, I concluded that in bringing forward certain facts about the pair of trousers put out to dry at Grand’Terre on 5 August 1952, the investigation had contributed to confirming Gaston Dominici’s guilt; that it excluded any complicity on the part of the young Roger Perrin, whose firm, often insolent attitude towards his grandfather Gaston Dominici and his uncle Gustave Dominici appeared to establish that he in no way feared compromising revelations by them; and that it provided no new evidence regarding Gustave Dominici, whose suspicious attitude and clear determination to impede the course of the investigation had long been known, but which could only be explained by hypotheses that did not necessarily implicate his personal responsibility and were insufficient to lay charges against him.
Perhaps I went on a bit too much regarding the pair of trousers hanging out to dry; I am now aware that without a full forensic investigation, this evidence could arouse suspicion but could not be used to bring a charge. But this was only a detail. In the main, I disassociated myself from the official line that Gaston Dominici alone was guilty, whilst explaining why I had not charged Gustave Dominici and Roger Perrin against whom, it’s worth recalling, the revelations, which had caused the opening of the second investigation, had been made.
Thereafter I remained silent for 35 years. On the one hand I was held to secrecy by the investigation. Actually, however, a ruling of dismissal is not a public decision like a court verdict. On the other hand, it seems to me that a judge should never implicate himself personally in cases that he receives. He can only pass judgement in a level-headed way while being at a certain distance from a case. I had no special reason in this particular case to move away from this principle.
In 1992, 40 years after the event, the Rotary Club of Digne les Bains asked me to address its members and talk of my memories of the case. I had already ceased all legal duties for some years. So many books had discussed the case that there were no longer any secrets, so I accepted. I was to give the same speech four more times at meetings in the Upper Alps Department, before quite small audiences. It was in 1997 that I first took part in a public debate in Digne when William Reymond’s book was first published. The size of the crowd surprised me. Towards the end of my career I had been involved in another case that affected the whole of France where a gang was rigging the price of petrol; yet no one was interested. Here was a case which involved only two families and yet 45 years after still inflamed passions. During the debate I shared the podium with William Reymond, Alain Dominici and the lawyer Gilbert Collard.
I knew Alain Dominici’s name from the case, in which he appeared as a child suckling his mother Yvette’s breast on the night of the crime at around 1:30am. I liked his plan to clear his father’s name. I understood his determination to rehabilitate his grandfather and the expectations he had of William Reymond and his quest to find the guilty outside the family. I hope they can fill the gaps in the case! But I don’t believe it will happen. Alain Dominici is in the awful position of not being able to clear his grandfather’s without implicating his own father.
William Reymond also runs the risk of not being taken seriously with his tale of secret agents discovered thanks to the Internet. An old man in Digne recently told me “Next time, you’ll see, they’ll be extraterrestrials”. Even I mocked him by asking him if it was James Bond who did it. He might have answered that it was not Her Majesty’s Secret Service that did it but SMERSH. But this is not a subject for joking and I admit that William Reymond’s work should not be taken lightly. When I was a young judge I dreamed of giving a new impetus to the case. How could I criticise a young journalist seeking to take up the cause and to support Alain Dominici? I respect their task and I don’t doubt their good faith. I will return to William Reymond’s work, which is singularly lacking in rigour and whose conclusions have not changed my convictions.
Gilbert Collard, on the other hand, disappointed me. At the very moment when I was talking of the spontaneity of Gaston Dominici’s confession, he jumped to his feet. I wasn’t surprised by this as I always knew that the defence counsel had always been embarrassed by it. For a moment, I feared being destroyed by this brilliant speaker. But all he did was grab the mike from my hands, and make one or two impolite references to magistrates. I’m tempted to think that my argument thereby became irrefutable. But I know that this is not the case, as I myself have admitted to several weak points in the file. I would have preferred to have heard reasoned argument, but none came.