France launches manhunt for family’s killer

French authorities have issued an international search alert for murder suspect Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès amid evidence that he carefully planned the killing of his wife and four children.

The 50-year-old businessman is wanted after the bodies of his wife and children aged 13 to 20 were dug up in the garden of their family home in the western city of Nantes in Brittany on Thursday.

Autopsies done on the bodies showed the victims had been “methodically” shot with a .22 calibre firearm similar to one that Dupont de Ligonnès had used in shooting practice at a Nantes rifle club.

Wife Agnes 49, daughter Anne, 16, and three sons were apparently shot several times in the head while asleep, around April 3 or 4, and tests are under way to see if they were drugged first.

Police said there were several suspect purchases in the run-up to the killings. Items bought included quicklime, which can be used to stifle odours in a decomposing body, jute sacks, powerful cleaning agents, a shovel and a wheelbarrow.

The missing man was last seen on April 15, when he left a budget hotel at Roquebrune-sur-Argens in the Var region on France’s Mediterranean coast, abandoning one of the family cars in the car park.

Nantes prosecutor Xavier Ronsin, who announced the international alert, said Dupont de Ligonnès had severe money troubles, with debts of at least 50,000 euros ($57,000) and declared income of just 4,000 euros last year.

But on April 12 he stayed at a luxury hotel in the south of France, where staff remember him as having been very relaxed, the manager said Saturday.

“He was very well dressed and didn’t appear to have a care in the world,” Sylvie Boucher at the five-star Auberge de Cassagne near Avignon told AFP.

Signing in as Xavier Laurent, he took a prestige suite before dining alone, ordering half a bottle of burgundy, she said.

“People on their own always stand out a bit more than others, but he stood out because he chatted a lot with the staff. He was very nice with everybody,” she said. “He showed no signs of worry, on the contrary he appeared very relaxed.”

Inquiries have revealed that Dupont de Ligonnès had bought ammunition for his gun before the killings and sacking similar to those used to wrap the bodies.

He also went for shooting practice at a local rifle club, its president Alain Neutre said Saturday – four times in the week before the murders.

Club coach Benoit Herault said the fugitive had started with a .22 pistol but in February began bringing a carbine of the same calibre with a 10-round magazine, which he said he had inherited from his father.

His older sons, 20-year-old Arthur and 18-year-old Thomas, had recently started joining him for lessons, while 13-year-old Benoit had been due to follow, Herault said.

On April 1, the last time Dupont de Ligonnès came to the club, “he told me his sons could not make the appointment fixed for April 9, without giving a reason”.

The shooting coach said the man had asked him about using a silencer. “I told him it was pointless on a shooting range.”

“I saw him firing his rifle with a silencer once,” Herault said, before adding grimly, referring to the murders, “Anyway, to do what was done, no training was needed.”

Herault confirmed an earlier statement by Ronsin that shortly before his disappearance Dupont de Ligonnès had made bizarre claims to friends that he was a US secret agent and was leaving to join a witness protection programme.

He said Dupont de Ligonnès, who had presented the required medical certificate that declared him mentally fit to carry a firearm, had left an impression of someone “not exuberant”.

“We talked of music, he liked country and blues. With his son Thomas, who was a musician, we even did a jamming session together,” he said.

Local people meanwhile were leaving messages and flowers at the family home in Nantes, hanging them on a metal frame placed outside after investigators removed a black tarpaulin that had shielded them while unearthing the bodies.

Roses, tulips, and bouquets of daisies were placed outside the house, along with candles and a stuffed cow toy, as cars slowed down when passing the house.

One of the messages, with hearts drawn into a piece of paper, said: “Rest in peace, we love you Anne, Benoit, Thomas, Arthur, Agnes”.

A ‘white march’ was organised for today in Nantes, in which people expressed their sympathy with the dead family by carrying a white flower.

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