A gentle arc of eight candles in glass holders – five red, two yellow and one blue – stands before the locked gate of number 8 Sentier du Pre. It is an odd house, with a dull cream front and a sloping roof, as if it was originally a shed. Nothing suggests that this is a house of horrors, except perhaps the maroon labels on the doors and shutters which state: “Gendarmerie seal. Do not open.”
Red and pink geraniums, beautifully cared for, decorate the porch and stream down from every windowsill. They even decorate the garage, which stands at the end of a short drive. This is a pretty village, a wealthy village, much extended in recent years by expensive bungalows for commuters from Douai and Cambrai and other large towns in northern France.
Behind the green garage door at 8 Sentier du Pre (“path of the meadow”), Villers-au-Tertre, gendarmes found last weekend the skeletons of six newborn babies wrapped in plastic bags and hidden beneath an oil tank. A kilometre away, in the garden of another house, they found the remains of two other newborns. All had been stifled at birth.
Dominique Cottrez, 45 – the woman who planted and cared for the geraniums – admitted to an investigating magistrate yesterday that she had murdered her eight babies between 1989 and 2006 “because she did not want any more children”. When she goes for trial, Ms Cottrez, an auxiliary nurse and mother of two “charming” daughters in their twenties, is likely to be branded the worst serial baby killer to appear before a French court.
The investigating magistrate decided yesterday to take no action against her husband, Pierre-Marie Cottrez, 45. The public prosecutor had asked for him to be placed under formal investigation for “receiving” the bodies of the babies and hiding the crimes. The investigating magistrate refused.
Mr Cottrez, a carpenter, a much-liked village councillor, and the chairman of the village fite committee, told the magistrate that he knew nothing about his eight dead sons and daughters dumped in his garage and in the garden of his former home.
He said that his wife, who is grossly overweight, had never revealed her pregnancies. He had no idea that he was living with a child-murderess until the gendarmes came to the house last Saturday.
Ms Cottrez backed up this account. She was in custody last night, facing a possible eight counts of “murder of children under the age of 15”. If convicted, she could go to prison for life. Her husband was set free.
For four days, until Wednesday night, the gendarmerie combed the village of Villers-au-Tertre with dogs and imaging devices without explaining what they were doing.
The first two babies had been found on Saturday in the garden of a house which once belonged to Dominique Cottrez’s parents. The new owners were digging a hole to plant a tree and came across a plastic bag containing the tiny bones of what they assumed, at first, were two cats. They quickly realised that they were human babies.
Villagers were puzzled by a sudden flurry of gendarmerie activity in a village in which, according to the mayor, Patrick Mercier, “nothing ever happens”.
Local people assumed that the officers must be searching for unexploded weaponry from the 1914-18 war. Villers stands on the edge of the battlefield of the Battle of Cambrai of 1917.
As packs of journalists from a half-dozen nations, 10 television crews and five satellite trucks invaded their village yesterday, local people were in a state of shock, disbelief and almost of shared guilt.
Chantal, a neighbour in her forties, told The Independent: “Everyone is asking why. And how. They can’t understand how this could have happened in a place like this. You can’t help thinking that someone should have known, or guessed, even though she was a very private woman, almost a recluse, and very, very fat. It is going to be difficult for all of us to live with.”
The eight small candles, one for each dead baby, were placed in front of the Cottrezes’ house yesterday morning by the local priest, whose church is 200 metres away. In a brief statement to the journalists present, Father Robert Meignotte said: “I am thinking of all the world’s children. I am thinking of these little ones who did not ask to be born but were thrown away after a few hours of life.
“This has touched me very much. I baptise five children every Sunday in the 17 villages in my parish. You don’t just throw away children in rubbish bags. How can anyone comprehend that?”
In another impromptu press conference, the village mayor, Patrick Mercier, described Mr Cottrez as an active, much-liked man, who was always ready to help his fellow villagers. “He was in his third term as a councillor in the commune,” he said. “He is a charity worker, someone entirely respectable. His wife did not go out much and participated very little in the life of the commune.” No one had any inkling that she had been pregnant so many times, the mayor said, possibly because she had “a problem with her weight”.
Incidents of infanticide and child abuse are not uncommon in northern France but they tend to happen in bedraggled former mining villages where a tiny minority of people have abandoned hope and dignity since the region’s heavy industries collapsed in the 1980s. Villers is a quite different kind of place: a former agricultural village of 700 people which has doubled in size in the last 20 years as expensive houses and bungalows have grown up on its fringes.
The Cottrez home – in which they have lived since 1991 – is in a smart street of bungalows, lawns and flowerbeds only a few yards from rolling fields of sugar beet and wheat. A young neighbour who gave her name only as Adele said: “They are perfectly ordinary people, not the kind of people that you would ever dream could be involved in anything like this. They are the kind of people who would not harm a fly.
“They have two charming daughters who also live in the village. One of them, at least, has children. My thoughts are for the daughters. To suddenly find that they had, or could have had, brothers and sisters … “
At a crowded press conference in the Palais de Justice in Douai, the nearest large town, the local public prosecutor, Eric Vaillant, rejected reports that other babies had been found.
Searches would continue, he said, but investigators were inclined to accept Ms Cottrez’s word that there were no more than eight babies. “We are faced with an affair which goes far beyond normal bounds,” he said. “A case which is difficult to comprehend.”
Mr Vaillant said that Mr Cottrez was in state of “utter shock”. “It is as if the sky has fallen on his head,” he said.
Ms Cottrez was calm and had admitted her guilt soon after the couple were arrested on Tuesday. She had told investigators that she murdered the babies by smothering them soon after they were born.
“She said she was perfectly aware that she was pregnant each time,” Mr Vaillant said. “It was not a case of a denial of pregnancy. She said she didn’t want any more children and she didn’t want to go to a doctor for any form of contraception. She said that she had a very bad experience with her first pregnancy because of her great obesity and, as a result, she didn’t want anything more to do with doctors.”
It was pointed out that this explanation did not entirely make sense. If Ms Cottrez feared giving birth, why had she allowed the pregnancies to go to term – and then gone through the pain of childbirth, apparently, alone?
The prosecutor declined to answer any further questions.
“I don’t see how more detail helps your stories,” he said. “And in any case, there is an issue of protection of privacy, even when it’s the privacy of someone accused of such terrible things. As things stand, even though she has confessed, Madame Cottrez must be regarded as innocent, until she is proven guilty.”
He may have a point about prurience, but many questions inevitably remain. What drove Ms Cottrez to keep six of the bodies of her babies in her garage? Did she remember that they were there every time that she went out in the family car? Did she think of her babies as she watered her lovely geraniums?