In the basement, a forensic scientist examines a femur. Upstairs, analysts peel through imposing 20-year-old legal files: near Paris, the new “cold cases division” of the gendarmerie is carrying out “ant” work to try to give, finally, “an answer” to the families of the victims.
“The bunker”: it is a vast ultra-secure building, in a corner of the site of the judicial pole of the gendarmerie (PJGN) in Cergy-Pontoise (Val-d’Oise), where AFP was able to have access unpublished. It contains 225,000 biological samples carrying traces of DNA: pieces of clothing, furniture, pens or condoms. Wrapped in kraft paper, they are arranged, classified and numbered in large metal cabinets, stored at 19 ° C and protected from daylight.
Their particularity? They were taken from the scenes of crimes or offenses over the past twenty years, without an identified perpetrator. Their preservation, far from UV rays or humidity likely to degrade them, is an “essential stake”, explains Lieutenant-Colonel Frédéric Brard, head of the central service for the preservation of biological samples, one of the services to which the division can appeal.
The goal of this meticulous conservation: “to give yourself a chance to be able to solve the + cold cases + of tomorrow by having the possibility of analyzing these traces”, in the light of future scientific progress or new investigation techniques, adds the lieutenant -colonel.
DNA extraction and fingerprinting labs: in the division, the gendarmes often hold a master’s degree in biochemistry or genetics and put on charlotte and white coats over their blue uniforms.
Officially launched in autumn 2020 to try to improve the criticized management of “cold cases” in France, the section brings together a “core” of 15 to 17 investigators, psychocriminologists or analysts, to which can be added ballistics experts, automobile, etc., depending on the records.
Like the Central Office for the Repression of Violence Against the Person (OCRVP) on the police side, its mission is to conduct new analyzes or identify an unexploited lead in cases of rape, murders or unsolved disappearances.
– “10,000 pages of procedure” –
The section is working on six “full-time” files and “watches” over 80 others, in which it may be required to carry out investigative acts in order to postpone the statute of limitations, explains Lieutenant-Colonel André Brothier.
It was he who piloted the project, haunted by the murder of little Joris Viville, 9 years old in Port-Grimaud in 1989, for which Francis Heaulme was convicted. He was then a young investigator at the Toulon research brigade.
“What drives us are the victims,” says the officer. “Those buried in a field or in a place that we have not yet found or those, already buried, who are waiting for the truth”. He also thinks of families: they “need to know that they are not alone with their pain, that we are always there, that we are working to provide them with an answer”.
The division can also rely on a team of analysts capable of mixing, with the Anacrim software, thousands of minutes of hearings or long spreadsheets of banking data.
A work of “ant” which aims to allow investigators not to miss information “lost in the mass” or to detect “inconsistencies” between statements and telephone records of a suspect, explains Squadron leader Léa Jandot, head of the Criminal Analysis Sciences Department.
“The volume of information is the main problem with which the investigators are confronted in the files + cold cases +. We can be at more than 10,000 pages of procedure”, continues the analyst. Anacrim made it possible to relaunch some of the most famous cases: the Grégory affair or that of the murder of Montigny-les-Metz, finally attributed to Francis Heaulme.
Lawyers and families of victims say they are still in doubt as to the effectiveness of this new section. Refusing to discuss the cases currently being worked on, the investigators of the division only mention one of their file, which has now been closed: the arrest, in June 2020, of a man accused of having killed Chantal de Chillou, in 2001 in Drôme. The identification of the suspect, 19 years after the facts, was made possible thanks to the analysis of a cigarette butt and a T-shirt on which there was DNA which could not be exploited at the time.
Sometimes the only leads the investigators have … are a few bones. “The bodies that arrive to us are sometimes discovered by walkers gone to pick mushrooms or during work”, says Franck Nolot, anthropologist in the forensic medicine department.
In the white-tiled morgue, each year he sees a hundred bones potentially linked to “cold case” files. With his dentist colleague, they examine bones, dental care or prostheses, to try to establish the causes of death, the age and even the social background of the victim. A profile will then be sent to investigators who will have to seek to link the unknown with a victim “who awaits the truth”.