CANNES, France—The monk who answered the phone at the isolated monastery sounded shaken.
It’s not every day that more than 20 police officers searching for France’s most wanted man descend on a corner of the Riviera’s hinterlands where monks live in silence and solitude.
But that was the Dan-Brown-like twist last week when detectives swarmed the Monastère Notre-Dame-de-Pitié looking for the notorious Xavier DuPont de Ligonnès, the handsome French aristocrat and devout Catholic suspected in the brutal murders of his wife, four children and the family dogs in Nantes, France, in April 2011.
They didn’t find de Ligonnés disguised as a monk. The trail is as cold as when he was last seen in this area on April 15, 2011, after allegedly shooting his sleeping family members and two Labradors with a silenced .22 rifle and burying them in the garden of the family home, having bought bags of lime and a shovel to dig their graves.
“We are trying to retrieve a bit of calm and hope our days return to normalcy,” Brother Claude told The Daily Beast.
Call it the latest fiasco in the ongoing manhunt for France’s most elusive murder suspect who, if he’s alive, has made some of the country’s most elite detectives appear to be a bunch of Keystone Kops as they pursue some 1,000 leads that just turn into dead ends.
In Oct. 2016, police were convinced de Ligonnès had been spotted in a casino in Neris-les-Bains. In 2015, bones were dug up in Fréjus, not far from the monastery, but DNA tests showed they did not belong to de Ligonnès. In June 2013, police found a cadaver in the Var they hoped was his but, again, no.
Or, could it be that police are deliberately checking out red herrings to distract from a bigger conspiracy? The case has taken on a cult-like life of its own online, in at least four TV documentaries, in detailed Wikipedia entries, and in an upcoming miniseries.
Amateur sleuths have long been riveted by the curious elements in the dossier. De Ligonnès appeared to plan the murders carefully, closing down all bank accounts, ending the family’s lease on their home and telling the children’s teachers the family had to move suddenly to Australia. He warned family members in private emails that the Australia plan was a ruse designed to hide the “fact” that De Ligonnès had been working undercover in France for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and that they were being relocated to the U.S. witness protection program.
Fueling interest have been statements put out by de Ligonnès mother, Geneviève, sister Christine and their lawyer, Stephane Goldenstein of Paris, who believe the letter they got from Xavier and that the family was “extracted by the Americans.” The mother and sister never got to see the bodies of the family members before they were hurriedly cremated and do not believe the bodies exhumed from the garden were the de Ligonnès family.
Most sinister of all was a photo apparently sent to a reporter at Agence France Presse that appeared to be a family picture of de Ligonnès’ two sons sitting at a table. On the back side of the photo, in blue ink, were the words “I am still alive, from then until this hour.” The message was signed Xavier Dupont De Ligonnès.
Last week the police, acting on a tip that Ligonnès was impersonating a monk and hiding out in the monastery, arrived during the 8:30 a.m. mass.
Two detectives slipped into the back of the chapel where four monks, among them the one they thought was Ligonnès, were in the middle of the sacrament.
Because the chapel is open to the public, Brother Jean-Marie Joseph, who had no idea police thought he was a murderer in disguise, asked for two more wafers so the visitors could take communion. It didn’t take long for him to realize the two strangers were from the Police Judiciaire and wanted to question him. They had been tipped off by two people who sometimes prayed at the chapel and had apparently spotted Brother Jean-Marie.
The monk told the French news network LCI that he was astonished to be mistaken for a killer.
“Certain things correspond, sure,” Jean Marie, 53, told LCI, explaining how he led police all over the monastery and individual cells in their search. “Like my height or maybe my age.” (De Ligonnès is 56 if he is alive.)
“But otherwise I don’t look like him at all."
Even stranger, Jean-Marie was at the monastery in the days and months after the 2011 murders in Nantes.
“I was here seven years ago when the de Ligonnés affair exploded,” Brother Jean-Marie said. “Both the national and local police came by to ask if we’d seen him and that seemed normal. He disappeared right near here and he was Catholic. But this wasn’t normal. It was a big disruption and seemed very out of proportion for 20 police officers to come here and search the place.”
As noted, de Ligonnés was last seen officially in this area on April 15, 2011, and CCTV footage shows him taking €30 from a cash machine the day before. He abandoned his car there and no trace of him has been found since.
The killings, authorities believe, occurred sometime during the first week of April. The state prosecutor in northwest France said the murders were carried out "methodically" with a .22 caliber rifle, the same type of gun that de Ligonnès used when he took up target practice at a local rifle club in February that year.
Detectives found a severed leg under the garden terrace at the family home, and then uncovered the bodies of his wife, Agnes, 49, and children Tomas, 21, Arthur, 18, Anne, 16, and Benoit, 13.