Zainab and Zeena Al-Hilli very likely saw whoever fatally shot their father, mother, and grandmother at point-blank range as they sat in their burgundy BMW on a lonely road near Lake Annecy in the French Alps last Wednesday. Zainab, 7, was shot in the shoulder and bludgeoned with a blunt weapon, leaving her with a fractured skull. She was found on the ground in front of the family car by a French hiker and British Royal Air Force retiree, who were the first on the scene. Zeena, 4, hid inside the car, crouched under her mother’s corpse, for almost eight hours before investigators found her. The car, with United Kingdom license plates, was idling and locked from the inside. French bicyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45, was also killed at the scene, presumably having stumbled upon the murders in progress. He was shot five times in the back and twice in the head.
The two young girls are now the only known witnesses to a crime that has so far stumped French investigators. Zainab was initially under a medically induced coma while tests were carried out to determine if she had suffered a brain injury when her skull was fractured. As she was brought out of the coma Monday, investigators and doctors gently asked whether she remembered what happened to her parents. Without giving any details, she told them she did.
On Wednesday investigators began the delicate task of questioning the young girl, who is heavily sedated to ease the pain of her injuries and in an obvious state of shock after witnessing the murders. Because she is the most important witness to the killings, armed police stand guard at her hospital-room door. Her younger sister has been sent to stay with relatives in the United Kingdom and is also under police protection. The two girls have not spoken to each other since the grisly incident last week.
The Al-Hilli family had been staying at a campground about 10 miles from where they were murdered, sleeping in a rented camper they towed from England. Young Zainab was registered to start primary school on Sept. 3, which has investigators questioning whether the trip was planned in advance or had been a last-minute decision.
Reports of a family feud over inheritance and the presence of a suspicious character at the campground where the family stayed for the first few nights have fueled rumors that the killing was a contract hit. Indeed, a man in dark dress clothes—not the usual campground garb—was spotted searching the area. “He definitely didn't look like he belonged,” Eli Draaisma, 64, a Dutch tourist, told The Daily Telegraph. “He was not on a holiday.” The next day the Al-Hilli family, who had booked their original camping pad for a full week, then suddenly moved to a different campground, where their camper was parked when they were murdered.
Detectives will need to know what the young girls saw both before and after the murders. Campers who stayed at the campground near the Al-Hilli family told police that Saad Al-Hilli, the father, left the grounds four or five times each day, leaving his family alone. He returned without noticeable groceries or shopping bags, meaning he was not likely out running errands.
Inconsistencies at the crime scene have also been complicated by the fact that no credible witnesses saw any vehicles leaving the area the afternoon of the murder. Initial reports indicated that a cyclist saw a dark green SUV and a motorbike leaving the area last Wednesday, but those reports have not been corroborated by others who were nearby at the same time, who say they saw no other cars on the roads. The area is remote, and the road where the Al-Hilli family was killed is off the main highway, so there are no surveillance cameras. There are only two routes in and out of the Alpine community—one toward Italy and Switzerland, where manhunts are underway for suspicious characters. So far no suspects have been identified or named by Interpol.
The crime-scene dynamic is also complicated. Based on the blood-splatter trajectory, investigators say Zainab was likely beaten and shot in front of the car while her family was locked inside. Each family member who was killed had multiple gunshot wounds, presumably to disable them before two final shots to the head finished them off—a maneuver known as a classic double tap.
French investigators have said that only one gun was used—a Czech-made Skorpion favored by mafia thugs and hit men—but they have not yet ruled out that there was more than one assailant. Police found 25 spent cartridges, meaning the 20-bullet magazine gun had to be reloaded once to continue the killing.
The French press reports that investigators have said that Saad Al-Hilli, 50, was shot first as he sat in the driver’s seat. Al-Hilli’s wife, Iqbal, 47, and her mother, Sahaila Al-Allaf, 74, both were sitting in the back seat when they were killed. No one was sitting in front passenger seat at the time, but there was a child’s car seat, which begs the questions of just how Zainab was pulled out of the vehicle, and if the seat was hers or her younger sister’s. Saad Al-Hilli’s seat belt was on, but the two women were not buckled in.
French and British investigators have cooperated in searching the family’s Surrey home, focusing on a safe found in the house that may or may not hold clues to whether Saad Al-Hilli was involved in some illicit business that would warrant such a brutal end. In the meantime, whatever details that 7-year-old Zainab remembers are all investigators have to search for whoever killed her parents and grandmother.