Until recently, tour buses on their way to the breathtaking vineyards of Alsace never stopped in the dour towns of the Vologne valley in eastern France. Beyond the scruffy factories along the Vologne River, meadowed hills locked the valley into a quiet world of small white houses with neat backyard gardens and cemeteries dotted with headstones bearing the same half-dozen family names. Now the region's obscurity seems hopelessly shattered. The buses pull up regularly near the bridge at Docelles, disgorging tourists who walk down to the banks and click their cameras at the spot where the body of 4½-year-old Grégory Villemin, bound hand and foot, was found floating on Oct. 16, 1984.

In France, where people relish a good argument almost as much as a good meal, all Gaul seems to have taken sides in the debate over who killed curly-haired "petit Grégory." Played out daily in the press, the case has mushroomed into a national soap opera, offering the French a titillating glimpse of life in the provinces. As "I' affaire Grégory" drags into its second year, much of the press and the populace seem convinced that the man first arrested for the crime—a Villemin cousin later shot dead by Grégory's father—was innocent, and that the real killer is the boy's own mother, 25-year-old Christine Villemin.

When Grégory's body was discovered a few hours after Christine reported him missing, the valley was shocked but not totally surprised. Since 1981, Christine and her husband, Jean-Marie Villemin, 27, as well as numerous Villemin relations and some of Christine's co-workers, had received hundreds of menacing phone calls and four letters from a jealous Corbeau, or Raven—the name traditionally given in France to people who torment others anonymously. The Villemins were the largest clan in the valley, and for generations had thought of themselves as an elite, occupying many of the best blue-collar jobs. Their young standard-bearer was Jean-Marie, known as "the chief" for both his stern, authoritarian manner and his enviable job as a foreman in an auto-seat factory.

Jean-Marie and Christine did not have an especially warm marriage. Coming from a family of lower social standing outside the valley, Christine had never been accepted by the rest of the Villemins, and there was a rumor that Jean-Marie beat her. But the couple had a model child in Grégory. Bright, charming and affectionate, he was apparently the light of his father's life. Jean-Marie liked to call the new house he built for his family above the town of Lépanges "a palace for the little one."

The Raven was aware of the father's devotion. Once, phoning Jean-Marie at work, he threatened to shoot him, then to "take your kid. That will hurt you more." At the suggestion of the police, some Villemin family members taped the Raven's calls. But no one recognized the voice, or could even say whether it was male or female. Then, on the day of the murder, at 5:32 p.m., Grégory's uncle Michel received a chilling message at his factory. "I have taken the son of the chief," said a hoarse voice. "I have put him in the Vologne." The next day Grégory's parents received an anonymous letter. "There you are, happy with your dough," it read. "Your son is dead. I am avenged."

The investigation that followed was something less than a model of thoroughness. When a local police official was asked after the murder whether he planned to search the Villemins' house, he responded indignantly, "Search the house? Jean-Marie wouldn't like that." And though the police obtained handwriting samples from 70 Villemin family members, their Gallic reverence for motherhood kept them from getting one from Christine. When she told them that Jean-Marie's cousin Bernard Laroche, 29, had once flirted with her before her marriage, they eagerly followed the lead.

From the beginning, police were sure the murderer was someone in the Villemin clan. The Raven knew more about family matters than any outsider would have, and Grégory's body showed no sign of a struggle, indicating that he knew his abductor. The immediate suspect, Laroche, was raised by Jean-Marie's parents after his own parents died. The two men grew distant after they each married, but Laroche—whose son, Sébastien, is retarded—maintained a warm relationship with Grégory.

The local prosecutor in charge of investigating the case, Jean-Michel Lambert, 33, was content to let the town gendarmes do the spadework. Within a month they were done. Laroche's handwriting, they said, matched that of the Raven. Moreover, Laroche's 16-year-old sister-in-law, Muriel Bolle, said she had seen him go to the river with Grégory and return alone. If the jealousy motive seemed fragile—Laroche was himself a plant foreman and had recently built a new house of his own—it didn't seem to bother prosecutor Lambert. After making the arrest he announced triumphantly, "This is a simple affair."

It was a declaration he would come to regret. Two days later Bolle, who is in a special class for slow learners, recanted her testimony, claiming gendarmes had coerced her. Yet when a regional court ordered Laroche released last February for lack of evidence, Jean-Marie, like many others in the valley, seemed convinced that a murderer was going free. Finally, on March 29, he drove to Laroche's house with a hunting gun and fired a single bullet into his cousin, killing him. As police led him off to jail, he called out to his wife, "I did this for you. Don't you ever forget it."

The remark was both troubling and oddly ambiguous, since only four days before the shooting prosecutor Lambert had visited Christine and politely informed her that she had become a suspect. Initially, Lambert had been sympathetic and deferential to the aloof, attractive Christine. But later he had begun to see the bereaved mother as a shrewd manipulator who, he said, "uses her feminine charms to seduce questioners, especially men." There was even the possibility that Christine herself was the Raven. A sample of her handwriting was found to resemble the penmanship in the anonymous notes, and several of her co-workers at a Lepanges blouse factory testified that on the day of the murder they had seen her leave work and drive directly to the post office, a short distance down the road, where the Raven's last letter was mailed.

Lambert also discovered that during the periods when most of the Raven's calls were received by other family members, the Villemins' phone bill had inexplicably tripled, and Christine had either been home alone at the time or otherwise free to make the calls. Moreover, the twine that had bound Grégory's hands and feet was of a rare type used primarily in factories like the one where Christine worked. In April—six months after the murder—the Villemins' house had been searched for the first time and a length of the twine had been found. The Villemins insisted they got it from Laroche.

On this largely circumstantial evidence, Lambert arrested the pregnant Christine in July. Protesting her innocence, she went on a hunger strike, a decision that began to sway public opinion against her. Perhaps, the reasoning went, a woman who could starve the baby in her womb could also murder her own son. After only six days Christine was ordered released for lack of evidence, but her reputation was by no means repaired. No less a figure than the esteemed novelist Marguerite Duras, winner of the 1984 Goncourt Prize, wrote a 4,300-word article in the leftist tabloid Liberation depicting Christine as a scheming loner who killed her son to get back at the husband who tyrannized her and the haughty clan that would not accept her.

In September, with Christine living under light guard in her grandmother's house 30 miles from Lépanges, Lambert revived his investigation. Particularly damaging was a tape of one of the Raven's phone calls that had been provided by Christine herself. Unlike 86 other calls that had been recorded by relatives, this one contained none of the background static that usually afflicts the rural phone system. Heard on the tape are Christine's voice, the hoarse voice of the Raven and faintly, in the background, the voice of a child. There was speculation that the voice was Grégory's and that Christine might have staged the call, playing the Raven herself.

The investigation of Christine's role in the case was focused on her whereabouts after she left work at 4:53 p.m. on the day of the murder. Denying that she stopped at the post office, Christine says she picked up Grégory at his nurse's apartment and got home at 5:03. She says Grégory played outside while she ironed until around 5:15, when she says she first noticed he was missing. Fifteen minutes later she returned to the nurse's apartment to ask if the woman had seen him. Then, according to the nurse, Madame Villemin said with a sigh, "If you knew all that I have endured for five years"—a curious lament, say Duras and others, for a woman supposedly distraught over her missing son.

Lambert, whose handling of the case has been criticized, has suggested another scenario. He suspects that after retrieving Grégory from his nurse, Christine took the boy directly to the river, tied him up, perhaps pretending to be playing a game, and threw him in. He believes she could have driven to the nurse's apartment, then home again in time to make a phone call in the guise of the Raven. But the nurse cannot be sure when Christine left her apartment, and no other witness has been able to corroborate or disprove Christine's story.

In December, 14 months after the killing, yet another clue surfaced—plaster casts taken by police of tire tracks found on the banks of the Vologne the day after the murder. The tracks were made by tires of the same type as those on Christine's Renault. Unfortunately for Lambert, Christine sold the car several weeks after the murder and the new owner put more than 2,000 miles on the tires before police had the presence of mind to seize them as evidence. The tires will now be compared to the original molds, but the evidence has clearly been tainted.

Though Lambert is expected to re-accuse Christine and though suspicions against her run high, the chain of circumstantial evidence that has been woven about her is far from certain to yield a conviction. Little Grégory and Bernard Laroche are dead, Jean-Marie Villemin is in prison awaiting trial for murder, and Christine, who visits him three times a week, can look forward only to the shadowed existence of a woman who may never be cleared and never found guilty. It is a resolution without resolution, one that not even the tourists who linger wonderingly along the Vologne could ever admire for its drama or justice.

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Carpenter.