Grégory case: how are the crow’s letters appraised?

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Initially, there was only one voice. As early as 1981, the “raven” of Vologne began his work by calling, sometimes dozens of times in a few hours, the members of the Villemin family: Albert and Monique, the grandparents of little Grégory, but also his parents, Jean- Marie and Christine, as well as the victim’s uncles, Jacky, Michel, and many others…

At the end of the line, the bird spits its venom, spreads the worst rumors, and threatens to attack the “chief”, Jean-Marie Villemin, and “his little family”. He does not really appreciate the professional rise of the young man, who has become foreman at the Autocoussin factory in Lépanges-sur-Vologne, the village in the Vosges where he lives “comfortably” with his wife and son Grégory.

When the family begins to scramble to identify the villain, he changes tack. He knows that the Villemins are now recording his calls, to give the tapes to the gendarmerie. From now on, he sends letters to his targets.

On October 16, 1984, Grégory Villemin, 4 years old, was found lifeless, bound hand and foot in Vologne. The next day, his devastated parents receive a final letter.

© Creative Commons

The ensuing investigation has known, over the years, many twists and turns and even several blunders. So much so that 38 years later, the truth is still awaited in the Grégory affair. Yet the investigators never gave up on their work.

And among the only pieces they still have today to move forward, we find, of course, the famous crow’s couriers.

Since the disastrous October 16, 1984, these macabre missives have been appraised on several occasions. And they identified several “suspects”, rightly or wrongly…

“We worked with a writing expert, Ms. Jacquin-Keller, to find this person, and we systematically dictated all the people we heard to send him the documents”, explains to Planet Etienne Sesmat, captain of the gendarmerie d’Epinal, in charge of the investigation during the first months.

It will designate Bernard Laroche as the probable author of certain missives. A few weeks later, another college of experts will point the finger at Christine Villemin, Grégory’s mother, as the writer of the letter claiming the crime. In 1993, however, a dismissal was pronounced against him, for “total absence of charges”.

The mess is huge. The fault of a risky system, according to Christine Navarro, expert forensic graphologist.

“Some experts had little or no experience with anonymous letters, and for others insufficient training concerning the particular problem of anonymous letters whose writing is very disguised”, deplores the former gendarme.

She was mandated, in turn, by justice, much later, in 2016, to assess the letters of the crow.

According to the expert, who served until 2010 as head of comparative writing expertise at the IRCGN, graphology is a very special science, which requires a certain amount of expertise and practice.

“We say graphological expertise but it is not the exact term, it is rather an expertise in writing. The handwriting expert can be a handwriting expert, but the purpose of the expertise is different, and the method is different. We are going to enter into a description of the writing, we compare writings with a rigorous comparison protocol, because there are more than 300 graphics cards!”, explains Christine Navarro.

His work for the Grégory case took him many months.

“In addition, we can be dealing with disguised writings, specifies the expert. You have to have very rigorous training in cases of anonymous letters, not to be confused with graphology.”

In 2017, Christine Navarro thus submitted a 235-page report, concerning all of these letters. The document was added to the investigation file.

Just like another report, released in March 2021 by a Swiss company, OrphAnalytics. They too analyzed the crow’s letters, but with a completely different technique: stylometry, an analysis of handwriting by sequencing.

“To be able to do this kind of analysis, you have to be used to analyzing sequences, even if today we have software that gives us the answer we expect in a few seconds, when we posed the question well. Except that obviously, it takes a lot of time, precisely, to ask the question well so that it gives us a satisfactory answer”, explains the founder and director of the company, Claude-Alain Roten.

The French-speaking start-up was approached by French justice a few years ago. And the work began. OrphAnalytics received 35 letters from the crow, as well as 11 reference letters, signed by individuals.

Here too, the stylometry work is extremely time-consuming. Claude-Alain Roten’s team took three years to obtain results thanks to statistical analyzes of syntactic structures, preferred words, punctuation used…

But the success was there, assures us the expert.

Stylometry, graphology… Are they “reliable” sciences in the eyes of justice? Or even, the last card to play, the ultimate crutch for the investigators to solve the Grégory case?

For the experts, their work, whatever it is, is serious and thorough.

“The technical means have changed, says Christine Navarro. Today, we can observe the writing under magnification, juxtapose the text, take a picture of it, visually it’s something very strong… We can see what is recurring, and that helps a lot in terms of the work of the expertise. Whereas before, we recovered altered documents, which we examined with a magnifying glass, when there was one…”

Same story with Claude-Alain Roten for OrphAnalytics, who ensures that the scientific work of his company is rigorous and credible.

We will give our expert point of view after the judgment, giving objective elements that readers can check to show that we are not rewriting history”, notes the leader,

For Christine Navarro, writing expertise is “a building block in every legal case”, even if it is not enough to solve a case.

And that is the problem with the Grégory case. “In a file, there is a set of clues collected, which may give evidence in the Assize Court, there may also be someone who will denounce himself, or who will confess in detail, even if it seems complicated in a case like this, where a lot of things have been manipulated…”, regrets the expert.