A former military dog trainer confessed yesterday to "unintentionally" killing a 9-year-old girl whose disappearance from a wedding party in the Alps last year prompted nationwide concern and months of fruitless searching.
Investigators at last found Maelys De Araujo's skull and some other remains yesterday in a snow-covered ravine six months after she went missing, according to Grenoble Prosecutor Jean-Yves Coquillat.
Police were led to the remote site by chief suspect Nordahl Lelandais, who was arrested and charged after her disappearance but repeatedly had denied wrongdoing. He was a guest at the same wedding in Pont-de-Beauvoisin, near the French mountain city of Chambery.
Lelandais decided to come clean Wednesday after investigators found traces of the girl's blood in the trunk of Lelandais' car, the prosecutor told reporters.
Lelandais told investigators that he killed her accidentally, hid the body near his house and then returned to the wedding party. He later dumped the child's body in the remote ravine.
His lawyer said Lelandais had let children at the wedding party look at dogs he had in his car.
After Maelys went missing, police questioned more than 200 potential witnesses, and hundreds of volunteers helped search the area for days. Police dogs found the girl's scent but lost it in the wedding hall parking lot, suggesting she may have been forced into a vehicle or gotten into one voluntarily.
In his confession, Lelandais did not explain the circumstances of the girl's death, the prosecutor said.
"Lelandais asked investigation judges to question him today, because he had revelations to make," the prosecutor said. Afterward, the prosecutor said, Lelandais apologised to the girl and her parents.
His lawyer Alain Jakubowicz described surprise at hearing Lelandais' confession of Maelys' "accidental death," but did not give further details about what happened. The lawyer said he was dropping his request for Lelandais' release.
"I'm a father. Nothing worse can happen to you as a parent," he said, choking up.
Lelandais has also been charged with the murder of Arthur Noyer, a 24-year old soldier who went missing last April and whose skull was found by a hitchhiker in the Alps in September.
Police suspect he may be a serial killer and are looking into whether he could be behind the unsolved Alps murders in which a British man, his wife and mother-in-law were killed in a forest car park.
Saad al-Hilli, Iqbal al-Hilli and her mother Suhaila al-Allaf were shot dead on holiday in Chevaline, near Annecy, in September 2012, along with a passing French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier.
Despite a massive manhunt, the investigation has all-but petered out.
In December, Annecy prosecutor Véronique Dénizot confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that the case will be re-opened to probe Lelandais' possible involvement.
Other potential cases that may be linked to Lelandais involve Adrien Mourial, a 24-year-old Belgian citizen who went missing near Lake Annecy in July, and Jean-Christophe Morin and Ahmed Hamad, who vanished in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Grenoble prosecutor said Wednesday's investigation had focused solely on Maelys.