French police probe bizarre gang of alleged kidnappers - restaurateur, photographer, homeless ex-commando
The kidnapping of hotel owner Jacqueline Veyrac is reportedly linked to a row over a seaside restaurant
When the owner of one of the Côte d’Azur’s most exclusive hotels was snatched off a French Riviera street by three hooded men and bundled into a van, police assumed a ransom note would soon follow.
Forty-eight hours later, after the kidnappers had contacted the family of Jacqueline Veyrac to demand a considerable sum of money for her safe return, a passerby discovered the wealthy widow trussed up in the back of a van fitted with fake license plates.
Now French detectives are trying to unravel the allegedly “complex” links between a bizarre group after arresting nine people, including an Italian-born former manager of a Michelin-starred restaurant, a one-time paparazzo nicknamed Tintin and a ex-British secret serviceman who, until his arrest, was reportedly sleeping rough in Nice.
On Sunday, seven members the eclectic cast were brought before a judge in Nice, where by late afternoon six had been officially put under investigation on various charges, including organising a kidnap, imprisonment and attempted extortion as part of an organised group.
Le Parisien said the criminal group was “worthy of a best-selling thriller”.
The former photographer – reportedly fined in 2005 for a series of snatched photographs of Princess Caroline of Monaco taken in 1996 – reportedly placed tracking devices under Veyrac’s car so he could trace her movement using his mobile phone, according to the local newspaper Nice Matin.
Veyrac, 76, who owns the five-star Grand Hotel on the Croisette at Cannes, was kidnapped last Monday as she left a pharmacy and was walking to her car parked in Nice.
Within hours the kidnappers had contacted her family to demand a ransom, according to police.
She was found two days later, when a pedestrian became suspicious of a van with what appeared to be false plates parked on a residential road in the hills above the chic coastal resort. The passerby spotted Veyrac through a window and broke into the vehicle to rescue her.
Detectives suggested a series of bungles by the gang had led to the kidnap plan failing after two days.
According to Libération, the kidnap was allegedly sparked by revenge after an Italian-born restaurateur who ran La Réserve, a gastronomic seaside restaurant owned by Veyrac, between 2007-09, blamed the wealthy owner when he was forced to close.
The man, whose name has been given only as Giuseppe S, has denied any involvement in the kidnap.
The French press reported that one of the arrested men, a Finnish chef who also worked at La Réserve, was released after being cleared of involvement in the kidnapping.
Other suspects, including a former police officer turned private detective and, according to M6 television, an unnamed “former member of British special forces, now living as a homeless person in a tent on the Promenade des Anglais”, are still being questioned.
The former policeman, one of those put under investigation on Sunday, was said to have played no part in the kidnapping but had failed to report it to the police when he was informed about it hours later.
His lawyer insisted he had played no part in the plot.
Police believe the gang tracked and followed Veyrac for several months before snatching her.
The discreet and publicity shy Veyrac was reportedly unharmed after her ordeal. Police said they were linking this kidnap to a similar but failed attempt to snatch Veyrac in December 2013.
At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, while two judges were still examining the evidence against five other suspects, Jean-Michel Prêtre, Nice public prosecutor, who had described the the case as “complex”, said if found guilty certain suspects faced life sentences.
He insisted the investigation was ongoing and said that a number of those in police custody had confessed to their role in the snatching while others were denying any involvement.
“The inquiry will continue. There are still people to find, to interview and almost certainly present before a judge. There are elements to clarify.”
Prêtre praised Veyrac’s “courage”, describing her as having “remarkable qualities”.
“She never gave up, she resisted. She is someone who showed her exceptional character,” Prêtre told the press conference.
He added that the kidnappers had demanded a “large sum of money” in ransom.
A police spokesperson said certain suspects were known to his officers for “petty crimes” but none was linked to established criminal gangs.
“As soon as we knew the identity of the victim we linked it with the December 2013 incident, which didn’t come to anything, but appears to be a first attempt at kidnapping,” he said.
“After 96 hours in custody we have not been able to complete the inquiry. The project had been planned for several months and was well prepared. Mme Veyrac was the subject of surveillance [by the gang], including the vehicle she used, the places she frequented.”
He said the kidnapping and ransom demand had failed because “errors were made”.
“There are still elements to be cleared up, particularly with regard to the attempted kidnapping Mme Veyrac was a victim of in 2013,” he added.