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At the criminal brigade of Versailles, the heady mysteries of “cold cases”


A murder investigation responds to an axiom: its resolution is quick, or nearly impossible. While 80% of cases are elucidated in France each year, the others, drowned in the incessant rush of business, become overdue mysteries, cold cases, according to the name of use. To take them back is to explore police failure, to put an outdated procedure back on the job and to try to extract elements that have been little or badly exploited. A national service was even set up for this purpose in 2022: the Nanterre judicial center, specializing in unsolved cases and serial crimes. Its three magistrates want all unsolved homicides older than eighteen months to be reinvestigated.

At the “Crim’ Versailles”, one of the brigades concerned by this recovery strategy, the deputy head, Commander Stéfanie Duchâtel, is used to living with these sometimes distant, often heady stories. In thirty-one years of career, she has learned to manage the emotions they arouse. So she investigated for a decade on the disappearance of Estelle Mouzin, in Seine-et-Marne, spending hours chatting with the girl’s father. And then, one day, she opened the book he had just written: “I held ten pages, and I cried like a madeleine, when I knew everything by heart. I couldn’t read it. To survive in this job, you have to compartmentalize, not absorb all the misfortune that you deal with all day long. »

How to avoid getting bogged down, cold box ? Initially, any criminal record is a hot iron. “The faster you work, the better you work. It’s a speed race.”, theorizes the commander. When a murder has just taken place, it produces a sort of blast effect that should be exploited to the best of its ability. Witnesses don’t have time to think about what they say; investigators are not yet drowned in surveillance images, telephony is “fresher”, and therefore easier to study. If a case is not resolved, time passes, memories fade, sometimes also motivation. The mystery deepens, one file chases the other.

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Unlike the brigades which can plan their actions, the Crim’Versailles obviously has no control over the cases it inherits. The twenty-three civil servants, divided into four groups, accumulate overtime and the frustration of their relatives in front of their saturated schedules. They barely have time for the heat. So, the cold… Stéfanie Duchâtel thus identifies twenty-one files dated from 1980 to 2017, all gathered in a special spreadsheet. We can distinguish three kinds of cold cases : investigations where there are material elements but no author; those where there is an author, but no evidence; those without either.

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