- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

ROUVRAY, France An overgrown riverbank in northern Burgundy holds the secrets behind one of France's ghastliest serial murder mysteries a story that many believe has been concealed for more than 20 years by an establishment coverup.
On a chill day just over a year ago, a former bus driver named Emile Louis, 66, led police down a farm road from the village of Rouvray, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, and pointed out the spot next to a clump of trees where his victims were buried.
In the weeks that followed, police unearthed the decomposed bodies of two young women. But no trace was found of the five others Louis said he had killed. A year later they lie somewhere beneath the undergrowth and the rain-soaked clay.
The whereabouts of the remaining "Disappeared of the Yonne" (a district southeast of Paris, named after a tributary of the Seine river) as they are now called in France is just one of a series of puzzles in an affair that has grown more and more shocking with each revelation.
It is now known that in addition to the seven young women all suffering from mild mental disabilities who disappeared between 1977 and 1979, at least 10 others have been murdered or vanished in unexplained circumstances in a triangle of land within 13 miles of the town of Auxerre.
More worryingly, allegations of some kind of obstruction by the town's judiciary have become increasingly hard to ignore.
Despite overwhelming evidence in the early 1980s that Louis was linked to the disappearances he was, for example, personally known to each of the young women from his work ferrying the disabled to a day care center in Auxerre no attempt was ever made to prosecute him.
Instead he was found guilty of a series of sexual-abuse charges involving other women and continued to abuse other women after he left Burgundy for southern France.
Only after pressure over many years by an association representing victims' families was an investigation begun, and Louis finally confessed to the murders in December 2000. However after leading police to the burial place, he retracted his confession a month later.
On Wednesday the high court of appeal in Paris ruled that Louis, now 68, can stand trial for "kidnap and illegal confinement," though because of France's statute of limitations, it is not clear whether murder charges can be brought.
According to justice officials in Paris, the Louis affair was part of a pattern, because none of the other disappearances and murders including that of a British student, Joanna Parrish, in 1990 was properly investigated, either.
And in December it was discovered that files on around 100 criminal investigations many into missing women between 1958 and 1982 had disappeared from the prosecutor's office in Auxerre.
As a result, Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu has ordered an inquiry into the role of four senior justice officials in Auxerre in the 1980s, while the Judicial Inspection Service is re-examining all 17 cases to try to establish any connection.
"What links all these cases are two things," said Corinne Harrmann, lawyer and author of a book on the affair. "First, all the young women involved were vulnerable either disabled or far from home like Joanna Parrish.
"But more important the link is that all were ignored by the justice system. We do not know by whom or why, but it is clear that somebody was being protected."
Louis could not have been responsible for all the disappearances because he was in jail when some of them took place, so Mrs. Harrmann believes he was the unwitting beneficiary of a system ordered from on high that stifled investigations in Auxerre into certain types of crime.

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