Bones found of Emile, 2: What French police say and what happens now

Investigations are focusing on the weather and detailed analysis of the soil near where the bones were found

Bones confirmed as belonging to Emile were found around 1 km away from where he was last seen
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Police are now gathering all possible evidence to establish what happened after the discovery of bones belonging to Emile Soleil, the toddler who went missing from an Alps hamlet in July 2023.

Bones belonging to the boy were found by a hiker just one kilometre from where he went missing, on Saturday March 30, in an area that had already been extensively searched.

Read more: Bones of Emile, 2, found in area already searched near Alps hamlet 

The hiker reportedly took the remains to a local police station and genetic testing concluded that they belong to Emile. 

Since his disappearance - despite searches by sniffer dogs, infrared cameras, multiple searches, and a reconstruction - there had been no sign of him, nor any promising leads.

Read more: A drone and dogs are back to search for missing boy, 2, in France

Read more: Boy, 2, missing in French Alps: Sniffer dogs search for human remains

Where were the bones found?

Emile was last seen by neighbours walking along a path in the 125-resident commune of Le Haut-Vernet, a hamlet at 1,200 metres altitude, above the larger village of Le Vernet, near Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence). 

The hiker found the bones - thought to include the skull and teeth - in an area known as Les Auches, near the Saint-Pancrace chapel, around 1 km south-east, as the crow files, from where Emile was last seen.

Gendarmes have described the area as "steep and difficult to access", “quite wild”, and made up of meadows and wooded spaces.

However, it is close to a popular hiking trail, and at the intersection of several footpaths. 

Mayor of Le Vernet, François Balique, has said he was very surprised by the discovery because it was “a place that has been searched, the [sniffer] dogs had been there", and nothing had been found.

Who is the hiker who found the bones?

The woman is said to be “a local resident” in a report by Le Figaro.

She said she had picked up some of the bones when she found them. She took them to the gendarmerie in La Seyne-les-Alpes. 

Why she did this, rather than leave the bones intact and call the police, is not yet clear.

"We would have preferred her not to touch anything,” investigators said.

The bones were immediately taken for analysis by helicopter to the Gendarmerie's criminal research institute Institut de recherche criminelle de la gendarmerie nationale (IRCGN) in Pontoise. 

Colonel Pierre-Yves Bardy, commander of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence gendarmerie, said it had been an “extremely rapid operation”.

What are investigations focusing on now?

One of the major points of focus is on why the bones were only found now despite being in an area that had already been extensively searched.

Colonel Marie-Laure Pezant, spokeswoman for the national gendarmerie, has confirmed that the area where the bones were found had been carefully searched at the time of the boy’s disappearance.

She told FranceInfo that there was only "a very small chance" that the gendarmes could have missed the toddler’s body during previous searches.

She said investigations were now concentrating on different hypotheses, including:

  • The body had somehow been missed during police searches, and if so, how and why

  • The remains had been moved or hidden due to severe weather conditions

  • The bones had been brought to the area afterwards, whether by a person or by an animal.

On Thursday (March 28), 17 people were summoned by the courts to take part in a reconstruction of the moment when the boy was last seen although this is not thought to be connected to the discovery of the bones.

The hamlet has now been closed off to all outsiders while investigations continue. More than 70 gendarmes and other investigators are now on-site.

What role did the weather play, if any?

One of the biggest questions is about the weather, and the role it could have played in the bones’ discovery.

For example, there is speculation that heavy rain or snowfall may have washed the bones to the discovery location. Some areas of Le Haut-Vernet were still covered in a light covering of snow at the end of March.

On the day the bones were found, the weather was “perfect for mushroom picking”, the villagers said. 

Reports from Météo France confirmed that the skies were overcast, with some rain in the morning and a few showers in the afternoon. There was no heavy rainfall on the day in question, however.

What further analyses are taking place on the bones?

As the major piece of evidence, the bones are unsurprisingly being analysed in great detail in an attempt to determine more about the case.

A ‘forensic operations coordinator’ is now bringing together experts, including an anthropologist, who will examine not only the bones but also the soil in the discovery site, to check how long the bones had been there.

Ms Pezant, spokeswoman for the Gendarmerie Nationale, said the specialists will look at the earth on which the bones lay in order to date their presence, using "methods similar to those used in archaeology”. 

If the remains had been there for a long time, the soil would bear "traces" of them, because of the "porosity between a body and the soil", she said. 

If the bones are found to not have been there long, other hypotheses will be investigated - including whether they were transported there accidentally (by the weather or an animal), or intentionally, by a human.

She said again that it was “quite remote” that official police searches, digs, and sniffer dog reviews of the area would have missed the remains, despite “abundant vegetation in July…which may have complicated the search".

What other searches are taking place?

Dog teams from the Centre National d'Investigation Cynophile in Gramat (Lot) have also arrived on the scene, and are now working to find the rest of the body, and other clues about the circumstances of the boy’s disappearance.

"We now have to search for the entire skeleton,” said General Jacques Morel, a gendarmerie general and former head of the Versailles search unit.

Investigators will also be searching for extra signs of the boy, in particular his clothes. At the time of his disappearance, he was wearing a yellow top, white shorts, and hiking boots. 

"If [Emile] got there by his own means, we should find some items of clothing, even if they are damaged or in tatters," said General Morel.

Other investigations are also set to use drones “equipped with specific sensors that allow us to see things that are invisible to the naked eye,” said the IRCGN director. "We'll stay as long as it takes to capture the scene. The aim is to map all the sites in 3D.”

Teams are also seeking to establish the cause of death - for example, by detecting any traces of injury, attack, or animal bites.

"3D imaging can analyse any lesions even nine months later,” said forensic pathologist Bernard Marc, to FranceInfo. Teeth analysis can also reveal causes of death such as strangling or asphyxia.

However, “if the child died from hypoglycemia [low blood sugar, lack of food] or cold, it will be difficult to prove it from the bones alone,” he said.

Gendarmerie spokeswoman Ms Pezant warned that determining the cause of death was not necessarily guaranteed from the bones alone. She said: "We are not certain of discovering the cause or circumstances of death.”

How are residents taking the discovery? 

Residents say they are waiting for answers.

One said "everyone would like to know the end of the story, to bring peace”, and reassurance to her own family. If it’s [proven to be] an accident, I'll be more at peace letting [my children] run around in nature, compared to if it was a kidnapping, for example,” she said.

There is no suggestion so far that Emile was kidnapped although gendarmerie have suggested that the location where the bones were found would have been difficult for a small child to walk to alone.