Boy, 2, missing in French hamlet: Where is inquiry six months on?

Investigations are continuing into the child’s sudden disappearance in the tiny mountain community

A family handout photo of Emile
Emile is still missing six months after he disappeared from a small hamlet in the French Alps
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Emile, the two-year-old boy who disappeared from a French mountain hamlet six months ago, has still not been found despite continued investigations.

The boy went missing near his grandparents’ home in Le Haut-Vernet (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) on July 8 at around 17:00. His wider family were outside packing the car for a family outing when the boy is thought to have wandered off after waking up from a nap.

No sign of him has been seen since despite constant police work on the case.

‘Tell us where Emile is’

In a message in a November issue of the weekly publication Famille Chrétienne, Emile’s parents urged anyone with information to come forward, saying: “Please see our distress; tell us where Emile is.”

The family, who are practising Catholics, also posted a Facebook prayer for their son on Christmas Day.

Searches - including with sniffer dogs and drones with infrared cameras - have been conducted multiple times since Emile’s disappearance, alongside traditional investigations by police and gendarmerie.

Members of the large family regularly stayed at the grandparents’ house, and the group was well-known in the area. It was not unusual for children to walk around the tiny village, which was at 1,200 metres altitude, above the larger commune of Le Vernet.

Emile’s parents were not at the house at the time; they had stayed at their usual home in Marseille.

Search timeline

As soon as the family noticed Emile was gone, they called the emergency services. Within an hour, 40 gendarmes were on the scene, as were mountain rescue teams and a helicopter crew from Digne-les-Bains, who flew the helicopter all night searching for signs of the boy.

It was thought that the first 48 hours were crucial to Emile’s survival if he was stuck outdoors, or had had an accident in the mountains.

The day after, more helicopters and drones - equipped with thermal imaging cameras - continued to search, alongside hundreds of volunteers, hikers, hunters and firefighters. Sniffer dogs specialised in missing persons were also brought in to help search.

The dogs stopped picking up any scent at the hamlet’s ‘washhouse’ (old lavoir). Two witnesses also said that they had seen Emile near this spot at 17:15 on the day he went missing, but had not thought much of it, as it was common for children to be seen in the area.

Investigators called for any other witnesses to come forward, and two days after the disappearance, the Prefect of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region announced that the ‘citizens’ search had been stopped, in favour of a deeper judicial investigation.

Around 30 houses in the hamlet were searched, residents questioned, and their cars searched. The 1.8km road between Le Haut-Vernet and Le Vernet was also searched.

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

DNA, witness statements, phone lines

More searches and evidence-gathering investigations began, including across a 5km zone around the grandparents' house. Police gathered witness statements, DNA samples and the 1,600 telephone lines that were in the area on the day of the disappearance.

Two magistrates in Aix-en-Provence were assigned the case, and, in mid-August, the disappearance was reclassified as a criminal kidnapping investigation. Despite no real signs of a kidnapping, extending the case’s definition allowed investigators to question more people.

Read more: Boy, 2, missing in French Alps: inquiry changes to kidnapping

The Marseille research unit then set up a separate investigation centre, with 25 people working full-time, using new software in a bid to uncover a lead. In mid-September, divers searched a stretch of water in Le Vernet, while a concrete slab was also examined. Nothing was found in either place.

In mid-October, a nearby farm was searched. The public prosecutor in Aix-en-Provence, Jean-Luc Blachon, told FranceInfo that “no stone must be left unturned”.

In mid-November, 50 gendarmes carried out more searches - both in Le Vernet and in six neighbouring departments, with a view to recovering computers and mobile phones that could offer a lead. Officers now know exactly who was in Le Haut-Vernet and Le Vernet on July 8, including tourists.

Since the beginning of the search, mayor François Balique has suggested that the disappearance must be due to outside involvement. In the autumn, he said: “It's certainly not someone from the village, we’re like a family, we know each other.”

Read more: Properties in six departments searched over missing boy, 2, in France
Read more: Boy, 2, missing in French Alps: Sniffer dogs search for human remains

More searches to come

Helicopter pilots are set to begin flying over the area again once the snow has melted later in the winter Colonel Martin Patier explained that there is “less vegetation cover” in the forest immediately after snow has melted, making it “easier to see through” he said.

Emile’s parents are still calling for information on their son’s whereabouts, and have said they want to know even if he is dead.

In the Famille Chrétienne message, they wrote of the “terrible anguish…crushing their hearts” and asked: “Please, if he is alive, don't let us live without him, give him back to us! [And] for pity's sake, if he's dead, tell us where he is, give him back to us, don't leave us without a grave to mourn him.”

Investigations continue.

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