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COLUMN ONE : The Long Shadow of 'The Crow' : For years, the Villemin family was terrorized by an anonymous letter writer who claimed responsibility for their little boy's death. Now a French court struggles to resolve this tale of murder and revenge.


LEPANGES, France — The Crow knew the Villemin family intimately. He knew when they were home and where they dined. And he also knew their secrets.

He knew how they shunned a relative born out of wedlock. He knew about the grandfather who hanged himself and the son who had begun putting on airs since his promotion to factory foreman.

The Crow hated them all, especially the ambitious son, whom he called "the little boss."

For four years, in hundreds of anonymous letters and phone calls boiling with anger and jealousy, The Crow terrorized the Villemins. And he often threatened murder.

"He was near us, that is certain," said Albert Villemin, patriarch of the clan, an extended family of factory workers scattered among the deceptively quiet villages of the Vosges Mountains. "Every single word we said at home, he knew."

Then, one autumn evening, The Crow slipped his last letter into a box at the Lepanges post office. Four hours later, the authorities found 4-year-old Gregory Villemin, the only son of "the little boss," in the chilly waters of the Vologne River. The boy's hands and feet were bound with rope, and a woolen cap was pulled down over his face.

Gregory's father, Jean-Marie Villemin, received the letter the next day. It read: "I hope that you will die from sorrow, boss. Even your money cannot give you back your son. This is my vengeance. . . ."

Nine years have passed since little Gregory was buried with Kiki, his stuffed toy monkey, in the church cemetery here, high on a hill above the river.

Now, for the first time, a judge and jury, sitting in the 16th-Century Palais de Justice in Dijon, are hearing all the grisly details, all the fragments of evidence and all the accusations that have fascinated this nation for nearly a decade.

At first, back in 1984, authorities accused Bernard Laroche, one of Jean-Marie's cousins. The charge was dropped, but Gregory's distraught father wasn't going to let him get away. He calmly waited at Laroche's house and fatally shot him.

Then, officials turned their attention to Christine Villemin, Gregory's mother. In 1985, she was charged with killing her son, but earlier this year that charge was dropped too.

Technically, all that is left for the judge and jury in Dijon to decide is the fate of Jean-Marie, who admits killing his cousin to avenge his son's murder.

But Judge Olivier Ruyssen, in a rare departure for French justice, has turned this trial into a freewheeling public investigation into "l'affaire Gregory."

Who is The Crow? Who killed Gregory? And did French justice fail the Villemin family?

Judge Ruyssen, son of a decorated admiral and one of the country's most respected jurists, has vowed to find the answers.

"This abominable affair has been made of suspicions and gossip," Ruyssen said. "We must take advantage of this trial to wash it out. Only the truth can bring a bit of peace from all this sadness."

The case of a little boy's death, the anonymous and terrifying Crow, the quintessential French family feud and the gossipy small town of Lepanges have enthralled the nation.

Tour buses still visit Gregory's gravestone. And, from the cafes of Paris and Marseilles to the tiniest rural villages, the French still debate the case.

Many believe that Christine wrote the anonymous letters, then killed her son--perhaps to spite her husband. Others blame Laroche. And still others believe that the true culprit has yet to be unmasked.

Even today, copycat "Crows" plague some family members, other witnesses and even the judge.

Ruyssen has put the French justice system itself on trial.

Along with pathologists, relatives and handwriting experts, the court has heard from the prosecutor who bungled the original investigation, police who may have pressured witnesses and reporters who traded information for access to the Villemin family.

"When prosecutors are called to testify," as Le Monde, the respected French daily newspaper, observed recently, "it is not a sign of the good health of justice."

Outside the courthouse, built by one of the last dukes of Burgundy, dozens of spectators wait in subfreezing temperatures for the chance to squeeze onto the hard benches of the gallery.

Ruyssen, his two assistants and nine jurors sit on risers facing the courtroom. Each of those 12 people will have a vote when the trial concludes this month.

On one side of the courtroom are the five black-robed lawyers representing Jean-Marie.

The 35-year-old defendant, who wears wire-rimmed glasses, conservative suits and a stoic expression, sits behind them in a bulletproof glass box. He has already spent 2 1/2 years in jail for his cousin's death.

Jean-Marie's attorneys hope to prove that their client had good reason to take the law into his own hands because Laroche was, in fact, Gregory's killer.

Across from them is Laroche's widow, Marie-Ange, and her four lawyers. She doesn't blame her husband's killer.

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