Police are deployed at a home in Surrey, England, said to be the residence… (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty…)
CHEVALINE, France — Three members of a family and a passing cyclist were killed, and a 4-year-old girl discovered hours later cowering in terror under the bodies of her dead mother and grandmother in their car along a picturesque Alpine roadway, French police said Thursday.
The unknown assailant, who shot three of the victims in the head, also violently beat the girl's 7-year-old sister and left her for dead.
Police, who had sealed off the crime scene, said they had no idea for eight hours that the 4-year-old was in the car.
"There was nothing to lead us to believe there was another human being in the car. She was invisible and completely silent," local public prosecutor Eric Maillaud said at a packed news conference in the nearby town of Annecy.
Lt. Col. Bertrand Francois of the Haute Savoie police said: "We did not search for survivors because there was never any indication there was a living person in that car. The girl was small and hiding under the legs of one of the women."
The owner of the car was named Thursday as Iraqi-born Saad Hilli, 50, who lived in Surrey, southern England, but the French authorities have refused to disclose the identities of the dead.
The slain cyclist, who investigators say appeared to have no connection with the family and who was probably "in the wrong place at the wrong time," was said to be a local father of three in his 40s.
The discovery was made Wednesday afternoon by an unnamed British cyclist near Lake Annecy, known as the Venice of the French Alps. The cyclist, a former Royal Air Force serviceman who owns a house nearby, was "profoundly shocked" when he came across the bloodbath.
When he arrived at the top of what is known in guidebooks as La Route de la Combe d'Ire, the cyclist found a BMW station wagon with its engine running and its windows shot out. The driver, who had been shot in the head, was slumped over the wheel. In the back seats were a woman, believed to be his wife, and an older woman, both dead. The older woman had been shot in the head, but police said it was not yet clear how the younger woman had died.
By the car, the ex-serviceman found the badly beaten 7-year-old, who was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where surgeons fought to save her life. Her condition was said to be improving Thursday evening.
The French cyclist was lying nearby, also shot in the head. About 15 spent cartridges from a semiautomatic pistol were found on the ground around the car.
The assassin appeared to have specifically targeted his victims, shooting them one by one through the windows of the vehicle rather than spraying it with gunfire, authorities said.
French police refused to rule out any motive for the killings but described it as a "strange modus operandi" and said they had "plenty of ideas, but no real leads." They said they were struggling to find a motive.
"At the moment we cannot say what happened, except four people were killed, or why," said Maillaud, the prosecutor.
"It's not that we have no idea. We have many ideas, many hypotheses, all of which are being looked at, but there are no real leads at the moment. My worry is that we may never find the killer."
Willsher is a special correspondent.