By Thierry Leveque
PARIS (Reuters) - French detectives have found DNA traces on evidence from a child murder case that obsessed the nation in the 1980s, raising hopes that advances in genetic science could help identify the killer at last.
Gregory Villemin, a 4-year-old boy, was found dead in October 1984 with his feet and hands bound in the Vologne river, near his home in a village in eastern France.
The gruesome discovery set off a dramatic chain of events that became known simply as "the Gregory Affair" and gripped the French public, spilling more ink than any other crime in the country's 20th century history.
Jean-Marie Beney, state prosecutor in the eastern town of Dijon, told Reuters on Thursday that DNA traces from a man and a woman were found on a threatening anonymous letter sent to Gregory's parents after the child's death.
The discovery is significant because the letter was one of a series sent by a mysterious figure who claimed to be the killer.
The writer, who became known as "the Crow" because of a colloquial expression designating those who send unsigned letters, has never been identified.
Beney said that the DNA traces had been tested against those of Gregory's parents and they were not the same. The boy's mother, Christine Villemin, was once a suspect though she was cleared in 1993.
The decision to reopen the bags of evidence collected during the original Gregory investigation and look for DNA was taken by a Dijon appeals court in December last year, at the request of the boy's parents.
News that DNA had been found immediately shot to the top of all French radio and television news bulletins, showing that no one had forgotten the Gregory Affair.
The child's uncle, Bernard Laroche, was initially charged before being freed after several key pieces of evidence against him were thrown out because of procedural errors by prosecutors.
Convinced that Laroche was the murderer, Gregory's father Jean-Marie Villemin shot him dead and served four years in jail for the killing.
During the same period, Christine Villemin became a suspect because witnesses said they had seen her at the post office the day a vengeful letter from the Crow was sent. She was placed under formal investigation but later cleared.
"Your money won't give you back your son. That's my revenge, you bastard," the Crow wrote in the letter.
In one of the infamous moments of the Gregory Affair, the avant-garde author Marguerite Duras wrote in the newspaper Liberation that Christine Villemin was guilty but argued that she was downtrodden by her husband and the murder was justified.
In words that became a black mark on Duras's name, she wrote that Christine Villemin was "sublime, obviously sublime."
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Philippa Fletcher)