French police say two-year-old Émile could be dead and his killer may have taken away his body after accidentally hitting him ‘with a car or tractor’ – in a chilling echo of BBC drama The Missing.
Still hoping to find the boy alive, the search has continued again today with a helicopter taking flight to broadcast the voice of Émile’s desperate mother across the region in an attempt to find her missing son ‘who was always chasing butterflies.’
The hamlet of Haut-Vernet has now been closed off to non-residents after searches to find the boy who went missing on Saturday while on holiday with his grandparents proved unsuccessful.
Now, after days of thorough searches involving 800 gendarmes, firefighters, volunteers, helicopters, thermic camera drones, and sniffer dogs, police have admitted that they need to consider other possibilities.
‘Either the body was concealed after an accident, or it was removed’, a gendarmerie spokesperson said, adding that sniffer dogs would have found a body in the region by now.
The horrifying development provides chilling echoes of BBC series The Missing in which a young boy vanishes while on holiday with his family in France. The child is presumed kidnapped, but turns out to have been run over and thrown unconscious into the boot of a car by a driver who thinks he is dead.
Émile was playing in the garden of his grandparents’ home in the hamlet of Le Vernet in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence on Saturday afternoon when he vanished
Volunteers take part in a search operation for two-and-a-half-year-old Émile who is reported missing
French gendarmes take part in a search operation for two-and-a-half-year-old Émile who is reporting missing
‘It is obvious that, after 48 hours, we have switched to another dimension. Hearings are underway,’ the gendarmerie spokesperson said, referring to interviews being carried out with residents and potential witnesses.
In the hope of finding any possible leads, police are also speaking to Émile’s devout Catholic mother, who has appealed for prayers for her son and his safe return.
According to La Provence, officials are investigating whether Émile could have been hit by car or a tractor, and his body taken away.
‘Of course, we still have hope of finding him alive, but elsewhere. If he was dead in the perimeter, the dogs would have smelled him,’ Le Point reported the spokesperson as saying.
‘If he was alive and hidden, we would also have found him given the means that were deployed.’
On Tuesday morning, airborne searchers were given a recording of the mother’s voice to play ‘as loud as possible’ from speakers on the aircraft.
‘Their hope is that Émile will be hidden in the countryside, and will come out when he hears his mother’s voice coming from a helicopter,’ said an emergency services source.
‘Émile was always chasing butterflies, and could have got a long way away, before hiding somewhere for a nap,’ the source added.
Amid the searching, Émile’s mother, a devout Christian, called on fellow Catholics to pray for her son’s return, asking them to invoke the prayers of Benoîte Rencurel – a French religious figure who is said to have seen apparitions from the Virgin Mary from 1664 to 1718.
Police are also exploring another hypothesis that Émile could have been kidnapped – despite ruling out any suggestion that he was abducted just 24 hours ago.
‘He is two-and-a-half years old, he was able to walk quite a distance. But, all the hunts we have done for the past two days should have allowed us to locate him,’ said Marc Chappuis, the police officer in charge of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence where Emile went missing on Saturday afternoon.
With regard to treating the disappearance as a kidnapping, Rémy Avon, the public prosecutor told the same press conference: ‘All the hypotheses remain valid, none is favoured or excluded.’
‘We are committed to carrying out investigations on all levels,’ he confirmed.
After three days, the two-year-old is still nowhere to be found after police carried out searches of the 20 or so houses in the small Alpine hamlet surrounded by forest.
As fears grow, the public prosecutor stressed that as of yet ‘no element characterises a criminal offense likely to be at the origin of this disappearance.’
‘From the moment there is no offence, there is no person implicated,’ he repeated.
A group of gendarmes are looking for little two-year-old Emile in a steep area just outside Le Vernet in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
French gendarmes are briefed before taking part in a search operation for two-and-a-half-year-old Emile
Volunteers are looking for Émile who was playing in the garden of his grandparents’ house in a hamlet just outside Le Vernet in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence between Grenoble and Nice when he vanished
French police are engaged in an extensive air and land search for a missing two-year-old boy who disappeared from a village in the south of the country at the weekend
A French gendarme takes part in a search operation for two-and-a-half-year-old Emile who is reported missing for two days
A group of gendarmes goes on a hunt in search of little Emile. French police are engaged in an extensive air and land search for the missing two-year-old boy
But he also told franceinfo radio that police have no clues as to what could have happened to him.
‘At this point, we don’t have any clues allowing us to follow any particular theory (on his whereabouts)’, the local public prosecutor said.
Mr Chappuis confirmed at the press conference that the search system was to be adapted for Tuesday to be ‘more targeted’.
Police had already expanded the three-mile search area on Monday after finding no trace of the boy. A helicopter, thermic camera drones, and sniffer dogs were all brought in to help.
‘We remain present on the ground,’ Mr Chappuis said. ‘We deploy specialised means in search of traces and clues and we respond to the needs of the judicial investigation.’
He added that the hamlet had also been closed off to outsiders from 8am Tuesday ‘to ensure the search operation can continue smoothly’.
Mr Avon also confirmed that, despite witnesses coming forward, no new element ‘likely to be able to explain the disappearance of little Émile’ has so far been brought forward.
Émile was playing in the garden of his unnamed grandparents’ home in the hamlet of Haut-Vernet in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence on Saturday afternoon when he vanished.
His parents – who have not been named either – meanwhile remained at their home near Marseille, 200 miles away, for the summer holidays.
The family was getting ready to leave the house they were staying in when Émile took advantage of the inattention, officials said. His grandparents came to put him in the car and found that he had gone.
The grandparents then alerted the authorities of Émile’s disappearance at around 5.15pm [4.15pm BST] on Saturday, at which point family members, police, emergency service workers, and local villagers started the search for the boy.
François Balique, the mayor of Le Vernet, told French television yesterday that the boy was a good walker for his age.
‘It’s a small village with 20 or so houses … we see everything. He could have gone some distance and perhaps got lost or was hiding,’ he said
The initial 5km search area for the Émile has today been extended with a helicopter, thermic camera drones, and sniffer dogs all brought in to help
Emile was last seen playing in the garden at his grandparents’ house on July 8 as people now search for him
Volunteers take part in a search operation for two-and-a-half-year-old Emile who is reported missing for two days
The area around Le Vernet is surrounded by forest is popular with hikers.
Émile, who is originally from Bouches-du-Rhône near Marseille, was spotted by two people as he left his grandparents’ home.
Mr Avon, the public prosecutor, said the people ‘then they lost all trace of him’.
Marie-Laure, who co-runs the only bar in Le Vernet, said: ‘We were preparing for the evening service, when we were told the child had gone missing.
‘We all went to see what we could do to help as quickly as possible. We have looked in places where he could be, we have really looked everywhere for him.’
Police have so far carried out a search of all houses in the village, and have called upon anyone with any information to come forward.
Releasing a photo and description of a child to social media and broadcasters, officials said he had brown eyes, blond hair, and is 90cm (almost 3ft) tall.
They said he was wearing a yellow top, white shorts with a green pattern, and hiking shoes at the time of his disappearance.