Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Marcel Petiot

"An Appalling Murderer"

Petiot's defense was a plea of complete innocence. He admitted killing certain "enemies of France" as a Resistance member, but denied any murders for profit. According to Petiot, he first became aware of corpses stashed at 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, after his release from Nazi custody. He assumed the dead "collaborators" had been killed and dumped by members of his Fly-Tox network, long since scattered and unable to verify his story. Petiot had asked brother Maurice for quicklime to dissolve the bodies and camouflage their odor.

Petiot was housed on death row at Santé prison while authorities investigated his claims. Strangely, for a patriotic hero, he had no defenders in the leadership of recognized Resistance groups. Some knew him as a small-time hanger-on, a fraud, or not at all; other groups, described in detail by Petiot, proved to be nonexistent. No record survived of his alleged bombing forays, assassination of Nazis, or tests of his various "secret weapons." Prosecutors finally dismissed Petiot's story and charged him with murdering 27 victims for plunder — an estimated F200 million in cash, gold and jewels that was never recovered.

Joachim Guschinov, victim
Joachim Guschinov,

Petiot's trial began on March 18 1946, at the Palais de Justice, before a panel of three judges and a seven-man jury. René Floriot once again defended Petiot. Prosecutors were helped by 12 civil lawyers who were hired by the relatives of Petiot's victims. Petiot took an active role in his own defense, bantering with judges and prosecutors, grilling witnesses, exchanging jibes with the private attorneys. He denounced the Khaït family's lawyer as a "double-agent" and a "defender of Jews," while noting that victim Joseph Réocreux "was easy to spot as a collaborator. He had a head like a pimp — you know, like a police inspector." Victim Joachim Guschinov was alive and well, Petiot insisted. Why couldn't prosecutors find him? Because, Petiot smirked, "South America is a big place."

And so it went. Petiot refused to describe his secret weapons because "the information could only be used against France." He dismissed the Wolff family — Dutch Jews fleeing Nazi persecution at home — as "Germans," while victim Yvan Dreyfus was "a traitor four times over." Victim Kurt Kneller suffered from "an embarrassing affliction" which Petiot refused to name, but he and his family had not been killed; they had returned to Germany, Petiot insisted, and were "getting ready for the next war." Petiot had met Dr. Paul-Léon Braunberger "for ten minutes in my life," at a public luncheon; he could not explain why Braunberger's clothing was found at 21 Rue le Sueur. Many fugitives had survived the Fly-Tox escape route, Petiot testified, but none were identifiable because "they changed names frequently." Rebuked by the chief judge Michel Leser for doodling in court, Petiot retorted, "I am listening, but it doesn't really interest me very much."

After the trial's second day, reporters overheard two jurors and Judge Leser discussing Petiot in private, referring to him as "a demon" and "an appalling murderer." Attorney Floriot immediately sought a mistrial, but the appellate court rejected the motion. The trial resumed after the two offending jurors were replaced. On the trial's fifth day, judges and jurors visited 21 Rue le Sueur. As he passed through a phalanx of police and jeering neighbors, Petiot quipped, "Peculiar homecoming, don't you think?"

Marcel Petiot in court (CORBIS)
Marcel Petiot in court

Petiot maintained his hero's posture to the end, admitting that he had killed 19 of the 27 victims found on Rue le Sueur. They were all "Germans and collaborators," of course, ranked among the 63 enemies of France whom Petiot admitted killing between 1940 and 1945. The other 44 were not identified, with Petiot telling the court, "I don't have to justify myself for murders I'm not accused of committing!"

In fact, he had already said more than enough. René Floriot's summation hailing Petiot as a hero of the Resistance won a standing ovation from the courtroom audience. But the judges and jurors held a very different view. After deliberating for three hours — a mere 90 seconds for each of the 135 criminal charges — the court convicted Petiot on all but nine counts. He was acquitted of killing Nelly-Denise Hotin, but found guilty of 26 other premeditated murders. Petiot's death sentence was a foregone conclusion, although it did not seem to faze him in the slightest.

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