GRENOBLE – It started with the disappearance of 8-year-old Maëlys de Araujo at a wedding in the French Alps. After a massive search that drew national attention, investigators identified a wedding guest as the prime suspect. But that was just the beginning: the investigation led authorities to suspect the man of other crimes across France.
Dog trainer Nordahl Lelandais is on trial in Grenoble on Monday accused of kidnapping and killing Maëlys. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.
The search for Maëlys and the gruesome discovery of her body six months later, after Lelandais admitted killing her, gripped France and tore the girl’s family apart.
The trial began on Monday morning in the presence of Maëlys’ parents. The girl’s mother held a large picture of her daughter in her hands.
Lelandais told the court he wanted to apologize. “I actually took Maëlys’ life. I didn’t want to,” he said. “I will clarify the facts during the trial,” he added.
Experts were due to reveal details of their assessment of Lelandais’ personality later this afternoon.
Lelandais was not originally invited to the August 26, 2017 wedding in the town of Pont-de-Beauvoisin. But he had phoned the groom the day before, who said Lelandais could come to the reception.
Lelandais showed up for dessert around midnight – and to two guests who had asked him to supply cocaine, according to witnesses from The Associated Press.
He invited Maëlys to see his dogs, so she got into his car to look at them, investigators said. Around 3 a.m., the girl’s mother alerted the wedding guests that she was missing, and they began searching for her to no avail.
Examination of the suspect’s phone revealed that he put it on “airplane mode” twice that night. According to the investigation documents, his car, an Audi A3, was spotted by a video surveillance camera with a small passenger at 2.47 a.m.
According to witnesses, Lelandais then returned to the wedding, seemingly unconcerned about Maëlys while everyone else went looking for her. He left the wedding before police arrived at 4:15 a.m
He was identified as a suspect within days. For the next six months, he denied any involvement in Maëlys’ disappearance, despite mounting evidence against him.
Then, in February 2018, after a trail of blood was discovered in the trunk of his car thanks to extensive scientific analysis, Lelandais confessed to investigators: “That poor little girl, I killed her involuntarily,” he said, and reportedly apologized to her parents investigators. He told police where to find her body, and they dug up the child’s small bones in a forest.
Lelandais told investigators Maëlys began crying in an “incomprehensible” way and slapped her severely in the face several times, not wanting to kill her.
“I don’t know what happened in my head,” he said.
Recalling the murder, he was referring to another man, Arthur Noyer, a soldier who disappeared from a gay nightclub in another region of the Alps in early 2017. That prompted investigators to take a fresh look at Noyer’s disappearance. His skull was later found nearby.
Lelandais admitted to accidentally killing Noyer after he got into a violent punching fight. Last year, Lelandais was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of Noyer.
Lelandais told investigators about his sexual attraction to little girls. He described being ashamed of it and admitted that he had used alcohol and drugs heavily.
In the Grenoble trial, Lelandais is also charged with sexual violence against two cousins, aged 5 and 6, committed in the same summer of 2017 while he was on holiday in the south of France.
He confessed to molesting her in her sleep. Video of one of the scenes was found on his cellphone.
Lelandais was also charged in the Ardennes in northern France for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old cousin. And police have been investigating whether Lelandais may have played a role in other unsolved crimes across France.
In Maëlys, a book co-written by the girl’s mother, Jennifer De Araujo, with a journalist, she calls the accused “the other” and tells of her family’s life since the disappearance.
She looks back on the six months of waiting, of “hoping,” of “going mad,” of receiving isolated tips — and a sense of “dying” when the coroner announced “a drop of blood in the trunk.” The parents separated and sold their house.
The verdict in the trial of the girl’s murder is expected on February 18.
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