Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Key Unlocks Secret of Corpse Found in Suitcase

The key that helped investigators identify the body of a man found floating at sea in a suitcase.

The key that helped investigators identify the body of a murder victim found floating at sea in a suitcase.

The alert in July 2011 by VHF radio couldn’t have been stranger: the skipper of a sailing yacht said he found a suitcase with human body parts hanging out of it, floating in the sea off of the coast of Lorient, France. Half-submerged, half-open, there was no doubt in the skipper’s mind that the suitcase contained a dead body.

The local coastguard made its way to the location and confirmed that a human body was indeed stuffed inside the suitcase. Weighing over 200 lbs, the French maritime police were called to haul the suitcase onto the boat.

Inside the suitcase was the body of a man with duct tape wrapped around its face. The autopsy revealed that this was a murder victim, whose killer had asphyxiated him, but there were no visible signs of trauma or injury. Badly decomposed, investigators produced a software-generated portrait of what the man might have looked like, but no one came forward to confirm the identity of the victim. The video cameras at the port at Lorient and the surrounding area revealed nothing suspicious.

The only clue was a key was found in the victim’s pocket. There were about 400 places where that model key was made in France, which would be time consuming to track down. Other than that police were left with little to go on; while they concluded that the man was an obvious victim of foul play, they were forced to put the file on the back burner while tracking down and interviewing wholesalers and retailers of that key.

Nearly two years later, their detective work paid off. A locksmith in Paris remembered a job in which he had to change the front-door locks of an apartment. It was apparent that the apartment dweller was no longer living there, he said. While the police would not reveal details about what they found in the Parisian apartment, the locksmith reportedly said it was obvious that the apartment had been uninhabited for some time.

“A locksmith remembered entering that apartment in Paris,” Christine Le Crom, an assistant prosecutor in Lorient, told Le Parisien. “We tried to open the door with the key, and bingo, it was the right one.”

Le Crom said that the break in the case was a matter of  good luck. After all, what were the chances that an apartment that was broken into and that required new locks belonged to a murder victim mysteriously found floating in the sea hundreds of miles away from Paris?

Investigators have since been able to identify the victim. Without disclosing his exact identity to the public, they said the man was in his fifties and was a French citizen of North African descent. He was also employed at a massage parlor, but details about his job function there were not disclosed.

According to Le Parisien, French authorities will reveal their findings shortly and possibly begin making arrests. Official charges in the case will likely be murder and kidnapping. In any case, the investigation, which will focus on the victim’s work and home place, should advance much more quickly than it did in the past, according to Le Crom.  

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