Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A Macabre Nightmare at a French Chateau

A Grim Confession

Gated chateau entrance
Gated chateau entrance

The scene was out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, except it took place in the 21st century and the macabre circumstances were all-too-real. Wearing gloves, French police officers sank their arms into a vat of wet concrete, searching for body parts of the late Joanne Hall. Her husband, Robert Hall, was inside the house just a few feet away.

Mr. Hall would rave incoherently and then, intermittently, describe to the police in gruesome detail how he had attempted first to cremate his wife's body and then to entomb her remains in the concrete of a makeshift mausoleum on the grounds of their 125-acre chateau estate in France.

"The first thing they found was a ring. It was getting dark, so the police decided to begin their search again the next day," Pierre Sourdin, the mayor of the nearby village of Le Chatellier, said. "The following morning, they found Mrs. Hall's teeth, glasses, and other things that could not burn."

Mr. Hall told police he wanted his wife's remains to be part of the Chateau de Fretay estate that he and his wife had bought in 1998. Since bringing their son and two daughters from the UK, their main objective had been to reconvert the crumbling 17th century estate located in the bucolic countryside of Brittany into a multi-million dollar golf course and hotel. Mr. Hall claimed his wife had wanted to be cremated, and he had wanted to entomb her charred remains for eternity on the grounds of the estate.

Catherine Denis (left) Christian Borie
Catherine Denis (left) Christian Borie

Catherine Denis, of the local public prosecutor's office, detailed Hall's account of the events leading to Mrs. Hall's death during a televised press conference: Mrs. Hall supposedly attacked Mr. Hall with an unidentified object before Mr. Hall countered the attack with a blow of his own, but Mrs. Hall also allegedly fell at one point, leaving open the possibility that her death was an accident.

After burning his wife's body and putting her charred remains in the wet concrete, Hall called at least one of his adult children, who then alerted the authorities. Pending Hall's trial for aggravated murder, the French authorities would not communicate additional details about the case.

"Things remain confusing, yet [Hall] is managing to explain what went down," Christian Borie, a gendarme from Vitré said during the press conference. "He remains in a very deranged state."

The tabloid press was quick to infer that drunkenness and imminent financial ruin drove Mr. Hall to desperation and, finally, madness before he committed such a heinous act. According to local townspeople, though, Hall's gruesome deed did not reflect the person they thought they knew. Hall did not exactly blend into the local community and hardly spoke French, yet he never went out of his way to cause trouble with the locals, either. However, there were troubling signs that all was not well in the idyllic setting of Chateau de Fretay prior to Mrs. Hall's death.

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