Who killed petit Gregory?

Wherever you go in France this summer, there is no escaping the insistent question. It screams at you from the front pages of newspapers and the covers of news magazines. It turns up in endless conversations on trains, in working-class bistros, on the beach, at chic dinner parties.

Nine months have gone by since the lifeless body of a 4-year-old boy with curly hair, stuffed in a plastic bag, was fished out of a river in eastern France. What began as a comparatively simple murder case in a French village has been transformed into a national saga with real-life twists more bizarre than anything Georges Simenon could have created for his famous detective, Maigret.

For the popular French press, tiring of Princess Stephanie of Monaco and Jean-Paul Belmondo, l'affaire Gregory has been the story with everything: a murdered child, blackmail, rivalry between different police forces, a second murder, family hatreds and dark suspicions that some terrible injustice has been done.

Last week the tangled mystery took its most sensational turn when the magistrate investigating the case charged Gregory's 25-year-old mother, Christine Villemin, with the premeditated murder of her only son. Villemin, who is six months pregnant with a second child, promptly went on a hunger strike to proclaim her innocence.

[Yesterday a local magistrate's court in Nancy ordered her released pending further investigation into the case, according to Reuter news service.]

The arrest of Villemin, who is the second principal suspect in the case, both mesmerized and divided France. Depending on which newspaper you read, or which self-appointed pundit you consult, Villemin is either a monster who killed her child or the victim of an incredible judicial error.

Part of the fascination of the Gregory story lies in the setting: a little village in the Vosges, a mountainous region near the West German border. It is the epitome of La France profonde, deep rural France where nothing much ever happens.

As the weekly magazine Le Point said: "The reason that this story is so compelling and gripping is that, by contrast to other news stories about national threats such as drugs, terrorism and espionage, France recognizes the characters involved . . . These people are our neighbors."

The origins of the saga go back almost five years when the Villemin family began receiving threatening letters and phone calls. The anonymous correspondent, or le corbeau (the crow), as such people are known in French slang, appeared to be someone who harbored a hatred for Gregory's father, Jean-Marie, a factory foreman and head of the Villemin clan.

The letters continued sporadically until, on Oct. 16 last year, Gregory disappeared. At 5:26 p.m., 26 minutes after his mother last saw him playing, Gregory's uncle received a telephone call. "I have taken revenge," said a mysterious voice. "I have taken the son of the boss and put him in the Vologne."

The following day, after Gregory's bound and gagged body was found in the local river, the Villemins received a note in the mail that read: "I hope you die of grief, boss. Your money will not give you back your son. This is my revenge."

The local gendarmes, or paramilitary police, concluded that the murderer must be someone with an intimate knowledge of the Villemin family. Villemin relatives were required to submit samples of their handwriting, a test that resulted in graphological experts concluding with an "80 percent certainty" that the "crow" was a stocky cousin of Jean-Marie Villemin named Bernard Laroche.

Laroche was arrested, held for three months in jail, but released when an accumulation of evidence suggested that he was not "the crow" after all. A new batch of handwriting tests was ordered, and suspicion switched to petit Gregory's mother.

The outcry in the French press at the detention of an innocent man was just subsiding when, on May 29, Laroche was shot dead outside his home by Jean-Marie Villemin. "I did this for you. Don't you ever forget it," Villemin told his wife before turning himself in to the police.

By then, the case had the makings of a judicial fiasco, and the investigators were quarreling openly among themselves. The regular police had suspected Christine Villemin all along, partly because she was the last person to have seen Gregory alive. This conclusion was unacceptable to the gendarmes, who tend to place much greater store on such patriotic virtues as maternal love and family bonds.

There also has been criticism of the 32-year-old investigating magistrate, Jean-Michel Lambert, who has become a national celebrity almost overnight, along with many of the other people in the case. Legal experts have accused him of procedural errors, inexperience and leaking details of his investigation to the press.

A remark by an overconfident Judge Lambert early in the inquiry -- "This is a simple affair" -- has returned to haunt him.

As l'affaire Gregory continues, the tiny village of Lepanges, where it all happened, is turning into a tourist center. The curious gaze at the Villemin family house in the forest above the village, and then go to the local cemetery to gaze at Gregory's tomb, which is perpetually covered with white flowers.

Tired of endless calls from journalists and photographers, some villagers are displaying a plaintive sign on their doors. It reads: "We have nothing more to say."