TOKYO Nov 9 Nazi-occupied Paris was a terrible
place to be in the waning days of World War Two, with Jews,
Resistance fighters and ordinary citizens all hoping to escape.
Disappearances became so common they often weren't followed up.
And one man used the lawlessness for his own terrible
purposes, killing perhaps as many as 150 people.
Yet it wasn't until thick black smoke seeped into buildings
in a fashionable part of the city that firefighters and police
were called to an elegant townhouse where they found body parts
scattered around -- setting off a manhunt that led them,
eventually, to Marcel Petiot.
The crime was very much of its time, said David King, who
chronicled the hunt for Petiot in "Death in the City of Light."
"Paris was not a good place to be. A lot of people were
trying to leave Paris, a lot of people just disappearing. He had
it plotted out, a very devious plan," said King, in a telephone
"Respect for the law was tarnished under the Nazis. Even if
you suspected something, a lot of people were very, very
reluctant to go forward, especially if they were Jewish."
Petiot, as it turned out, was a respected physician who
turned serial killer by night, preying largely on Jews desperate
to leave Paris by luring them in with promises of escape. He was
accused of murduring "only" some 27, but authorities suspected
his real toll was far higher.
King, a former history professor, first stumbled across
reference to the killings while browsing in a bookstore and
picking up a World War Two memoir by a spy. At first, he
couldn't believe what he read.
But the grisly details stuck with him, and after he
confirmed the story was true, he finished his other projects and
came back to it.
"Here's a guy -- Marcel Petiot, who was accused of all the
murders. Obviously very intelligent, charismatic, has a
respected position, is into collecting antiques, interested in
the arts," he said.
"And yet, you get to the other side, when he's accused of
some of the most disturbing things you can think of: savagely
Through years of research, including perusal of Parisian
police archives closed since the crimes took place, King pieced
together the story of how Petiot claimed to be a member of the
resistance and lured many of his victims in by promising them
safe passage to South America in return for payment.
Once in Petiot's hands, the victims were told to write
letters to their relatives, telling them that they were fine and
would return once times had settled down. Then they were killed,
most likely by lethal gas, and dismembered or burned.
"It's a microcosm of the whole Nazi terror and Paris being a
bad place to be. There's got to be more than just exploiting
peoples' hopes and dreams and desperation, but that's what he
does," King said.
Though Petiot eluded police on at least one occasion, after
appearing amid the crowd that gathered after the initial grisly
discovery and speaking with a patrolman before riding off on his
bicycle, he was eventually captured, tried and executed.
King, the author of several other books, said this one was
particularly hard to immerse himself in due to the content,
however horrifically fascinating the story.
It also had an impact on him personally.
"I'm generally a pretty outgoing person, but I'm probably a
little bit more reluctant about things now," he said.
"Dr. Petiot seemed like the nicest guy -- charming,
intelligent, friendly. You could just strike up a conversation
with somebody like this ... I found myself on my guard more."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)