DOUAI/PARIS (Reuters) - A 47-year-old French woman confessed to suffocating eight new-born children and hiding her babies’ bodies, a prosecutor said on Thursday, in what experts declared as the country’s worst recorded case of infanticide.
The woman and her husband, also in his forties, were detained on Tuesday when the bodies were found wrapped in plastic bags at two homes in Villers-au-Tertre, a village of about 650 people 200 km (120 miles) north of Paris.
Dominique Cottrez, an auxiliary nurse, initially confessed to killing two children at birth before admitting to police she had murdered six others dating back to the early 1990s, public prosecutor Eric Vaillant told a news conference.
“The mother knew she was pregnant ... She didn’t want any more children and didn’t want any doctors involved,” Vaillant said, adding that her first pregnancy had been traumatic.
Cottrez told police she had not informed her husband about the pregnancies or her decision to kill the babies. Her large build would have made it easier for her to hide the pregnancies, the prosecutor said.
The crime came to light after new owners of the couple’s previous home unearthed the remains of two babies under a tree in the garden. They alerted police who, after questioning Cottrez, found six other bodies in the garage of their new home.
“According to an autopsy, the bodies were not beaten ... The mother admits suffocating the babies at birth,” Vaillant said.
Authorities have remanded Cottrez in custody at a secret location and placed her under formal investigation for the murder of minors, a prelude to presenting criminal charges.
Her husband, a carpenter, has been released after telling police he knew nothing about the crime. Vaillant said he appeared to learn about the killings when told by police: “He looked as though his world had fallen apart.”
There was no immediate comment from the couple’s lawyers.
Although Cottrez says there were no more victims, police are continuing their search. Authorities were also conducting psychological tests on Cottrez to assess her criminal responsibility.
“We are trying to understand what happened,” said Vaillant. “This is an out-of-the-ordinary case given the number of newborns.”
Neighbors in the village said the couple, who have two daughters in their twenties, had never acted suspiciously. The husband was a member of the local council, the local mayor said.
“They were always smiling and warm-hearted,” Madame Candelier, owner of the couple’s former house where some of the bodies were discovered, told local television.
Sophie Marinopoulos, psychologist and author of a book on infanticide, said the case appeared to be the worst ever recorded in France.
A 38-year-old Frenchwoman was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison for killing six babies at birth between 2000 and 2007, until now the worst infanticide in the country. Another woman was released conditionally in June 2009 after she was convicted of killing three of her newborns between 1999 and 2003.
In both cases, the husbands were not judged as there was no evidence either was aware of the pregnancies or murders.
Experts say such killings often involve “denial of pregnancy,” when women refuse to accept they are pregnant, sometimes leading to the murder of their children at birth.
Israel Nisand, professor at the University Hospital in Strasbourg, said there were about 500 cases of woman denying their pregnancies each year around the world.
“It’s serious and dangerous, but not very well known about. It’s as if there is a denial of the denial,” he said.
Additional reporting and writing by John Irish; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Stamp