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Femme Fatale: How The Teenage Bait From An Infamous French Anti-Semitic Gang Murder Went On To Seduce Her Prison Warden

She was the 17-year-old who lured the Jewish victim of a high-profile hate crime. He ran the Versailles prison where she was serving time. Their scandalous romance exposed, Florent Goncalves tells how he fell for Emma Arbabzadeh, girl of the Gang of Barba

Femme Fatale: How The Teenage Bait From An Infamous French Anti-Semitic Gang Murder Went On To Seduce Her Prison Warden
Patricia Jolly

Florent Goncalves can let his hair grow long. In January, this clean-cut 41-year-old from Bordeaux gave back the keys to the Versailles women's prison, which he'd been heading since March 2007. Two months later, he also returned the keys to the 120-square-meter apartment he'd been provided by the prison. All for the love of a woman: Emma Arbabzadeh, a 22-year-old inmate who had already made headlines.

The affair would make more headlines. Goncalves was arrested on the job, accused of having brought a cell-phone chip inside the prison in order to communicate with Arbabzadeh. He confessed on Jan. 12. Charged with "unlawfully giving banned objects," he could face up to three years in jail. He is also suspected of favoring the young woman and her cellmates and was suspended without pay as of Jan. 1, while he awaits trial.

Despite his position as the head of the prison and that fact that he's nearly twice Arbabzadeh's age, French media was quick to present Goncalves as a victim. "Gang of Barbarian bait seduces prison director," read one newspaper headline. "Sex in a cage," screamed another.

"When I read this, I almost started to believe that Emma had tricked me," says Goncalves.

His family, colleagues and superiors think that's exactly what happened. A pretty brunette with generous breasts, Arbabzadeh is the cliché of the manipulative and becoming femme fatale.

In December 2010, she was sentenced to nine years in prison for her involvement in the 2006 torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cell-phone retailer. Just 17 at the time, Arbabzadeh collaborated with a group known as the "Gang of Barbarians," which was headed by a man named Youssouf Fofana. The group used the teenage girl as bait to lure Halimi, whom they tortured for 24 days and later left for dead near a set of train tracks. Fofana was sentenced to life in prison for Halimi's murder. Arbabzadeh claims she found out about what happened to Halimi only after the fact.

When Goncalves arrived in the Versailles prison after working for six years in a prison in Aurillac, Arbabzadeh was still being held at Fleury-Merogis, another Paris area prison. He had been with the same woman for 12 years, had a six-year-old with her and earned 3,500 euros per month. A former inmate remembers him as a "discreet, human and cultured" man.

Security in human relationships

Coming from a modest family, he entered the prison world at 21 as a simple guard and was very proud to have become "France's youngest prison director." The low-security Versailles, which houses approximately 150 men and women, allows for a certain leniency that fit Goncalves' idea of the job. "Security comes from the quality of human relationships," he says. "I have always paid attention to the living conditions of the people I had to look after. The enemy isn't always behind bars."

In the space of three years, Goncalves installed TVs, refrigerators, microwaves and showers in the cells – "for free and for everyone." In a 2008 report, an independent controller praised "the closeness of his management" as well as the "serene" atmosphere of the prison.

Arbabzadeh was transferred to Versailles in 2007 and started working for the "General Services', giving out meals and cleaning offices. In every prison, these "workers' are given more autonomy. In Versailles conditions were even better. Rules already in effect before Goncalves' arrival allow general service workers to live in two cells with extra free space, where they could interact and eat together. The prisoners also have access to the kitchen and the washing machines.

Goncalves decided to put Arbabzadeh in charge of the cafeteria. Between September and November 2009, he taught her how to use computer software needed for the job. "That's when our relationship evolved," he admits. Goncalves says he was "moved" by Arbabzadeh. It wasn't the first time in his career he had developed close feelings for an inmate, but this time he "crossed the line," though he swears it didn't affect other inmates. When, in December 2009, she asked him to transfer her to another facility because she was "in love" with him, he reciprocated the feeling.

Arbabzadeh hadn't met many kind men, certainly not in prison, where most of her guards were women. She told Goncalves everything about her life: her birth in Iran in 1988; her mentally ill older sister; how her mother finally escaped after being forced into a marriage with her violent father; how her uncle sexually assaulted her when she was only eight years old; her arrival in France in 1999 in a refugee camp; her rape in 2002 by three boys from her middle school in Seine-Saint-Denis that the police didn't investigate; her attempted suicide with pills; and how she dropped out of school before a judge for children sent her to a boarding school to protect her from herself.

In March 2006, right after being sent to jail, she had an abortion. She attempted suicide several times: twice in 2006, in February 2007 and again in mid-August 2010. "Our relationship helped her overcome her psychological struggles and I have helped her change her idea of men," says Goncalves.

Facebook under covers

Everyday, Goncalves tried to get a glance of Arbabzadeh. Every night for 10 months, she communicated with him, under the covers, on Facebook, thanks to a phone smuggled in by one of her cellmates. Through mailboxes rented in the city under fake names they made plans for the future. At times they also fought. Arbabzadeh signed her letters "your brat." They were intimate twice over a 10-month period, in a computer room. "Emma is a fragile and sweet child," says a former inmate. "We had to take care of her even if her mom came to visit twice a week."

But Arbabzadeh also seduced another man: Olivier Pinson, a 36-year-old guard. He became her confidant, chatting with her on Facebook via another smuggled SIM card. Jealous, Goncalves dared her to come clean. That's when things started to unravel.

In a letter dated April 20, 2010, the UFAP, a prison guard union that Pinson belongs to, alerted Michel Saint-Jean, the director of the Paris region penitentiary services, about Goncalves' "behavior," mentioning a long meeting with Arbabzadeh on Dec. 24, 2009. In his May 11 reply, Saint-Jean rejected the accusations, choosing to stand by Goncalves.

A few months later, two inmates wrote to the general prison comptroller complaining about Goncalves' favoritism toward Arbabzadeh and her cellmates. One of the inmates now says she was "manipulated by guards." After a thorough investigation in October 2010, the comptroller reported several mistakes made by Goncalves, setting in motion a criminal investigation. Pinson was also charged – for giving the second SIM card.

Today Goncalves swears there was no "system," and that his "secret" never interfered with his professionalism. For approximately 300 euros a month, Arbabzadeh fulfilled several duties (cafeteria, laundry, cleaning and serving meals) but she never had two jobs, Goncalves insists.

What about the extra visits? They were granted by the court to family members visiting from Iran. The birthday cake bought outside? Paid for by inmates – a common practice at the prison, according to a guard. The "15 to 20-kg" care-package for Ramadan? "Never weighed," he says.

The current investigation bans the lovers from communicating. Arbabzadeh has been charged with "handling stolen goods," and is still in jail, though she was transferred to Fresnes. According to a former inmate who was recently released, Arbabzadeh is "sincerely in love with Florent" and lives for their reunion. Goncalves, meanwhile, is waiting for her parole and living off his savings.

"Our relationship won't be easy," he admits. He loves art, especially 19th century paintings. She yawned the day he suggested she read a history of Persia.

Read the original article in French.

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As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

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But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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