CHAMBON-SUR-LIGNON — The monster’s parents live in a small house at the end of a narrow road in this southern French town.

For three years, they had avoided the media, with their lawyers telling journalists over and over again: “Out of respect for the victims, his parents don’t wish to speak publicly.” Then on Oct. 13, this reporter received an email out of the blue. “I am Matthieu’s father …”

Three days earlier, after deliberating for six hours, the Riom Court of Appeals sentenced Matthieu Moulinas to life imprisonment for the rape of one of his schoolmates in August 2010, and for the rape and murder, with a particular degree of cruelty, of 13-year-old Agnès Marin, on Nov. 16, 2011, in Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Life sentences are extremely rare for minors, which Matthieu Moulinas was at the time of the crimes. He never once claimed his innocence. After a few hours in custody, two days after the search for Agnès Marin began, he confessed to taking her in the woods next to their school, having told her he wanted to search for hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Like in children's fairytales, it was deep in the forest that the young man put his plan, which he he'd spent much time preparing, into action: rape her to humiliate her, kill her so she could not accuse him, and, so to be sure nobody could find evidence, burn her body.

He recounted the details, finally in a mournful voice, at the closing hearing at the Riom Court of Appeals.

His lawyers had advised him to speak, to appear more human, after the first hearing was marked by his astonishing indifference, as if he was somehow not concerned by all this fuss. The young man, who will soon turn 20, is docile. He generally does what he is told. 

What Matthieu Moulinas said in that first hearing left the public stunned. Solange Marin, the murder victim's grandmother, still shudders at the thought of it: “It was Dantesque. The way he talked about it, without any empathy, it was horrifying. He tortured her for an hour. He said it wasn’t even for his own enjoyment — just to hurt, demean, destroy, annihilate. When he talked, it was hell speaking. You wonder what could affect him, nothing moved inside him. Everyone was sobbing, even the jury members; not him, ever. I don’t know if he’s capable of laughing or crying, which are signs of humanity. It was insane and terrifying.”

A psychologist who saw him four times came up with an expression to describe him, he who constantly feels cold, even in summertime: “the winter within.”

In 2012, he described himself as “a monster,” and had only one regret: getting caught. For him, other people do not seem to exist. Psychiatrists noted “the uncommon indifference and the distant coldness” of this “extraordinarily self-centered” individual.

“If I get out, I’ll do it again, it’s not a wish, it’s a certainty,” he told them blandly, as if he were simply passing on a piece of information.

The experts have heard stories like that before, they are thick-skinned. But they are nevertheless astounded by such detachment. One day around noon in August 2010, he said about the first rape: “I went up a hill, I prepared the area, positioned the ties. I hid the knife […], then I called her. What I was interested in and what motivated me was to hurt. I was set to torture, rape and kill her. But I lacked experience. I didn’t handle it very well so I ended up untying her.”

About the murder in Chambon-sur-Lignon, he said: “I didn’t tie Agnès to a tree but I tied her hands behind her back, gagged her with a keffiyeh, but keffiyehs and scarves aren’t enough, I’ll have to think of something else. I did that with very little imagination, really ... In any case, I clearly had to do it. There were punches, penetrations, bites, torsions, stabs and locks.” The experts asks him: “Armlocks?” He answers: “No no, headlocks.”

Agnès Marin — Photo: Facebook tribute page

The train seems frozen when it stops under the Nimes sun, where Dominique Moulinas is waiting for us. About 20 kilometers separate us from her house. Sitting in the same seat in his father’s car, from which Matthieu has seen this landscape of dry stones and parched garrigues a thousand times. Was he really constantly thinking, as he has said, about these torture scenarios? Was he also thinking about them when his mother opened the front door with a timid smile?

Sophie Moulinas offers coffee, sits down and says: “Shame.” Her first word, her first sentence, pronounced spontaneously. “I didn’t speak out because I’m ashamed,” she says in a sudden outburst. “I’m devastated by shame, by shame and despair.” The pretty female silhouette repeats her words, fading away because of the antidepressants that allow her to hang on by just enough to her new reality.

She is discreet, but wants to talk, about him, about what has become a nightmare with no end. Her son is cold, in every sense of the term, but she is the one constantly trembling. She talks about what has been drowning her these past three years: having given birth to the one that committed such a horrific act, and how she still loves him in spite of everything. “I can’t reject him, he’s mine.”

A very curious child

It was she, not her son, who had a difficult childhood, but at the age of 20, Sophie met a tall young man who seemed as shy as he was determined. Dominique. Her anchor. They had friends, pasts to repair and a simple dream: “To have three children.” Matthieu was the first. Then came Margaux and Zélie (now 17 and 11 years old).

Sophie started working as an accountant in a clinic, Dominique as a teacher. They did local theater and went hiking. They set up home in the countryside, and she became a town councilor. Matthieu started speaking at a very young age. “Like in a book, with carefully chosen words, he was very curious,” his grandmother remembers.

Toward the end of kindergarten, however, the teacher did alert the parents. Diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dysorthographia, the boy began to have serious difficulties at school. Every parent in the world that worries about their offspring will be able to relate to them. Appointments at the speech therapist, the child psychiatrist and the child neurologist, they all had one goal: “We wanted him to get by. We chose his activities according to his shortcomings and every evening, he reviewed what he learned during the day at school with a neighbor.”

No one detected any mental illness, not even his paternal grandparents, both psychiatric nurses. He'll be all right in the end, he’s smart, the parents kept hearing. He put up with it, suffered through the double amount of work and the mockeries of the other children without complaining.

“He’s the most docile of our children,” his parents used to say. In reality, they were trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole, but nobody understood that. Except Matthieu, maybe, who was starting to feel a terrifying evil growing inside him.

As far back as he can remember, he has always had these obsessions that push him to hurt others. But he did not talk about it. With enough tutoring, he passed his national junior high school exams with honors. Everyone was proud of him for making it to high school — an invisible victory. His parents often went to bed thinking the worst was behind them, that all was well. It all collapsed with the first rape.

The family was loading up the car to set off on holiday when the police arrived. They asked Matthieu, 16 years old, where the knife with which he threatened his victim was. He had put it back in the kitchen draw. And the dildo he used to rape her? He had put it back in his parents’ room. The police took him, and the Moulinas family’s lives fell apart. As if all their efforts to be “good people” were reduced to nothing.

“I was horrified,” his mother says. “I asked myself what kind vision he had of women for him to do that. It was unbearable.” The gravity of this rape was however dramatically underestimated by his parents, who were convinced that it was due to Matthieu’s excessive drinking and cannabis smoking with his friends the night before.

At the same time, the juvenile justice professionals they met did not disagree: “As soon as he was arrested, we were told that if he had suitable study plans, he could hope to remain free until his hearing. We hung on to that,” his father recalled.

Courthouses are full of parents who are absent or indifferent, incapable or abusive. But the judges could only blame Matthieu’s parents for trying to do too much. For weeks, they looked for a boarding school for their son until his hearing for rape. “I didn’t hide the reasons for which he was in prison, it was humiliating,” Dominique Moulinas explains.

Simultaneously, a psychiatrist assigned by the examining magistrate to assess Matthieu declared he could be released. “We consider that this person is not dangerous,” Doctor Claude Aiguesvives wrote in his report.

The doctor even took the time to call Matthieu’s father. “He told me: 'Take away his video games and the cannabis, and everything will be ok,'” he remembers.

On Nov. 26, after he spent four months remanded in custody, Matthieu was released and made his first steps in the Cévennes region, site of the boarding school, and setting for the final act of this tragedy.

Looking around, it looks like the perfect teaching campus: no barriers, nature all around, the idea that within every being are qualities waiting to bloom. Placed under judiciary supervision, Matthieu was subjected to strict monitoring — compulsory treatment, controls by the legal protection for youth and minors, a ban from residing in the Gard region — which his parents took good care of complying with, too anxious about the idea that he could go back to prison.

A model case, on paper

The young man became a textbook study. Officially, everything was in place, no one failed in their duty. The legal protection for youth and minors educator visited him, his parents found him a therapist, he saw a psychiatrist, the school watched over his progress.

Everything appeared to be in order. But after the tragedy, the reality surfaced: The psychiatrist did not speak French, only saw him twice and ordained: “No ill, no treatment.” The therapist had no training and never addressed the facts of the rape case with him, the educator did not consider it necessary to meet the school supervisors, who themselves did not pass on information about the young man’s behavior problems, which had gotten him expelled for a few days.

In the end, it is as if the presence of the parents neutralized the vigilance of all the other people and masked the gravity of the first crime. “Agnès was put on a slow, runaway train towards death. The collective failure is impressive,” the grandmother of the victim, Solange Marin says.

Solemn march in Chambon-sur-Lignon — Photo: Facebook tribute page

In Chambon-sur-Lignon, the fox was placed in the henhouse, and no guard was on duty. Agnès, a young Parisian sent to the countryside school to keep her away from bad company in the city, was young and vulnerable.

Matthieu’s other personality

Matthieu’s evil would destroy everything. In Paris and in the Gard region, the families are trying to get their lives back on track after the disaster. They are looking for meaning in the chaos. They cannot find it. For the Moulinas, in addition to dread came shame and the staggering discovery of their son’s other personality.

Only his parents, sisters and grandparents come to see him in the visiting room. His grandmother now considers him a medical patient, she says: “It would be too hard for me otherwise.” Mental illness is an explanation.

“When I close my eyes,” Sophie Moulinas explains, “I see Agnès, her parents, her father.” They say they think about them 10, 20 times per day and light candles for her at the church. “We are haunted by Agnès.”

On the first day of the second hearing, the presiding officer of the court asked Matthieu Moulinas why he appealed the first sentence and he answered: “I accept life imprisonment, but I would like compulsory care.”

There have been more combative defendants, and the second verdict is exactly what his family asked for. “Because an ill minor has been sentenced to life imprisonment, which is no small matter,” the father says. French law holds that minors sentence to life have the possibility for parole after 18 years.

Matthieu dissuaded his parents from wasting the rest of their earnings in a final appeal: “We got what we wanted, compulsory care,” he told them.

The parents consider it a victory: "This guarantees us that the state will watch over when he gets out, the responsibility will not be incumbent upon us, neither us nor his younger sisters.” A third trial will not be inflicted on his victims.

Matthieu Moulinas feels good in prison. He keeps saying “don’t worry” to his mother. He is under treatment, an antipsychotic drug that can diminish his illness — but in no case, the doctors warn, make him harmless. He often blocks the door and the windows of his cell with towels, he rarely goes out for a walk and sometimes sleeps under his mattress. He is scared of the zombies that want to attack him.

The other day, he asked his grandmother in the visiting room: “Grandma, what is pain? I don’t know what it is.” For two families, it will last forever, a long nightmare that will forever flow in the same direction as his mother's tears — downwards, trickling, furrowing, maybe cleansing. The parents of the monster are all his humanity.