Annecy - French police on Tuesday arrested a 48-year-old man, described by a source as a former policeman, over the 2012 killings of a British-Iraqi family and a cyclist, in their first breakthrough in the case.
Checks on the man's phone “put him in the zone at the moment” of the murders of the Al-Hilli family and the cyclist on September 5, 2012, another source said.
He said several firearms were seized during a raid on the man's home following his arrest and revealed his passion for guns. Another raid was carried out on a house in the nearby village of Lathuile.
Ballistic tests will be carried out to determine if these weapons had been used.
Annecy prosecutor Eric Maillaud said the man, from the Haute-Savoie region, was placed in formal custody and detained following the release in November of an identikit image of a mysterious motorcyclist seen near where the quadruple murder took place.
“This arrest, which may not be the only one, was the result of witness statements” that came in after the image was released, Maillaud said.
A source close to the case said the man, a father of three, was a former policeman from the town of Menthon-Saint-Bernard.
Another source, the mayor of Menthon-Saint-Bernard, told AFP that the suspect had been “dismissed in June last year” but did not specify the misdemeanour.
Mayor Antoine de Menthon said the man had been forced to quit his quarters after the sacking. But he refused to give details of the man's age or identity.
A source close to the investigation said police carried out a search of the man's home in Tailoires in the presence of his girlfriend.
The source described him as a “taciturn mountain man” and a gun enthusiast who lives on the fringes of society.
Maillaud said the man bore a “strong resemblance” to the man in the identikit image.
It is the first time anyone has been arrested in France in connection with the case, which has stumped investigators despite major efforts on both sides of the English Channel.
Saad al-Hilli, a 50-year-old Iraqi-born British tourist in France, was gunned down in September 2012 along with his 47-year-old wife Iqbal and her 74-year-old mother in a woodland car park close to the village of Chevaline in the hills above Lake Annecy.
Each was shot multiple times in their British-registered BMW estate car and more than two dozen spent bullet casings were found near the vehicle.
The couple's two daughters, aged 7 and 4 at the time, survived the gruesome attack, but the older girl was shot and badly beaten.
The younger girl survived unscathed after hiding under her mother's skirts for hours after the killings, initially escaping the notice of police.
A 45-year-old French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, was also killed after apparently stumbling upon the scene.
The family, which had visited France numerous times, had been staying at the three-star Le Solitaire du Lac site.
Saad al-Hilli's brother, Zaid, was arrested in Britain in June last year on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder, but police said last month there was insufficient evidence to press charges.
Investigators had been looking at an inheritance dispute between the two brothers but Tuesday's arrest focused attention on the possibility of a local killer.
Police in the family's hometown of Claygate in Surrey said the arrest was not linked with British efforts.
“The arrest has resulted from a line of inquiry in France and is not as a result of the investigation carried out in the UK,” Surrey police said in a brief statement.
The source close to the case said the arrest was “an important step forward in the investigation” but added that “other arrests should follow”.
French police can hold suspects in criminal cases for up to 48 hours without charge.
The identikit image released in November featured a man sporting a goatee and wearing a rare type of motorcycle helmet.
Witnesses had described seeing the motorcyclist riding away from the scene of the shooting and a British-registered BMW 4x4 in the area at the time.
Prosecutors are due to hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.