This is a day that promises to be long and filled with emotions. This Tuesday, November 28, a whole family, gathered at their lawyer in Grenoble, will await a decision from the Court of Cassation. With a simple question: will it be possible to bring to court the man who plunged them into infinite sorrow by committing a crime that justice took thirty-six years to elucidate? “If the Court does not go our way, this man could be released immediately. Which would be terrible to live with,” murmurs Erika, the daughter of Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti, killed on May 22, 1986 in a small town in Isère.
“They never gave up”
His murderer, Yves Chatain, confessed in May 2022, and the whole question is whether or not his crime is covered by the statute of limitations. If the Court of Cassation considers that it does not apply, then Yves Chatain could be tried. Otherwise, the trial will move away and this unique story may be over. That of one of the oldest “cold cases” elucidated by French justice. The story also and above all of an entire family who never stopped fighting, for three decades, to bring the truth to light. “Their fight is admirable. They never gave up,” recognizes Bernard Boulloud, their lawyer.
This drama unfolded one spring day, May 22, 1986. That day, Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti, 25, stopped in the early afternoon in front of a large building, near Pontcharra station. (Isère). The young woman brings a packet of free newspapers to distribute to mailboxes. And then, nothing more. Suddenly, there was no trace of her anywhere. Arriving shortly after on the scene, Thierry Bonfanti found his wife’s car, the trunk wide open and her handbag in the front. He starts looking for her when a man arrives and parks near the large building. It’s Yves Chatain, the owner of the house. “As soon as I met his gaze, I felt uneasy. It seemed elusive, strange to me,” recalls Thierry Bonfanti.
Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti disappeared in May 1986 in Pontcharra (Isère). / Bonfanti family archives
The searches, quickly launched, yielded nothing. Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti seemed to disappear, leaving behind her husband and her two young children, Flavien, 6 months, and Erika, 4 and a half years old. Faced with the sudden absence of her mother, the little girl remains silent. So Thierry Bonfanti tries to find the words to explain the inexplicable. “One day I went to pick Erika up from school. I told him that his mother was lost but that dad and the whole family were doing everything to look for her. And that we hoped to find her but without knowing when,” he says. “It was important that my father told me that,” says Erika Bonfanti. To know that mom was missing. It saved me from imagining lots of things. Then I grew up with a terrible emptiness, of course. But knowing that mom had disappeared and that she hadn’t abandoned us. »
“An altercation with another woman whom he had tried to strangle”
Faced with the unthinkable, the family does not give up. The most active is Térésa Saia, the mother of Marie-Thérèse. From the first days, she put up posters with her daughter’s photos in Pontcharra. She goes door to door asking if anyone has seen her. “That’s where some people told him that Yves Chatain had problems with women,” says Eugène Saia, Marie-Thérèse’s brother. Thanks to our lawyer, we discovered that, at the age of 14, he had attacked a woman who was on a bicycle. And that in 1985 he had an altercation with another woman, whom he tried to strangle. » For this offense, Yves Chatain will be sentenced to eight months in prison, suspended. Given his background, the man was quickly heard by the gendarmes looking for Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti. But he emerges free from police custody. “It was hard to live with, because we were convinced of his guilt,” recalls Thierry Bonfanti.
In 1988, the Grenoble justice system dismissed the case definitively. To the great despair of the family, who continue to investigate. With her husband Salvatore, Térésa Saia hires private detectives and takes out a loan to pay them. “As a result, my mother was forced to go back to work, particularly in the vineyards,” says Eugène Saia. But the detectives find nothing and, like all families of missing people, Marie-Thérèse’s family clings to every possible lead. To all rumors, even the most improbable. “Uncles consulted a magnetist who said that she was dead and that she was in a landfill,” remembers Eugène Saia. This lead yielded nothing. Then there was an anonymous letter saying that she was in a prostitution network in Grenoble. Even if we didn’t really believe it, it was disturbing. We asked ourselves lots of questions. And if it was true ? What if she was alive? »
“An Italian woman who stood up to a lot of people”
But every hope is quickly disappointed. Térésa Saia then took part in two shows by Jacques Pradel, “Témoin number 1” and “Perdu de vue”, on TF1. Here again, this does not open any avenues. Not enough to give up for Marie-Thérèse’s mother, who begins to move heaven and earth to recover her daughter’s file from the Grenoble justice system. “My mother-in-law had a very strong character. She was an Italian who stood up to a lot of people. When she spoke to the magistrates, sometimes things got heated,” recalls Thierry Bonfanti. Through tenacity, this mother who opens all doors ends up obtaining the investigation file with all the minutes of the hearings, notably those of Yves Chatain. And Térésa Saia begins to read everything, hoping to find a loophole to reopen the investigation. Until her death in 2017. Two years later, it was her husband, Salvatore, who left in turn. “This tragedy ate them from the inside and they left without knowing the truth,” regrets Françoise Saia, one of their daughters.
While emptying his parents’ house, Eugène Saia finds Marie-Thérèse’s legal file. “My sisters told me: take it and see what you can do with it. » A sort of passing of the family torch. Because very quickly Eugène Saia, Thierry Bonfanti and a family friend began to dissect each of Yves Chatain’s statements in police custody. “We noted contradictions, inconsistencies in his schedule on the day of the tragedy,” says Thierry Bonfanti. After four months of hard work, this trio of amateur investigators submitted a brief to the Grenoble public prosecutor’s office, which decided to reopen the investigation in 2020.
Then, one evening in May 2022, Eugène Saia received a phone call from Me Boulloud. “A man has just been taken into custody,” the lawyer tells him, who calls back the next day to say that this suspect has confessed. “Is it Chatain? », Asks Eugène Saia. “Yes,” replies Mr. Boulloud. A coup de theater in the form of deliverance for the whole family. “It’s impossible to say what I felt. It’s as if I was coming out of prison thirty-six years later,” murmurs Thierry Bonfanti, his voice breaking with sobs. Unexpected confessions of which no one really knows what could have caused them. “We just know that he cracked at his fourth audition,” says Eugène Saia. “I cannot say anything about the case covered by the secrecy of the investigation,” indicates Me Mélanie Muridi, Yves Chatain’s lawyer.
In front of the gendarmes, Yves Chatain explained that, on that day in May 1986, Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti’s car was obstructing his way home. “He insulted her. Then, according to him, my sister came to ask him for an apology. And there, he strangled her before getting rid of the body in the wild,” says Eugène Saia. In October 2022, the skull of Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti was found not far from where Yves Chatain said he had disposed of the body. “We got closer to the truth. But we still don’t have enough to give mom a real burial,” murmurs Erika Bonfanti.
The “disappeared” of Pontcharra
The disappearance of Marie-Thérèse Bonfanti occurred in a very particular context since, in previous years, other women had disappeared in Pontcharra (Isère) or nearby.
A murder in 1981. Liliane Chevènement, a 41-year-old secretary, was found strangled with a wire on October 5, four months after her disappearance in Pontcharra. A murder never solved.
Two hitchhikers vanished in 1984. Two young Belgian women disappear while hitchhiking about twenty kilometers from Pontcharra. All avenues explored remain without result.
A new disappearance in 1985. On May 9, Marie-Ange Billoud, aged 19, no longer gave any sign of life even though she was also hitchhiking from Pontcharra. In May 2022, justice reopened the case.