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A Macabre Nightmare at a French Chateau

Gated chateau entrance
A Grim Confession

The scene was out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, except it took place in the 21st century and the macabre circumstances were all-too-real. Wearing gloves, French police officers sank their arms into a vat of wet concrete, searching for body parts of the late Joanne Hall. Her husband, Robert Hall, was inside the house just a few feet away.
Mr. Hall would rave incoherently and then, intermittently, describe to the police in gruesome detail how he had attempted first to cremate his wife's body and then to entomb her remains in the concrete of a makeshift mausoleum on the grounds of their 125-acre chateau estate in France.

"The first thing they found was a ring. It was getting dark, so the police decided to begin their search again the next day," Pierre Sourdin, the mayor of the nearby village of Le Chatellier, said. "The following morning, they found Mrs. Hall's teeth, glasses, and other things that could not burn."

Mr. Hall told police he wanted his wife's remains to be part of the Chateau de Fretay estate that he and his wife had bought in 1998. Since bringing their son and two daughters from the UK, their main objective had been to reconvert the crumbling 17th century estate located in the bucolic countryside of Brittany into a multi-million dollar golf course and hotel. Mr. Hall claimed his wife had wanted to be cremated, and he had wanted to entomb her charred remains for eternity on the grounds of the estate.

Catherine Denis, of the local public prosecutor's office, detailed Hall's account of the events leading to Mrs. Hall's death during a televised press conference: Mrs. Hall supposedly attacked Mr. Hall with an unidentified object before Mr. Hall countered the attack with a blow of his own, but Mrs. Hall also allegedly fell at one point, leaving open the possibility that her death was an accident.
After burning his wife's body and putting her charred remains in the wet concrete, Hall called at least one of his adult children, who then alerted the authorities. Pending Hall's trial for aggravated murder, the French authorities would not communicate additional details about the case.

"Things remain confusing, yet [Hall] is managing to explain what went down," Christian Borie, a gendarme from Vitré said during the press conference. "He remains in a very deranged state."

The tabloid press was quick to infer that drunkenness and imminent financial ruin drove Mr. Hall to desperation and, finally, madness before he committed such a heinous act. According to local townspeople, though, Hall's gruesome deed did not reflect the person they thought they knew. Hall did not exactly blend into the local community and hardly spoke French, yet he never went out of his way to cause trouble with the locals, either. However, there were troubling signs that all was not well in the idyllic setting of Chateau de Fretay prior to Mrs. Hall's death.

The Good Life in France

The Hall family moved to Le Chatellier in 1998, joining the ranks of over 150,000 British expatriates who live in France. Top-rate and very affordable healthcare, good schools, and world-famous French cuisine are among the attractions that draw expatriates to France, not only from the UK but from the world over.

The favorable British pound-to-euro exchange rate at the time the Hall family moved to France often meant that prime real estate in France could be had at relatively affordable prices compared to sky-high prices in Britain. It was possible for families to sell average single-family homes in the UK and to then snap up property in France of the sort that would have been out of reach for all but the wealthy back home. For the Hall family, this meant that the Halls were able to buy for a relatively modest sum the 125-acre Chateau de Fretay estate in one of the most beautiful regions in France. The Brittany sea coast and Mont Saint Michel, a world-famous tourist attraction, were a 30-minute drive away.

After settling into the bucolic estate, the three children, according to local townspeople, integrated well into the school system and easily made friends. The children, who are now young adults, became bilingual, unlike Mr. Hall, who spoke very little French, and Mrs. Hall, who barely spoke the language, according to a employee at the Le Chatellier mayor's office.

"The children attended school here locally and I can confirm that all three had plenty of friends in the region," the mayor of Le Chatellier said.

In the small village of Le Chatellier where most of the townspeople know each other, Mr. and Mrs. Hall were definitely outsiders. They mostly kept to themselves, driving around town in Jaguars and BMWs, and remaining very discreet in their comings and goings. The only memorable incident the mayor of Le Chatellier could recall at all was when Mr. Hall's horse strayed onto a neighbor's property. "He went and got his horse, and that was the end of the affair," Sourdin said.

A Macabre Nightmare at a French Chateau- Le Kasteller restaurant
Le Kasteller restaurant
But in contrast to his beautiful wife and aside from his taste for fancy cars, nothing about Mr. Hall's personal demeanor was flashy, and he certainly did not act like someone who would later kill his wife, the bar owner said. "He would come in occasionally and drink a beer like anybody else," he said. "He was absolutely no trouble at all."
Mr. Hall would dine occasionally at a nearby restaurant called Le Kasteller, sometimes with friends from the UK, all the while remaining very discreet. For the restaurant owner, he was even too quiet. "I sometimes felt like coming up to him and shaking him, he was so calm," she said.

Mr. Hall had recently suffered a stroke, yet it was mild enough for Mr. Hall to continue driving himself to local bars and restaurants. Hall's stroke became common knowledge in the town, the owner of Mauduit Francois said. Yet, the bar owner said he did not see any noticeable changes in Mr. Hall's behavior. After the stroke, he would still come in and have a few beers at the bar, keeping to himself as usual, and then leave.

However, during the years leading up to the death of his wife, all was not well. Indeed, the reserved Englishman was facing pressures relating to the financial viability of his estate, despite the calm demeanor of his public face. Kept mostly out of sight beyond the estate's walls, the problems remained hidden to neighbors and the townspeople.

Vacation Villa of Horrors

Hall's intention was to convert the Chateau de Fretay estate into an 18-hole golf course, with a large clubhouse and lodging. However, French development laws and local covenants meant that realizing that dream could entail years of bureaucratic wrangling. As a source of revenue in the interim, the Halls sought to rent out a few of the still-intact stone buildings that they touted as luxury villas, even though much of the estate remained in ruins and the chateau resembled a construction site more than anything else.
A Web site continued to list Chateau de Fretay under its "Luxury Vacation Villas and Chateau Rentals" category. "Luxury accommodations among three houses to rent, one of which dates back to the 16th century, await guests," the description says. Each house "has been tastefully renovated and has modern amenities."

Among the purported amenities, guests could practice golf on a nine-hole course, race go-karts, or engage in target-shooting. "This is the ideal spot for family and friends to holiday together, giving children plenty of safe space to run around together while still allowing each family their own privacy," the description reads.

The price to rent the "luxury-vacation villas": up to £5,745 or the equivalent of $9,114.50 for a seven-day stay. Comparative, luxury-class villa rentals in the Brittany area of France can be had for less than half of this amount.
But for several guests who paid more than the equivalent of $9,000 to stay at one of the villas, the accommodations were not only sup-par without any working go-karts nor a nine-hole golf course, they were in such a state of disrepair that some guests feared for their safety.

"The place was lethal," a former guest, who wished to remain anonymous, told truTV. "There were electrical wires and uncovered wells. We had to make sure that our children stayed away [from the hazards]."

The guest also related that both Mr. and Mrs. Hall had been visibly "sloshed" during their stay and that Mr. Hall had a bad temper. "He obviously was in over his head," the guest said. "He acted as if he could not be bothered by anything, yet it was obvious that he was so wrong. The place was atrocious."
The guest said it was "appalling" how the horses were noticeably neglected and were seen eating out of the dumpster. A carcass of a dead goat was found rotting in visible site, while maggots were found inside the kitchen area of the house in which one of the guests stayed. The upkeep of the pool was obliviously neglected and the water was too filthy to be suitable for swimming, the guest said.

"The whole estate was a death-trap for even the fittest and hardiest of travelers. Maggots crawling out of the sink, toilets that don't flush, mould everywhere, bed linen that clearly has not been washed (a sheet wrapped around a quilt instead of a duvet and duvet cover-the owner told us that you can't get duvet covers in France...is he mad??!)," one former guest wrote on TripAdvisor. "That is only the start of the list."

A former guest told truTV that her father was lured into renting one of the houses on the estate because it supposedly offered activities for children and was marketed as something upscale.
"It was expensive, but he wanted to pay for the best," the guest said.

When truTV contacted the luxury travel agency Adams & Butler and enquired whether it was possible to rent a villa at the Chateau de Fretay, a representative said it was temporarily unavailable. "Unfortunately, there has been a murder there," he said. "But it will become available again soon."

Broke and Desperate?

No one interviewed for the article that lived near the Halls in France, including Sourdin, claimed to know of any financial problems Mr. Hall might have had, either in France or in England. In the local townspeople's eyes, the Halls were in for the long haul to convert the chateau grounds into a golf vacation complex.

Pierre Sourdain
However, Mr. Sourdin conceded that Mr. Hall and Mrs. Hall's estate was a work in progress when queried about complaints from guests who had rented out some of the houses on the estate. "I think that the guests showed up before the renovations were finished," he said. "But when I go on vacation and I don't like the place I rent, I go elsewhere."
But in the town from which the family came in Holmfirth, England, reports surfaced that said Mr. Hall had "fled" the English town in 1998, leaving behind enormous debts.

A person familiar with Mr. Hall's dealings in Holmfirth said the local bank had repossessed Hall's house just before the family moved to France. The source said it would be difficult to find people to go on record to comment on what he said were Mr. Hall's "scams" for fear of reprisals if or when he got out of prison for the death of his wife. "People are going to be scared that someone will bang on their doors in the middle of the night. He hung around with heavy people," the source said. "But it will be a shame if French authorities do not find out what kind of man he really is, either."

According to a report in the local newspaper The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, Mr. Hall left behind a string of debts and was a well-known con man. Mr. Hall reportedly told a bank that he had invented a building material and received a loan for several hundred thousand dollars with which to start a business to sell the material. However, the loan was never paid back, the newspaper reported.

Robert Hall
Citing local townspeople, The Huddersfield Daily Examiner also reported a long list of other wrongdoings Mr. Hall had allegedly committed, including illegally operating a retail outlet and threatening someone with a baseball bat.
The owner of J W Kaye Ironmongers, a hardware store in Holmfirth, Dave Earnshaw, told truTV that Mr. Hall was part con man, part feckless businessman. "He was a very amiable sort of bloke, to be truthful. He could sell smoke to the Eskimos if he wanted," Mr. Earnshaw said. "My personal opinion is that he got himself into a cul-de-sac and couldn't get himself out of it. Some of his projects worked, and some of them didn't, and there were more projects that didn't work than did."

Mr. Earnshaw also alleged Mr. Hall owed him money.

"He didn't owe me a huge amount that rocked the boat, but it was annoying at the time because he just disappeared to France," Mr. Earnshaw said.

Mr. Hall had had a reputation in Holmfirth similar to that he acquired in Le Chatellier as someone who was usually calm and collected, despite any allegedly shady business dealings. Mr. Hall had been known to drink, yet he had never appeared to be visibly intoxicated.

"He was a calm sort of bloke," Mr. Earnshaw said. "I knew he liked to drink, but I never once saw him drunk."

The Missing-Money Trail

The source of Mr. Hall's wealth that had allowed him and his wife to live in Le Chatellier while raising a family and driving around in luxury cars for 12 years remains a mystery. Sources interviewed for this story thought that the Halls had access to funds from Mrs. Hall's family, yet that could not be corroborated.

"I heard that his wife had money," Earnshaw said, reflecting what several other sources told truTV. "But I still don't know how he managed to survive in France for so many years."

If indeed the Halls had been relying on access to money drawn on a British bank account, the British pound has seen a steep decline in value versus the euro. The October 2010 exchange rate was about one British pound to 1.14 euros, compared to over 1.50 euros in January 2007, a 24% decline. However, whether the plummet in the British pound's value became as a source of friction within the Hall family has yet to be disclosed.
As for the construction of the golf course, the project was moving along well at the time of Mrs. Hall's death, Andrew Booth, Hall's architect, told truTV. "The deal was happening. We got approval last month," Mr. Booth said. "The idea that the project was dead in the water is not true at all."

Mr. Booth conceded that there was "some frustration" that it took five years for the plan to go through, but, during the days leading up to Mrs. Hall's death, the project's outlook was better than it had been. After getting the green light from town officials, plans were also in place to sell plots of land that could generate over £2.5 million ($4.0 million), more than enough to fund the golf course and hotel, Mr. Booth said. "With things put into place, the land value will go up," Booth said.

The mayor of Le Chatellier said there was some initial tension when Mr. Hall first announced that he wanted to construct the golf course, due in part to the language barrier and to the bureaucratic process required for building projects in France. "I met with Mr. and Mrs. Hall and the architect on several occasions at the town hall. While Mr. Hall did not speak French, Mrs. Hall could make herself understood and served as an interpreter for him," Mr. Sourdin said. "The meetings went smoothly, although compared to England, things sometimes moved a little slowly for Mr. Hall. But in France, there are procedures that must be followed for such a project."
Mr. Sourdin also admitted that the success of the real-estate project would be a good thing for the community and that the town stood to benefit from its success "We wanted it to work," Mr. Sourdin said. "It was a good thing for the community."

In Wait of the Dark Truth

French authorities expect Mr. Hall's trial for aggravated murder to begin in the coming months, during which it is likely that details of Mr. Hall's financial affairs and state of mind when he allegedly killed his wife and burned and entombed her remains will be revealed. The British police might also be involved, Mr. Sourdin said, although no official announcement whether or not he would be charged in Britain for any crime was made. Meanwhile, the French gendarmes and investigators remain hostile to any questions or inferences when contacted. "I don't believe anybody in your country will talk to you about an ongoing investigation, so how do you expect us to?" a local official investigating the case told truTV.

During the trial, following French procedure, Mr. Hall will likely testify in court about what happened and why he did what he did. Unlike the United States, the process will certainly not be televised. In the meantime, Mr. Hall sits in a jail cell under a suicide watch.

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