At 4am on Monday January 11, 1993, firefighters were called to Prévessin-Moëns, a well-to-do French village close to the Swiss border, after neighbours reported flames coming from the home of Dr Jean-Claude Romand. The scene that greeted them inside the house was heart-rending: Romand’s 37-year-old wife, Florence, and their children, Caroline, 7, and Antoine, 5, lay dead upstairs, their bodies blackened by smoke. Romand, 38, was in bed beside his wife. He was unconscious but still had a pulse.

It soon became clear that all was not what it seemed. Florence had not died in the fire: she had been battered to death with a rolling pin. The two children had been shot at point-blank range. After Romand came to, he initially blamed their deaths on an intruder; but his story quickly came under suspicion after the bodies of his elderly parents were found at their home in Clairvauz-les-Lacs, 50 miles to the north, in the Jura mountains. They, too, had been shot, as had their Labrador. Romand, it later transpired, had also attempted during a weekend of madness to kill his mistress, Chantal Delalande. Two weeks after the fire, he confessed, telling police: “I am a monster.”

He had not only faked the nature of his family’s death, he had also faked 18 years of his life. He had gone to enormous lengths to create a parallel reality, falsely passing himself off as a successful doctor.

“By asking to be released he is killing my sister a second and a third time.”

His trial in 1996 was a media sensation and ended with a life sentence. The case resulted in a celebrated book in 2000, L’Adversaire by Emmanuel Carrère, which was a bestseller here when it was published in English as The Adversary in 2017; it also inspired three feature films (including an adaptation of L’Adversaire) and several television documentaries. And now this murderous tale is about to acquire a postscript.

The Romand house in Prévessin-Moëns on January 12, 1993—the day after the events.

Last week, Romand, now a balding, bespectacled 65-year-old, was released from the high-security jail in central France where he has served the last 20 years of his sentence. In April, the court of appeal in Bourg-en-Bresse granted his request for conditional release, declaring: “At this point, the risk of Monsieur Romand reoffending can be qualified as low.” Under the terms of his release, he will live for the next two years in a monastery in rural France, at a location authorities have declined to reveal.

So has Romand, a master of deception, really changed during all these years or is he still living a lie, just as he did with his wife and children? While the court of appeal says he is no longer dangerous, some of those who know him are reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt. Florence’s mother, Laure Moureau, and her two sons are appalled by the prospect of his release, which they have tried to prevent.

“For us, he has not changed,” Emmanuel Crolet, 56, the elder of Florence’s brothers, tells me. “For 18 years he lied to us, pretending to be the model husband, the model father and the model brother-in-law. And all these years he has been the model prisoner. He has never properly atoned for his crime or shown real regret. By asking to be released he is killing my sister a second and a third time.”

“At this point, the risk of Monsieur Romand reoffending can be qualified as low.”

Before the murders, Romand seemed to have it all: a loving wife, two sweet children, a comfortable house and a well-paid job. Prévessin-Moëns, a town of 8,000 where the couple moved in 1983, is popular with those employed in Geneva’s various international organisations a short drive away across the border. He worked in the city, too, at the World Health Organisation (WHO), where he was involved in medical research. Or so he said.

Money did not seem an issue. Florence, whom he had courted insistently and married in 1980, qualified as a pharmacist but mostly stayed at home, helping out occasionally in a local chemist. Every morning, Romand would drive to work, dropping off his children at private school along the way.

Romand, however, had never been employed by the WHO. He was not even a doctor, although he had set out to become one. At school he had been a talented pupil, repeatedly coming top of his classes. His parents, Aimé, a forester, and Anne-Marie, a housewife, had doted on their only child and spoilt him, so much so that psychiatrists who examined him after his arrest diagnosed a serious narcissistic condition — characterised by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration and a lack of empathy — coupled with mythomania. As Carrère noted in his book, the subject Romand chose in the philosophy part of his secondary school leaving exam was telling: “Truth — does it exist?”

Medical School and Marriage

His medical studies began successfully enough in Lyons, but in 1975 he failed the exam to enter the third year. Though he had a chance to retake it a few months later, he never turned up. He said he had fallen and broken his wrist. Or that he had failed to wake up when his alarm clock went off. Or that he’d been diagnosed with cancer. The story kept changing. But he assured his mother and father he had passed the exam. “Was it fear of failure, out of pride, so as not to hurt my parents?” he wondered aloud at his trial. The lies grew as he invented an alternative reality.

Two of the victims were Romand’s parents, Aimé (left) and Anne-Marie.

He continued to attend university, but never retook the exam and was eventually thrown out. But as far as his family was concerned, his studies were going well: he graduated, got a job first at a French medical institute and then, in 1983, at the WHO. In 1978 he had become engaged to Florence, a distant relative, marrying her two years later. The couple’s parents knew each other and approved of the match. According to Emmanuel Crolet, this bond of trust made it easier for Romand to deceive them.

The complexity of the pretence emerged at his trial and was breathtaking. He obtained a visitor’s pass that allowed him to enter the WHO building, picked up leaflets there and scattered them in his car. Most days he would read medical books in the library or sit in his car at a motorway rest stop or supermarket car park. He would call Florence often, but if she needed to get in touch with him, she could do so only by leaving a message with an answering service. His “job” also required work trips abroad; on these occasions, Romand would check into a hotel and read up on his destination in tourist guide books. On his return he would present his family with souvenirs bought from the shops in Geneva airport. He also claimed to teach a weekly medical course in Burgundy, which allowed him to pop in for lunch with his parents every Thursday.

Expensive Lifestyle, but No Job

Such a lifestyle cost money: more than 60,000 francs (about £6,000) a month over several years, according to investigators, a huge sum given Romand had no job. His first source of income was his parents’ bank account, over which he had a power of attorney. Once he had drained that, he turned to his wife’s family, telling them that, thanks to his Swiss connections, he could get them much higher returns on their money than they could earn in France. Florence’s brothers, Emmanuel and Jean-Noël Crolet, each gave him 15,000 francs. Their father, Pierre Crolet, entrusted him with 400,000 francs of his pension savings. He also persuaded his wife’s uncle, who had been diagnosed with cancer, to pay him 60,000 francs for a pioneering cure to which he claimed to have access through his work. The uncle died shortly afterwards.

In 1988, however, Pierre Crolet began to ask for his money back; it may have cost him his life. That October, while he and Romand were alone together at his country house, Crolet, 62, fell from a platform in his garage, hit his head and was taken to hospital in a coma. He died six days later. An investigation into the cause of death ended inconclusively. Romand then took charge of the sale of his late father-in-law’s property, netting 1.3m francs, which provided a much needed boost to his finances.

Emmanuel Crolet tells me he has “a very strong suspicion” that his father was killed by Romand. “All the time my father was in hospital Romand was very nervous. He went every day to visit,” he says. “We have since wondered whether Romand was stressed that my father would recover from his coma and reveal that he had not fallen but had been pushed.”

Romand has always maintained Crolet’s death was an accident.

Another Twist

There was another twist: in the early 1990s he got to know Delalande, a dentist who had divorced and sold her practice. He persuaded her to let him invest the 900,000 francs proceeds for her. But by December 1992, Delalande, who had moved to Paris, was becoming suspicious and she, too, was asking for her money back.

Others around Romand were also beginning to wonder what was going on: his parents were alarmed to receive a call from their bank telling them their account was almost empty and called Florence for an explanation.

Over the Christmas holidays Florence’s brothers and their families spent a few days with her and Romand at their home. Romand did not seem himself: he had put on weight, let his hair grow, and kept coming and going. His fictitious world was beginning to unravel: he was not a doctor, had no job, no income. How could he explain to his wife and the rest of the family that he had been lying to them for almost two decades?

Florence, too, seemed unhappy and was behaving oddly. “As far as money was concerned, it was already all over,” Emmanuel Crolet says. “I think my sister began to suspect, and Romand knew that she suspected.”

Some of the evidence presented at Romand’s trial.

On January 6, 1993, Romand went shopping for a silencer for his .22 rifle, some ammunition, two tear gas canisters and an electrical device used to stun attackers. Two days later, he bought two jerry cans, which he filled with petrol. On the 9th, a Saturday and the day he was due to pay back money to Delalande, he put his deadly plan into action. The first to die was Florence, battered to death in her bed between 8am and 9am. Then he made the children breakfast and sat them down to watch cartoons. “I knew, after killing Florence, that I was going to kill Antoine and Caroline, too, and that this moment, in front of the television, would be the last one we spent together,” he told his trial. “I cuddled them and said soft words to them, like ‘I love you’.”

Extraordinary Sang-froid

Telling Caroline she looked unwell, he persuaded her to go upstairs to bed. He followed her, playfully put a pillow over her head and then shot her several times in the back. A few minutes later, Antoine suffered the same fate. Displaying extraordinary sang-froid, Romand drove to see his parents, who were waiting for him for lunch. Luring his father upstairs on the pretext of looking at a cupboard, he shot him repeatedly in the back. Then he shot his mother, replacing her false teeth when they fell out, and opened fire on their dog.

After carefully closing up his parents’ home and putting on a clean shirt, Romand drove more than 300 miles to Paris. There he told Delalande they were expected for dinner at a country house outside the capital. Driving through the Fontainebleau forest, he stopped the car, claiming to be lost. He told Delalande he wanted to give her a necklace and asked her to close her eyes: when she did so, he sprayed her with tear gas and gave her an electric shock with the device he had bought. She begged him to spare her life. He agreed and then drove her home, begging her in return not to say anything and blaming the attack on a moment of madness.

He agreed to spare her life and then drove her home, begging her in return not to say anything.

After arriving home in Prévessin-Moëns, Romand spent much of Sunday watching television as the bodies of his wife and two children lay lifeless upstairs. Then, in the early hours of the next morning, he poured petrol in the attic, on the stairs and on the remains of his family and set fire to their home. He took some barbiturates and lay down beside his wife.

He had left a note in his car parked in the centre of town. In the note, he had written “A trivial accident and an injustice can cause madness”, and asked to be pardoned for what he had done.

When Marie-France Payen, an elderly prison visitor, went to visit Romand a few weeks after his arrest, his first words to her were: “You look like my mother.” Payen, a devout Christian, was unperturbed. “I know that, unfortunately, people kill people whom they love,” she said, according to Complément d’enquête, a documentary strand on the France 2 television channel, which amassed a detailed picture of his time in jail. During their meetings Payen and Romand talked about Christ and she gave him books. His faith and belief in divine forgiveness may have helped him through the trial. Those packed inside the courtroom in Bourg-en-Bresse were expecting to see a monster. Romand instead cut a timid figure, slightly slumped in the dock. He remained impassive even when the court was told of a drawing by his son with the words “I love you, papa” found in the kitchen. Applause rang out through the courtroom when Romand was given the harshest sentence available under French law, with parole possible only after 22 years. Again, he showed no emotion. Later he told Daniel Settelen, one of the psychiatrists who examined him: “I have killed everyone I love, but finally I can be myself. I can exist.”

On trial: Jean-Claude Romand in Bourg-en-Bresse, June 25, 1996.

During his incarceration, Romand appears to have become a model prisoner. For 16 years, he worked eight hours a day on restoring audio archives for a state institution. When he was not working, he obtained qualifications in information technology and studied Japanese, philosophy, literature, meditation and Gregorian chant.

But it was not until this year that a court in Châteauroux, near the jail, considered Romand’s request for release. It was rejected in February by magistrates who expressed doubts about his “pathological personality” and the “narcissistic and perverse elements that have developed only a little since his incarceration”. Two months later, they were overruled by the court of appeal in Bourg-en-Bresse. Romand cried when his lawyer, Jean-Louis Abad, called to tell him he was being released. Abad thinks the tears were genuine, “the expression of an intense and very deep pain”.

The monastery where Romand will spend his next two years is a very traditional order: all services are in Latin. He will be allowed out at times, but required to spend the night there, his movements monitored by an electronic tag. He will be forbidden from returning to the scene of his former crimes, and for a further 10 years he will continue to be subject to various other controls.

News of his release has prompted a flurry of attention in France. Delalande, who narrowly avoided becoming Romand’s last victim, remains traumatised by the events of 26 years ago. Breaking years of silence, she agreed to talk for the France 2 documentary — without the cameras rolling — and said she did not believe in Romand’s redemption and feared that one day she might meet him again.

“I completely understand why Chantal Delalande is afraid,” says Emmanuel Crolet. “She is the only one to have met Romand’s gaze as he tried to kill her. That will undoubtedly have marked her.

“There was a time when we were worried for ourselves, too, though there are measures in place to prevent Romand having contact with us during the next 12 years. Given that his psychiatric examinations have shown how little he has changed, my main concern is for other people he could meet in future and how he could manipulate them.”