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Excerpts from Word Crime

From my 2018 book ‘More Wordcrime’
The concrete tomb

Christophe Borgye was a flight attendant with a well-known airline. He was a French citizen from Ronchin in the north of France and had been living in the UK for two years when he disappeared. In 2008, he moved from his home in Liverpool, where he lived with a friend, Sebastien Bendou, to Ellesmere Port where a third man, Dominik Kocher, lived with his wife and children. It appears that both Christophe and Sebastien moved into Kocher’s home, where they all lived together, but under a somewhat unusual arrangement: both Christophe and Sebastien paid their entire salaries into Kocher’s bank account. Why Kocher controlled the finances of these two men is not known.

At some point in 2009, Christophe Borgye disappeared. To all inquiries, the cryptic response ‘gone on holiday’ was given, but if it was a holiday it seemed never to end. Documentation was scant: one questioned email which did not elaborate on the ‘holiday’ much; a series of postcards from the victim; a letter to his brother. Data to investigate included emails from the suspect, a handwritten letter and a typed card. After the email there was silence for nearly two years. The police considered that they were dealing with a missing person and that Christophe had returned home to France.

Matters came to a head when Sebastien Bendou unexpectedly contacted police at Ellesmere Port to inform them that he had killed Christophe Borgye, but ‘only’ as an accomplice to Dominik Kocher. It was thought that Bendou and Kocher must have fallen out, or that perhaps Bendou had had a sudden fit of conscience. Officers who had previously handled the missing person inquiry remembered the email in which it was claimed that Christophe was on holiday. They began to wonder whether Dominik Kocher might be its actual author.

At the early stages of the inquiry I had no knowledge of the case. Whenever I work on a case, I make a point of asking officers to give me the absolute minimum of information. All I was told was that an email had been received, and that there was a question mark over its authorship. I should also state that experts do not undertake internet or other research on any case on which they are working. The expert is there to assist the court and to stick strictly to the task in hand: it is not the expert’s task to play detective and become embroiled in the facts of the case.

Although I am not a native speaker of French I undertook the authorship task in this case for the following reasons:

Firstly, the analysis of text for the purposes of authorship attribution is a technical task of object observation and discrimination. The objects for analysis are linguistic objects, recognisable by whatever degree of distinctiveness they exhibit in their respective forms. The same linguistic principles are present in all languages, although they will be realised in different ways.

Secondly, the task of observing an author’s linguistic features is greatly facilitated when observing authorship in languages which are highly regulated, such as French. Because French is a heavily inflected language, even educated native speakers can find it difficult to create written text in standard form. Common lacunae can include spelling, the use of the apostrophe and the placement of accents and word endings, especially of irregular forms. Because of its many exigencies, individual style in French is in many ways easier to observe than in a less inflected language such as English. To put this another way, the requirement in written French for inflections, many of which are irregular, the various accents, and other orthographic elements means that the cognitive load on a person writing French is higher than it is, with regard to those factors, for a person writing English. This in turn opens up the possibility of even reasonably welleducated writers of French exhibiting the kinds of idiosyncracy found in English language text messages. In addition, I am indebted to my friend and colleague, francophone Dr Emmanuel Didier, a lawyer, linguist and former immigration judge in Canada, for his considerable assistance in this case as well as my brother, Justice Olsson, a translator.

Kocher presents both digital text and handwritten text. In his digital text he does not use accents or the apostrophe. Instead of the latter he inserts a space. The reason for these omissions appears to be because, in those examples, he may be using a Qwerty keyboard, rather than an Azerty keyboard. The accents found in French are more difficult to produce on a Qwerty keyboard because the user would have to programme them into whatever software is being used. The lack of apostrophes is a further indication of lack of familiarity with the keyboard layout: on an Azerty keyboard the apostrophe is in a different location when compared to its location on the Qwerty keyboard, and someone more used to an Azerty layout might experience difficulty locating the apostrophe on a Qwerty keyboard. By contrast, it is apparent that the questioned email was produced using a keyboard where it would not be difficult for a familiar user to locate either the accent marks or the apostrophe.

I will first deal with lacunae found in Kocher’s known writings. However, given my observations about the keyboard used by Kocher, I will not, for the moment, comment on the fact that he does not use apostrophes.

Kocher Example 1 bonsoir x_____, pas de soucis je vais faire cela. la natwest tout devrait rentrer dans l ordre avant fin de semaine donc finalement tout sera resolu ouf! cordialement good evening x_____, don’t worry I’ll do that. natwest everything should be okay by the end of the week so therefore it will all be resolved phew! kind regards For anglophones it is a curious feature of French, especially continental French, that almost all writers place a space before an exclamation mark (and other punctuation marks consisting of two elements, such as colons, semicolons and question marks) We see in the above email, on the second last line, that there is a lack of space before the exclamation mark. This is a characteristic also found in the questioned email (which we will look at later), but is not present in Christophe’s writing.

Kocher Example 2 bonjour x_____, comme vous devez le savoir la natwest a quelque souci depuis deux jours et rebelote ce matin! donc z______ et moi nous inquietons un peu car votre cheque a toujours pas ete debiter . donc juste au cas ou je vais demander a la banque ce matin meme s ils ne pourront certainement pas dire grand chose car ils ont le meme souci que hier malheureusement. cordialement dominik et z______ hi x_____, as you will know natwest has been having some problems over the last two days and this morning it all started up again! so z_____ and I are a bit worried because your cheque still hasn’t been debited. so just in case I will go down to the bank this morning and ask them even though they certainly won’t be able to tell me much because they have the same problem as yesterday unfortunately. kind regards dominik and z______

Here, ‘quelque souci’ would standardly be in the plural, i.e. ‘some concerns’ (quelques soucis). Also, in ‘pas ete debiter’ (sic.), ‘débiter’ would not be in the infinitive, but would ordinarily be given as a past participle, i.e. ‘débité’ (this is not uncommon among French speakers under 50). This lacuna of using the infinitive instead of the past participle also occurs in the questioned email which we will look at below.

Kocher Example 3 bonjour x_____, just pour vous prevenir que le cheque est parti ce jour hi x_____, just to let you know the cheque went off today Here, ‘juste’ would normally be used instead of ‘just’. This is unusual. Kocher Example 4 bonjour x_____, nous esperons que vous aurez bien cette e-mail :-) Nous avons bien recu votre lettre et croyez nous, nous ne vous oublions pas. une lettre avec un 1er paiement devrait vous etre envoyee tot la semaine prochaine. nous avons rencontres des soucis indépendant de notre volonté et nous sommes desoles du delais. en esperons que vous reception erez cet e-mail.

Hi ______, we hope you will get this e-mail :-) We did get your letter, and believe us, we have not forgotten you. a letter with a first payment should be sent to you next week. we have run into some problems through no fault of our own and we are sorry about the delay. hoping that you will receive this e-mail “Cette e-mail” is not typical. It would usually be “ce mail”. The word ‘espérons’ in ‘en esperons’ (sic.) is given here as the first person plural where, without ‘nous’ it means ‘let us hope’. However, it is in reality a gerund, and would normally be given as ‘espérant’: it is attached to ‘en’, meaning, literally, ‘hoping that’, ‘en espérant que’. This is a very basic lacuna. ‘Nous avons rencontres’ (sic) should read ‘Nous avons rencontré’ (i.e. no ‘s’). In the phrase ‘du delais’: ‘du’ is a singular determiner, but ‘delais’ is in the plural.

Kocher Example 5 salut y______ on espere que tu es bien arrive a manilla. nous il fait tres chaud aujourd hui Sebastien m a dit de dire merci a h_____ et toi d avoir essaye de vendre sa tele et de m avoir pris les dvd ca a bien aide car aujourd hui il y a un solicitor qui est venu chez seb il a pu lui donne £520 .00 le gars etait tres sympa rnais il a dit a seb qu il a jusqu a fin de semaine pour trouver £479.00 de + et apres il pourra rembourser le reste des dettes a chris en petites mensualites! ouf! donc seb avec son salaire, ce que nous on va encore lui avance et je vais vendre la grosse tele comme ca il aura l argent pour vendredi quand il doit payer le gars et au moins il aura de nouveau la paix un peu et nous aussi lol on a bien apprecie la soiree avec vous samedi et comme dit si tu as besoin de parler (car nous on sait que pour toi ce n est pas facile non plus loin de h_____) on est la par email. des ton retour, on organisera une soiree pour feter Ie fait que tu ne partes plus a manilla lol… tayo vient demain avec seb et moi voir erin en spectacle j essaierai de prendre des photos et je t en enverrai. a bientot bises de nous 4 domi hi y______ we hope that you arrived safely in manilla. here it is very hot today Sebastien told me to say thank you to h_______ and you for having tried to sell his TV and for having taken the DVDs off my hands, that helped a lot because today a solicitor came to see seb and he was able to give him £520.00. the guy was very nice but he told seb that he had until the end of the week to find £479.00 more and after that he could pay back the rest of the debts to chris in small monthly instalments! phew! so seb with his salary, what we’ll do we will give him an advance and I will sell the big TV in that way he have the money for friday when he has to pay the guy and at least he won’t have to worry for awhile and nor will we lol we really enjoyed the evening with you on Saturday and as I was saying if you need to talk (because we know that it’s not easy for you either while you are far away from h_____) you can get us by e-mail. as soon as you get back, we’ll have a party to celebrate the fact that you’re no longer going to manilla lol… tayo is coming tomorrow with seb and myself will be going to see erin in the show I will try to take some photos and will send them to you. talk soon hugs from all 4 of us domi In French, the city of Manila is written ‘Manille’. The word ‘arrive’ (sic) in ‘tu es bien arrive’ would be written ‘arrivée’ as the addressee is of the feminine gender. In standard French, the word ‘donne’ in ‘lui donne’ would be in the infinitive, i.e. ‘donner’ ; ‘avance’ in ‘lui avance’ would also be in the infinitive, i.e. ‘avancer’. The words ‘comme dit’ would usually read ‘comme on a dit’. In addition, ordinarily, there would be a space before the exclamation mark, as previously noted.

Kocher Example 6 ici il fait tres chaud on voulait jouer au foot avec tayo hier il a du annuler car il avait un truc a faire aujourd hui, c est moi qui etait busy alors se sera pour un autre jour ...lol vero m a dit qu elle t enverrai un email ce weekend. allez courage celine plus que 15 jours et c est finit manilla … ouf! bises de nous 4 domi here it is very hot we wanted to play soccer with tayo yesterday he had to cancel because he had something to do today I’m the one who is busy so it’ll have to be another day… lol vero told me she’ll send you an e-mail this weekend. so be brave celine only a fortnight left and manilla is over …phew! hugs from all 4 of us domi The word ‘enverrai’ would ordinarily be ‘enverra’ (third person singular, future tense), and the word ‘finit’ would be ‘fini’. Note also the lack of a space after ‘chaud’ and before the exclamation mark. Also worth observing at this stage are the repeated, and somewhat blatant, borrowings from English, e.g. ‘Manilla’ (sic) ‘reporting’, ‘busy’. Later we have ‘emailler’, ‘valuer’, and ‘laptop’.

Kocher Example 7 oui se sera sympa de feter ton retour definitif…ca fera du bien! il fait tres chaud ici. les problemes de seb a cause de christophe se resolvent petit a petit ouf! tayo etait avec nous hier. on a mange au chinois puis on est alle voir erin en spectacle. apres on a joue 30 minutes au foot….apres on etait KO…lol voila on espere que ton reporting se passe bien yes it would be great to have a party when you come back for good… it will do us good! it’s very hot here. seb’s problems because of christophe are slowly being resolved phew! tayo was with us yesterday. we ate at the Chinese restaurant and then went to see erin in the show. after that we played soccer for 30 min we were exhausted…lol well that’s all we hope your reporting is going well The word ‘se’ in the first line is used instead of ça. There is no space before the exclamation mark, as previously noted.

Kocher Example 8 Desole nous sommes toujours en France dans ces dure moments. Je t’envoie un cheque pour les £500 que je te dois encore. Peux tu l’encaisser le 30th novembre 2012 pas avant car je mets l’argents par virement de France seulement pour le 30 Novembre 2012. Si tu mets avant le cheque / passera pas !! Mais si tu met le 30 Novembre il n’ya aura pas de probleme Le pere de vero est entrain de deceder. A bientot mon ami et merci encore So sorry that we’re still in France at this difficult time. I’m sending you a cheque for the £500 that I still owe you. Could you deposit it on 30 November 2012 not before because I’ll be transferring the money from France only by 30 November 2012 If you deposit it earlier / it won’t go through!! But if you deposit it on 30 November there will be no problem Vero’s father is dying. See you soon my friend and thank you again The opening sentence is totally un-French. It should either have been “Désolé, nous sommes” (Sorry, we are…) or “désolé que nous sommes” (So sorry that we are). Normally, a French speaker would have said something like: “Dommage que nous sommes…” (It’s a pity that we are…). The word ‘desole’ (sic) requires accents as follows: ‘désolé’. ‘Dure’ would ordinarily be in the masculine gender and in the plural, hence ‘durs’. The word ‘cheque’ requires an accent on the first ‘e’, hence ‘chèque’ (two examples). Le ‘30th’ is very strange in French. ‘L’argents’ in the plural is nonexistent in French. The word ‘novembre’ is hardly ever capitalised in French. In this example, uniquely for this writer, there is a space before the exclamation mark. Any reasonably competent writer knows that the following require accents: ‘problème’, ‘père’, ‘à’ and ‘bientôt’. Note that “je mets l’argents par virement de France seulement” would normally be something like “je ferai le virement depuis la France”. The expression ‘tu mets’ is appropriately rendered the first time, but nonstandardly the second, as ‘tu met’. In any case ‘mettre’ requires a direct object. The sentence should read ‘si tu le mets...’ on both occasions. It is necessary for ‘en train’ to be two words. As one word ‘entrain’ carries an entirely different meaning. Following these observations, I examined the victim’s known writings.

Christophe Example 1 Cher Mamie et Marcel. J’espère que vous allez bien. Moi ça va. Désolé de n’avoir donné de nouvelles. Le boulot me prend beaucoup de temps. J’ai déménagé. J’habite toujours avec les français de Strasbourg, mais nous avons bougé à l’extérieur de Liverpool. J’habite maintenant à une demiheure en voiture du boulot. J’ai ramené ma voiture d’Irelande par le ferry. Là où j’habite maintenant, j’ai l’internet ce que je n’avais pas avant. Mon adresse e-mail n’a pas changé : borgyechristophe@____. C’est beaucoups mieux que de vivre dans le quartier des cas sociaux de Liverpool. Les Anglais sont un peu spéciales parfois et ils sont plutôt alcoholics . Avec le boulot je vais un peu partout en Europe : Italie, Espagne, Irelande, Norvège, Pologne, Lithuanie…., mais que des allés-retours. En ce moment le temps est très mauvais en Angleterre, il pleut tout le temps. J’ai pas pris de congé cet été, je les aurais sans doute après. Je passerais sans doute vous rendre visite la fin d’année. Si vous voulez m’écrire mon adresse est…. Dear Gran and Marcel. I hope you are well. As for me I’m okay. Sorry I haven’t given you any news . My job is taking up a lot of my time. I moved house. I’m still living with the French people from Strasbourg, but we’ve moved to just outside Liverpool. I’m now living half an hour drive away from my job. I brought my car over from Ireland on the ferry. In the place I’m living now, I’ve got Internet, which I didn’t have before. My e-mail address is still the same: borgyechristophe@____. It’s much better than living in the ‘hood with social outcasts in Liverpool. The English can be quite weird sometimes and they tend to be heavy drinkers. My job takes me to quite a few different parts of Europe: Italy, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Lithuania but always rapid there-and-back trips. Right now the weather is really bad in England, it keeps raining. I didn’t take any leave this summer, I’ll probably have some later. I’ll very likely come and see you at the end of the year. If you want to write to me my address is…. ‘Cher’ is incorrect – it would usually be in the plural, because two people are being addressed: ‘Chers’. Christophe writes ‘Irelande’, erroneously on several occasions. However, the questioned email has ‘Irlande’, which is standard, and which Kocher also has. ‘Beaucoups’ is never written with an ‘s’ at the end. ‘Spéciales’ is not standard as regards gender. The word would usually be ‘spéciaux’. The word ‘alcoholics’ is ‘alcooliques’ in French. However, as the writer is referring to English people, there may be an ironic meaning to the word. Lithuania is normally ‘Lituanie’ in French, not as here ‘Lithuanie’. However, not many writers would necessarily know this. The expression “des allés-retours” would usually be written “des aller-retour” or “des allerretours. The words ‘aurais’ and ‘passerais’ would normally be given in the future tense, ‘aurai’ and ‘passerai’. Finally, the phrase ‘la fin d’année’ would more usually be ‘a la fin d’année’. Here, Christophe is writing to his mother apologising for not having written before. This is important because after his disappearance his family did not have any news of him for a considerable period. At first, they were not unduly anxious as he was not a regular correspondent. This in turn delayed the crime coming to light.

Christophe Example 2 Désolé de n’avoir donné de nouvelles plus tôt. A tu reçu m’a carte de Tunisie ? J’espère que les médecins trouveront vite de quoi te rétablir, que tu puisse reprendre le travail. Je vais t’envoyer l’argent que je te dois petit à petit car moi aussi au niveau finance en ce moment c’est pas terrible. J’ai des frais pour la voiture dû au changement de plaques et j’ai deménagé car la maison était trop petite. Je suis désolé d’avoir mis tout ce temps pur te remboursé. Je sais qu’il est difficile de me joindre au téléphone a cause de mes horaires de travail qui sont irrégulières mais mon numéro est : 0000 00 0000 0000 le plus facile pour me joindre est le E-MAIL. Alors comme ça les parents ont deménagé. C’est toi qui me l’apprend car en ils ne me donne jamais de nouvelles. Je suis content que tu ai retrouvé ton parrain. Tu lui fera le bonjour pour moi. Embrasse Aurelie et franck aussi. Gros bisous Christophe Sorry I didn’t send any news earlier. Did you get my postcard from Tunisia? I hope the doctors will quickly find out how to get you better, so you can go back to work. I’ll be sending you the money I owe you bit by bit because financially, right now things are not too good. I had to spend money on the car because of the change in number plates, and I had to move because the house was too small. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to pay you back. I know it’s hard to get me on the phone because of my working hours which are irregular but here’s my number: 0000 00 0000 0000 the easiest way to get me is through E-MAIL. So, just like that, your parents moved away. I heard it from you because they never give me any news. I’m glad you were reunited with your godfather. Say hello to him from me. Kiss Aurelie and franck as well. Lots of hugs and kisses Christophe ‘A’, first line, would usually be ‘As’, and ‘m’a carte’ would be ‘ma carte’. The missing comma after ‘rétablir’ is a fairly rare punctuation lacuna for this author. The word ‘puisse’ would usually be ‘puisses’, ‘dû’ would be ‘dus’, ‘remboursé’ would be in the infinitive, and ‘irregulières’ would be in the masculine gender. The expression ‘que tu ai’ is not standard – the subjunctive verb would usually be given here, ‘aies’, and ‘embrasse’ requires ‘s’ at the end. Regarding Christophe’s known style, I concluded that although he produces a number of nonstandard forms, very few are critical or even serious. Notably, he uses accents appropriately. His punctuation is reasonable, and mostly he capitalises words in standard ways.

Questioned Email Excerpt 1

salut N___, Je viens d’acceder pour la 1ere fois a mes emails depius 5 semaines et je vois que toi A___ et Dominic vous êtes tous inquiets pour moi. Je vous rassure je vais bien hi N___, I’ve just been able to read my e-mails for the 1st time in 5 weeks and I see that both you A_______ and Dominic had been worried about me. Don’t worry, I’m fine

There are several nonstandard forms here, the most critical of which is ‘a’ instead of ‘à’. There are other missing accents, but that is the most serious. Some of this may be attributable to the use of a Qwerty keyboard. Here, the writer claims that this is the first time he has been able to access his emails for five weeks, and he reassures ‘N’, ‘A’ and Kocher that he is well.

Questioned Email Excerpt 2

Je vais avoir 36 ans cette année et j’ai pas grand chose dans la vie et je travaille pour une compagnie où chaque jour je pars le matin et je rentre chaque jour et alors que je prefererai bosser pour une compagnie où je reste 2 ou 3 jours sur place!

I will be 36 this year and don’t have much in life to show for it and I’m working for a company in which I leave in the morning and come back every day whereas I would prefer to have a job in a company where I stay 2 or 3 days on the spot!

‘Preferai’ is standardly ‘préférerais’ here because, not only are accents required, but the meaning is better conveyed with ‘would’ rather than ‘will’. While some francophones might not know where to place the second accent in ‘préférerais’, the appropriate use of the first accent would be expected of a reasonably competent writer. Note, also, that there is no space before the exclamation mark. This does not occur in Christophe’s writings but does occur, almost all the time, in Kocher’s writings.

In this excerpt, ostensibly from Christophe, the writer states that he is approaching 36 years of age and feels that he has accomplished nothing. This sets up the email for the following excerpt.

Questioned Email Excerpt 3

Alors j’ai decidé que c’était le moment de faire un choix et j’ai decidé de voyager un peu. Je suis donc allé en Irlande…..

So I decided it was time to make some choices and I decided to travel a bit. So I went to Ireland…..

In this excerpt, the most important nonstandard form is ‘decidé’, given instead of ‘décidé’. Also important is ‘Irlande’ which is the standard form. However, in his known emails, Christophe writes ‘Irelande’. Kocher also uses ‘Irlande’, i.e. the standard form.

In this excerpt, as a result of meditating on where he is in life, ‘Christophe’ decides that the best thing for him to do is to ‘travel a bit’. The reader will be aware that it is not uncommonly claimed, on behalf of missing persons, that they ‘disappeared’, ‘went on holiday’, ‘decided to see the world’, etc. Later in the email, as we will see below, ‘Christophe’ has decided to go to China.

Questioned Email Excerpt 4

Je vais m’installer et visiter la chine pour 2-3 mois puis je trouverai sois une compagnie aerienne qui voyage plus que ryanair ou je resterai avec L___. Tu sais que j’ai toujours voulu aller en chine. La batterie de mon portable et vide….

I will settle in and visit china for 2-3 months and then either I’ll find an airline company that travels more than ryanair where I’ll be together with L____ You know I always wanted to go to china. My cellphone battery is about to die on me….

An interesting form here is ‘sois’, which would standardly be ‘soit’ – a conjunction, not a subjunctive verb. This would not be something a reasonably competent writer would do. The second last word in this excerpt ‘et’ would ordinarily be ‘est’. This is definitely not something a competent writer would do – this is a form that occurs several times in the questioned email.

It is evident from the volume and type of lacunae that the writer of the questioned email has considerable difficulty in producing standard written French forms consistently. It seems reasonable to assume that this writer is either a nonnative speaker, a bilingual from a diglossic area with the target language as his weaker language, or that he has been poorly educated in written French All in all, the overall feel of the text, although often quite “in tune” colloquially, is simply not that of a native French speaker, because of these untypical small anomalies. The numerous accent lacunae are particularly striking, as are some of the grammatical difficulties, especially ‘et’ for ‘est’ and ‘sois’ for ‘soit’. The lack of appropriate punctuation is also a serious issue.

For the above reasons, I considered that the typology, extent and gravity of lacunae found in the writings of Dominik Kocher, as outlined above, indicate that he is more likely to be the author of the questioned email than Christophe Borgye. His style of language use in French is consistent with the style found in the questioned email. Also, I found Christophe Borgye’s style of language use not at all consistent with that found in the questioned email. A trial was held, and Kocher and Bendou were found guilty of murder.

It turned out that he and Bendou had tricked Christophe into entering what was described as a kill room, a room prepared by the killers, with the floor lined with pvc, the men dressed in clothing which could easily be washed. Having killed Christophe they buried his body in a specially constructed tomb which was covered in concrete. The reason Kocher did it seems to have been for money. Bendou was unable to live with his conscience, and so he confessed, leading police to the scene some two years after the murder. Somehow Kocher persuaded Bendou that Christophe had been sent to spy on them.

Dr John Olsson, Forensic Linguist


Excerpts from Word Crime

Forensic linguistics and murder

Forensic linguistics and police statements

Doing forensic linguistics

The Prosecutor of the ICC v the President of Kenya

The missing flight attendant and the concrete tomb

Dr. John Olsson
About Dr. John Olsson