Diggers search woods for ‘French Madeleine McCann’ 18 years after girl, 9, snatched by virgin-obsessed Ogre of Ardennes

A NEW search has been launched for the missing schoolgirl dubbed the "French Madeleine McCann", after the ex-wife of the country's most notorious serial killer revealed the possible location of her body.

Police have began excavations in the heart of a forest in the Ardennes after Monique Olivier, 73, the former partner of the virginity-obsessed murderer Michel Fourniret,79, offered up new information regarding the whereabouts of Estelle Mouzin.

The nine-year-old never returned home from school in 2003, marking one of France's most high-profile missing person cases that drew comparisons with the huge hunt launched for Madeleine McCann.

Fourniret, who earned himself the nickname Ogre of the Ardennes, had previously admitted that he had slaughtered the girl in March last year – a claim that was also corroborated by Olivier, who is also serving a life sentence for her role in procuring his victims.

Olivier has now sparked a fresh search for Estelle's undiscovered remains after telling investigators where she and her sick ex-husband allegedly dumped the body.

Her lawyer Richard Delgenes explained: "She gave places, a path on which she had accompanied him by car.

"He got off, it was he who was driving. He had taken Estelle Mouzin to the place she designated."

Fourniret was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of seven young women between 1987 and 2001. He is indicted in three other cases, including Estelle's, and is believed to be behind dozens more.

DNA evidence matching Estelle was found last year on a mattress in the home of the killer's sister, where the youngster is thought to have been taken.

"That means that Estelle Mouzin was on that mattress," Delgenes said at the time.

Both breakthroughs offered a glimmer of hope to the Mouzin family of finding their little girl – but they remained sceptical of Fourniret's confession, saying only "material evidence will bring certainty".

Her father Eric Mouzin told the Times in the wake of the fresh forensic evidence, "We set ourselves an objective, and the goal remains to find Estelle.

"As long as we have not found Estelle, we remain at the mercy of this couple. Of course, we now seem to know who did that to Estelle. But I have suspected that for a long time. It is only a first step."

Now a mammoth search team, made up of military officers and investigators from the Criminal Research Institute, have been sent into the forest to concentrate on an area of around 500 metres, after Olivier directed authorities there – 18 years on from Estelle's disappearance.

Armed with a ground-penetrating radar that can probe up to a depth of one metre and high-performance drones, it could be the crucial step in closing the mystery of what happened to Estelle.

Huge JCB's were seen breaking ground in the forest as detectives searched the dense surrounding area, but it is clear this is far from a simple operation.

"We will have to go there with an excavator to remove layers, one after the other, and bring in our anthropologist experts to find places that could have been manipulated at a given time, where there would have been a hole," said Colonel Franck Marescal, director of the Criminal Research Institute of the National Gendarmerie. 

It comes after a series of unsuccessful searches on the outskirts of Issancourt-et-Rumel, just 2.5 miles from Ville-sur-Lumes where Olivier claims Estelle was snatched, raped, and killed by her monstrous former husband.

Despite the new lead, locals have described the search for Estelle as "a needle in a haystack" in the vast forest that is situated close to the Belgian border.

Fourniret was originally a person of interest in the case back in 2003 and was arrested in Belgium on suspicion of his involvement – but a phone call from his home at the time of Estelle's disappearance gave him an alibi.

Olivier admitted last year that she had been the one to make the phone call, eroding his cover.

Estelle's young age, circumstances, and the scale of the search launched in wake of her vanishing saw the cold-case compared to the infamous disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

The three-year-old went missing in Praia da Luz in 2003 from her bed, sparking an extraordinary international hunt.

A string of well-known local pedophiles were considered in the investigations, and last year, similarly to Estelle's case, a convicted child molester and rapist emerged as the prime suspect.

Christian Brueckner was supposedly staying near the resort and allegedly boasted to friends about "selling kids to sex rings" around the time Maddie vanished.

German prosecutors claim they have evidence he stole the toddler from the holiday home and killed her – claims vehemently denied by Brueckner's legal team.

Both heartbreaking cases of the missing children have been plagued by dead-ends and conspiracy theories, but also show the endless and extensive efforts to try and gain answers for the families.

Each year, a march is organised in the streets of Guermantes to keep Estelle's memory alive.

The Mouzin family lawyer, Didier Seban, announced in December they had "never been so close to discovering where is Estelle" – but slammed authorities for the "unacceptable dysfunctions" of the judicial process concerning missing children.

Seban called for the instatement of a "body of judges specialising in cases of missing children".

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