Ex-judge in French child murder case found dead in apparent suicide

PARIS, July 12 (Reuters) - A retired French judge has been found dead at his home with his head in a plastic bag, a prosecutor said on Wednesday, in a new twist to a child murder case that has haunted France for three decades.

A judicial source said first indications suggested that Jean-Michel Lambert, 65, who was found dead at his home near Le Mans by emergency services late on Tuesday, had committed suicide.

"There was no trace of violence...(and) no trace of a break-in," said the Le Mans prosecutor in a statement.

Lambert had been the first magistrate in charge of the investigation into the 1984 killing of four-year-old Gregory Villemin, whose body was discovered, bound hand and foot, in a river.

More on the case

The murder, which remains unsolved, was followed by a revenge killing, and other highly-publicized twists and turns where relatives were one after the other accused of being guilty amid a series of anonymous letters.

The case was opened and closed again several times over the decades. Then, in June this year, it was back in the headlines as a couple in their 70s and a 48-year old woman, all relatives of the child, were placed under investigation.

Judge Lambert, who was 32 at the time, was often criticized for the way he handled the case between 1984 and 1987.

On Tuesday, a French news channel published what it said were notes from another judge who investigated the case and had severely criticized Lambert's work.

A month after Gregory's death, Bernard Laroche, a cousin of the child's father, was charged based on evidence provided by his sister-in-law, Muriel Bolle - the youngest of the trio put under investigation last month.

Laroche was freed after evidence against him was thrown out by prosecutors. But convinced that he was the murderer, Gregory's father Jean-Marie Villemin shot and killed him in 1985, and served four years in jail for the act.

Gregory's mother, Christine Villemin, also fell under suspicion because witnesses said they had seen her at the post office on the day that one of the mysterious letters was sent. She was later cleared. (Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Dominique Vidalon in Paris and Guilaume Frouin in Nantes; Editing by Ingrid Melander, Andrew Callus and Richard Balmforth)