October 22, 1979 12:00 PM

It has been 17 months since Jacques Mesrine, 42, the self-styled Robin Hood of the French underworld, became the first inmate ever to scale the walls of the 112-year-old Santé Prison in Paris and embarked on a picaresque Odyssey of plunder and kidnapping (PEOPLE, June 26, 1978). As always, the ex-soldier turned killer and stick-up man has courted the spotlight like a preening jambon; U.S. admirers of the French cinema need not be told of the Gallic appreciation of mayhem and anarchy. One month after he held up a suburban Paris bank, making off with $100,000 in cash, he wined and dined an attractive French journalist in his hideout. Following the roast lamb and champagne, Mesrine launched into his customary diatribe of self-justification and maudlin self-pity. “I would have preferred to sleep without a gun,” he told her, “to have a wife and kids and be happy. But I know it’s not possible. From now on, it’s war.”

For awhile, Mesrine’s deadliest ammunition was verbal. After a botched attempt to kidnap the judge who had once sentenced him to 20 years in prison, Monsieur Jacky bombarded the press with explanations. Then last June, he scored his greatest coup yet. Posing as a policeman, he abducted millionaire Henri Lelièvre from his country estate near Le Mans, returning him for a ransom of $1.4 million. Gendarmes stewed, the public tittered and the master criminal retired smugly into hiding.

Frenchmen might still be laughing had not Mesrine’s egomania overcome his sense of public relations. Apparently angered by a critical magazine article, the killer invited crime reporter Jacques Tillier to a rendezvous, then drove him to an underground quarry. There, at gunpoint, Mesrine and another thug ordered Tillier to strip, handcuffed him, beat him bloody and shot him. Wisely, Tillier played dead, then stumbled to safety, naked and shivering, after his assailants had driven away. Mesrine, adding grisly insult to injury, mailed Polaroid photographs of his battered victim to several newspapers and claimed he had never intended to kill him. “Tillier paid the price as a warning,” he wrote. “He is not dead because I did not wish his death. But I have gone to the limit of violence.” Indeed he had—and beyond the limit, at last, of what his sickened fellow Frenchmen could stomach., France’s romanticization of its Robin Hood was over.

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