Book details the serial killer working for Army's secretive intelligence service in Nazi-occupied France

The Great Liquidator
Photo credit Creative Commons

Dr. Marcel Petiot is one of those curious characters that weaves their way through history; a person with a mysterious level of influence who seemed to touch everything and everyone at a certain critical time and place. In this case, that unique historical moment was in Nazi-occupied France and a peculiar doctor who served the criminal underworld of Paris, sold antiques in his free time, and invented a novel new way to cut off a human face.

Dr. Petiot was widely believed to have some association with the Gestapo despite being thrown in prison by them. His previous service in World War I degraded his mental health to the point that he received veteran's disabilities, and yet he maintained a license to practice medicine. He was a U.S. Army intelligence asset, while also being a prolific serial killer.

Podcast Episode
Eye on Veterans
SPECIAL REPORT: Spec Ops vets in Ukraine doing what US aid won't
Listen Now
Now Playing
Now Playing

Indeed, Dr. Petiot was convicted of twenty-six murders, while he openly admitted to killing over sixty, and some experts suspect the real number was closer to 150. However, Petiot insisted he merely liquidated the enemies of France and that his victims were Nazis and collaborators. Yes, the saga of Dr. Petiot is indeed as strange a tale as any to come out of the war as is the chronicle of his life written by John Grombach in “The Great Liquidator.”

Grombach ran a small and secretive rival to the more famous Office of Strategic Service (OSS) headed by Gen. Bill Donovan. Every student of special operations, intelligence, or World War II history knows about the OSS but few have ever heard of Grombach's group nestled in the War Department General Staff Intelligence Division's Espionage unit and working through various official and commercial covers. They were the Army Secret Intelligence Branch as he refers to it in his book, sometimes referred to simply as “The Pond.” Grombach claims that Petiot was one of his sources, or rather a sub-source, that through one or more cutouts Petiot provided intelligence information to The Pond, perhaps as an unwitting asset.

Grombach describes Petiot as one of his “insulated sources” and gives his source number as PC-P and later D-P-6 but there are no source citations or endnotes in the book. Gromback provides very little proof or substantiating evidence in "The Great Liquidator" at all, but before addressing this we turn back to Petiot.

Petiot had the typical red flags as a youngster, torturing animals and wetting the bed until he was nearly a teenager, as well as being a pathological liar although he was also highly intelligent and did well in school when he applied himself. He volunteered for military service in World War I and saw some heavy fighting as Prussian soldiers attempted to capture a village his unit was assigned to defend. He was wounded in combat, although the circumstances are questionable, and he spent the end of the war bouncing around between mental hospitals.

Eventually, Petiot was declared an invalid and given a soldier's pension. Despite all this, and a mystery to even Grombach writing about Petiot decades later, he still went to medical school and acquired a license to practice medicine. The murders started while Petiot was a village doctor where he eventually became mayor.

There was a mistress, and then a political rival. Using his skills as a physician (he was also an avid reader of criminology) Petiot was able to expertly remove his victims' faces using a technique he developed, then fingerprints, and disembowel the cadavers before dumping them in a field, leaving police scratching their heads as they were unable to identify the bodies.

But the doctor had grander ambitions which took him to Paris where he established a small medical practice in the opera district frequented by prostitutes and members of the criminal underworld. When the Nazis invaded France, many well-to-do Parisians fled allowing Petiot to scoop up cheap real estate including a building located at 21 rue Le Sueur. During the war, neighbors later recalled hearing screams from inside the building.

Under Nazi occupation, Parisians disappeared left and right only to turn up dead be it in a concentration camp or floating in the Seine river. Many simply assumed that the building at 21 rue Le Sueur was a Gestapo interrogation center or even the site of an underground abortion clinic where anesthetics were in short supply.

Towards the end of the war, black smoke poured from the chimney at 21 rue Le Sueur for days until the police were called. Inside, they found a charnel house. There was a lime pit filled with dissected bodies and a torture chamber complete with a periscope to allow the victim to be secretly watched. As Dr. Petiot went on the lam, using stolen identification papers and even the ration card of a 7-year-old boy who was his victim, he blended in with the French resistance as they carried out reprisal killings against collaborators, all while the horrible truth about Petiot finally came to light.

During the war, Dr. Petiot assumed the alias of Dr. Eugene and sent interlocutors into the city to locate those who would like to be smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France. For a fee, they could escape via Dr. Eugene's underground railroad to freedom. They were mostly Jews hoping to escape the horrors of Nazi death camps or collaborators in fear of the French resistance. Still, others were common criminals who were wanted by the Gestapo. “Dr. Eugene” accepted them all.

On top of his fee, these clients would be escorted to 21 rue Sueur with suitcases bursting with jewels, coats with currency sewn into the lining, and whatever other valuables they could carry to help begin a new life in South America. However, 21 rue Sueur was the first and last stop of their journey on a clandestine ratline that never actually existed.

Petiot systematically murdered his clients by injecting them with a fatal air embolism while claiming that he was simply bringing their vaccinations up to date prior to travel. He would then lock them in a triangular-shaped room and go read a novel or busy himself with other work for a few hours and then check the periscope to insure his victim was deceased.

Then he would expertly eviscerate the body, dumping organs and entrails down into the Paris sewer system. With hands and face removed, he would pack the corpse into a trunk that would be pulled in a cart behind his bicycle, normally used when antique shopping. In the dead of night (Petiot seemingly never slept) the bodies would go into the river.

For Petiot, it was a simple pragmatic money-making scheme. The collaborators and Nazis were up to no good and deserved to die. The Jews would have died in the death camps anyway, under much worse conditions, so he reasoned after the French police teased him out of hiding. Publishing an intentionally wrong account of Petiot and his activities in a Paris newspaper induced the doctor to defend his honor by correcting the record by writing a rebuttal which was delivered to his lawyer to be forwarded to the paper.

Police were able to deduce from Petiot's own account that he was still in Paris and still working as a doctor somewhere with the resistance movement. By comparing the handwriting to known members of the resistance, they quickly found and arrested him. The subsequent trial turned into a three-ring circus, and the author of "The Great Liquidator" points out numerous times in which the trial did not meet any American standard of justice and would almost certainly have been declared a mistrial.

Indeed, Petiot may very well have been found innocent in French courts if not for several major blunders he made.

While Petiot's story is horrifying and sensational, we must now turn our attention to John Grombach and the book itself. I was able to correspond briefly with a historian working on a book about Grombach and The Pond who said that the author had been researching this book starting in the 1950s before it was finally published in 1979. For now, little information is available about Grombach or his wartime activities. However, there are some interesting clues in "The Great Liquidator" and some of the claims Grombach makes could easily lead one to believe that the book is itself a type of intelligence operation.

To bolster Petiot's apparently important position as a U.S. Military intelligence asset, Grombach attributes to him a series of revelations, including forewarning of Nazi Germany's V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize Great Britain, intel coups revealing double agents working in American embassies, Soviet disinformation operations that pitted the British and French against one another, and insider details of the Katlyn massacre well before the world knew the truth. It all sounds like a bit much for an intelligence asset to know, whose access and placement was in wartime Paris with petty criminals, the French Gestapo, and prostitutes.

Grombach claimed that the Nazi Abwehr intelligence organization run by infamous Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen was leaking information to Petiot, but presents no evidence and gives no reason to explain why this would be.

Grombach says in the preface to the book that his friend, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, encouraged him to write it and lays his own motivations bare in several passages. At one point, he explains that, “in the intelligence field there is nothing unusual about highly unworthy and undependable persons turning in highly important and correct intelligence,” while bemoaning that, “the CIA consistently evaluated its intelligence by the nature of the supplier and insisted on violating security by carding all of its sources with all possible data on them.”

The author's point of view is that the craft of intelligence gathering should be divorced from morality and that criminals like Petiot should be leveraged to provide accurate intelligence information. Further, he asserts that these types of intelligence assets can be run as sub-sources via multiple cutouts or interlocutors using multiple code names and aliases. In short, Grombach believes that subterfuge and chicanery can be used to turn rumor and hearsay into an intelligence product, whereas a modern intelligence agency would thoroughly vet its sources, polygraph them, meet them in person, and test the veracity of their information.

While Grombach thinks the ideology of intelligence sources should not prejudice the collector, one cannot overlook his own staunch anti-communist views in writing "The Great Liquidator" in which the French resistance is described as “communist terrorists.” Long missives appear in the book, quoting Petiot at length saying, “the defeat of Germany will leave America and Russia confronting one another, England will be permanently an enfeebled, degenerate, small island kingdom and will lose its entire empire.”

“After all,” Petiot is quoted saying, “Communism and Marxism are only ways and means of attaining power...but the first order of business is to lick the Nazis and liberate Paris,” which comes across as an odd passage when attributed to a self-declared communist like Petiot.

Are these really the words of a French serial killer in 1945, or rather do these quotes represent an American gumshoe waxing poetic for an audience in 1980? Without source citations, the reader is left to wonder.

Until a thoroughly researched history book is finally published about The Pond, I will merely revert to a declassified CIA white paper on Grombach which points out that he had a history of embellishments and in some cases making up false intelligence reports. This was at least partially what led to the disbandment of The Pond as an intelligence service, to be eclipsed by the then newly formed CIA at the dawn of the Cold War.

Historian Mark Stout points out that The Pond is one of the least known and unique intelligence organizations in American history. It operated entirely outside the control of the U.S. government while also utilizing government platforms and communications systems. The notion of a small deniable intelligence organization working in secret through an obscure office in the War Department sounds fantastical, but the concept has plenty of contemporary parallels.

During the Iran-Contra scandal, U.S. government logistical lines and intelligence networks were utilized by an operationalized National Security Council. Seymour Hersh recently wrote about a black program orchestrated by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush which ran covert operations all over the world, with great success and little oversight. My own sources have told me about Special Access Programs run through another Vice-President's office during the War on Terror years.

As for Petiot, his head literally rolled into a basket on May 25, 1946. After the guillotine, his body went into an unmarked grave and was never claimed by his wife. The estimated 14 million dollars worth of cash and jewels he stole from his victims were never recovered, nor has there ever been an accurate accounting of his victims. After all, the best place to hide a murder, or dozens of them, is in a war zone.

Meanwhile, Grombach's organization continued on until 1955 under the auspices of the State Department and CIA, the latter of which he detested. Flirting with Senator McCarthy's red scare and search for communists hidden in American society, Grombach worked with Roy Cohn who later became a mentor to Donald Trump. In the end, Grombach was fed disinformation about the CIA by James Jesus Angleton knowing it would be leaked to McCarthy. The false information could then easily be shot down in congressional hearings, thus saving the CIA at a time when it was under scrutiny.

Grombach died in 1982, just a few years after the publication of "The Great Liquidator."

Reach Jack Murphy: or @JackMurphyRGR. Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Creative Commons