Putting a town to the test


Her father says she could have been anyone's daughter. The villagers say it could have happened in anyone's town, and they hope DNA tests will prove the killer was not one of their neighbours. Caroline Dickinson's murder on July 18th, 1996, shocked parents all over Europe because it occurred in circumstances in which most would not hesitate to put their own children: a supervised school outing to a spotless youth hostel in a picturesque Breton village a few kilometres from the Mont-Saint-Michel. When Caroline's school friends woke up that morning, they found her lifeless body on a mattress in upstairs room number 4 of the Pleine-Fougeres Youth Hostel. The 13-year-old schoolgirl from Launceston College in Cornwall had been raped and strangled. To be near her closest friends, she had dragged a mattress into the small room and placed it on the floor between two sets of bunkbeds.

Incredibly, none of the four other English girls in the room woke up, although one later said she thought she heard Caroline having a nightmare. Nor did the school nurse and her husband, sleeping in the room across the hall, hear anything unusual.

Nearly a year and a half later, the perseverance of Caroline's father, John Dickinson, in forcing a reluctant French justice system to carry out systematic DNA testing of all adult males in Pleine-Fougeres has brought the little town of 1,818 souls uncomfortably back into the spotlight. Before what the villagers call "l'affaire Caroline", the Mayor Christian Couet says, his was a town "where nothing ever happened".

For the past year and a half, a cloud of suspicion has hung over Pleine-Fougeres. Most of the men accept the DNA testing "for the sake of Caroline's family" and as a "civic duty". Ironically, no one - not even John Dickinson - believes the murderer came from the village. But while insisting that "he wasn't from here", the inhabitants can't dispel that last shred of doubt, and some admit they have been more careful to lock doors and shutters and watch their daughters.

"It could very well be Monsieur Tout Le Monde, whom we don't suspect," Mayor Couet says. "The DNA tests have lifted and will lift all suspicion." The greatest paradox of the case is that investigators hold the key to the identity of Caroline's killer - the genetic prints in his sperm - but have not been able to find him.

Blood samples were taken from all the youth hostel personnel and men from Caroline's group soon after the crime. Over the following year, more than 200 additional tests were carried out on men connected with the hostel and on known sexual offenders in the region. But the former investigating magistrate refused to test all men in Pleine-Fougeres on the grounds that at up to £176 per test, it was too expensive.

Then in August, John Dickinson won his lawsuit in the Rennes Appeals Court, which sacked the ineffectual investigating magistrate, replaced him with the high-profile Judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke, and ordered - for the first time in France - the systematic testing of all men in the village.

Last month, 169 men between the ages of 15 and 35 gave saliva samples. None of the results matched the genetic prints left by the man who raped Caroline, so this coming Friday and Saturday, 250 more men, aged between 36 and 60, will file through the upstairs room of the town hall so lab technicians can take a swab of their saliva.

Judge Van Ruymbeke travelled to Britain this month to interview witnesses who saw intruders in other youth hostels, and to oversee DNA testing of teachers who had accompanied a Manchester school group to Saint-Lunaire, 40 kilometres from Pleine-Fougeres. An hour and a half before Caroline's murder, another English schoolgirl was badly assaulted in the Saint-Lunaire Youth Hostel. The girl's friends chased away her assailant. Although she was badly bruised, her teachers did not report the incident until they returned to England because they had a ferry to catch the next morning.

The villagers are relieved to see the focus shift briefly to England. "L'affaire Caroline" has sparked deep resentment towards the press here. Francois Delan, the village pharmacist, says he is convinced the DNA tests will prove futile, but he supports them "because it will end remarks about boorish country people. We are not primitive," he says angrily.

Gregoire Choleau, the director of the Pleine-Fougeres Youth Hostel, says the town should sue newspapers for libel. "I don't understand why we should be treated like a plague-ridden village. There are crimes everywhere."

Louis Thebault, president of the local Youth Hostel Association, says journalists pressed for sordid details of the murder. Some pretended to be hostel clients, and others offered to pay for photographs of villagers. "A photographer camped outside my house for two days," he says. "I left home lying down on the car seat, and there are plenty of people here like me. The British tabloids were the worst, but the French were not much better."

Investigators now believe the Saint-Lunaire attacker drove on to Pleine-Fougeres, where he raped and killed Caroline Dickinson. They are looking for someone from the region with a good knowledge of the youth hostel system. Similar incidents occurred in youth hostels in Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo in 1996, in Morlaix in 1995 and in Brest in 1994.

Pure coincidence, say inhabitants of Pleine-Fougeres, who believe Caroline's killer must have come from her school group. They allude to a dispute among the English students that night.

Prominent members of the community go so far as to claim that Caroline's death was the result of hazing or teasing that got out of hand. On that morning of July 18th, when Caroline's body was found, the nurse telephoned Dr Michel Coignard. "I told the gendarmes right away, `It's from the group'," Coignard recalls.

"I really hope they did blood tests on all of them. They should have done alcohol and drug tests too. It was either a madman or a young man from the group, under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If it was a madman, he would have had to be James Bond to find that mattress in that room, with the nurse sleeping across the hall. Why didn't the other girls hear anything? For me, it's the group."

Dr Coignard was requisitioned by the police to perform dozens of blood tests over the past year and a half. "When I tested people who were beyond suspicion, I felt very uneasy," he says. Then last month, the gendarmes summoned Dr Coignard and two medical colleagues to test their blood. No explanation, no results given. "In France, the government never tells us anything," he complains.

Although he accepted to be tested, Dr Coignard says he supports Jean-Claude Blanchet, the director of the village old folks' home who last spring refused to submit to a blood test. Blanchet felt he was being treated as a suspected rapist and murderer for the simple reason that he works across the street from the youth hostel where Caroline was killed.

"It is a moral and physical attack on civil liberties," Blanchet says. "The men of Pleine-Fougeres are being asked to prove their innocence, when French law says we are innocent until proven guilty."

After two months of police harassment, Blanchet was detained for six and a half hours, during which gendarmes searched his home and confiscated his comb, toothbrush and razor, to "steal" DNA from hair and saliva. A month later, the results cleared him.

"I've seen other people who've undergone tests," Blanchet says. "For weeks they are on edge; they're always afraid of an error."

Blanchet stresses his compassion for the Dickinson family, but maintains his opposition to what he calls the "lottery" of systematic DNA testing. John Dickinson rejects Blanchet's arguments: "What's more an infringement of civil liberties - to rape and murder a 13-year-old girl, or to swab some saliva from someone's mouth?" he asks. "Let's get things in perspective. I say to anyone who argues that way to come to Cornwall and stand at Caroline's grave. DNA testing does not create a police state; it's a tool to catch murderers. If it helps to reduce the number of rapes, it is worth it."