Murdered Caroline's friends come home

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The grieving school-friends of Caroline Dickinson, the 13-year- old British girl murdered on a school trip to Brittany, made a sad procession back to England last night as the French police hunt for her killer intensified.

After a second long day of questioning at the town hall of Pleine-Fougeres, in whose youth hostel Caroline was raped and then smothered while four of her friends slept around her, the party from Launceston College in Cornwall were finally allowed to leave by the French authorities late yesterday afternoon.

The party of 34 girls and five boys, accompanied by seven teachers, boarded a coach and headed for Cherbourg to catch a ferry to Poole, Dorset.

Caroline's parents, Susan and John Dickinson, were heading home separately after the ordeal of identifying her body.

They left behind a peaceful rural community - "the gateway to Brittany" as the small town styles itself - horrified and baffled at how an intruder could have crept into the hostel and murdered Caroline as she slept on a mattress squeezed between bunks occupied by her friends.

Yesterday French police were showing shopkeepers a photofit picture of a man aged 35 to 40 with curly hair and a beard. They did not release the picture to the press and would not say if the man was a suspect.

It is thought that the murderer was probably an intruder into the hostel. It would have been easy for him to get in, despite the presence of a nightwatchwoman, as by law the doors were left unlocked as a fire precaution.

The British consul for St Malo-Dinard, Ronald Frankel, said that police believe the murderer walked into the hostel through the open doors and slipped beneath Caroline's duvet as she slept. "There was a stirring and one child thought the girl was having a nightmare," he said. "There was some movement but no sound.

"My theory is that it was absolute chance it was Caroline. Whoever the person is, they must be absolutely crazy."

The school party had spent the past week practising French, sampling the food and enjoying trips to Bayeux, St Malo and Mont St Michel.

One of the children's teachers, herself a French national, said they were all "deeply sorrowful and upset".

"The parents are devastated, and so are the children," she said. "All the children and staff have been giving statements to the police and we're still helping police with their inquiries.The children just want to get on with their lives and put this terrible tragedy behind them."

She knew nothing of the photofit. "I've no idea who this man is but no one at the hostel is under suspicion."

Alan Wroath, the headmaster of Launceston College, where Caroline was in the second year, said last night that he was ready to "pick up the pieces" when the children returned from France. "We will obviously make arrangements for them to meet up with their parents in as private a way as they possibly can," he said.

The Cornish comprehensive does not finish its term untilThursday and Mr Wroath hopes they will return to school so they can be assessed for their counselling needs.

"We want to set up counselling," he said, "so we would expect them to come back for a while, anyway, so we can assess what exactly needs to be done for each individual pupil. But whether they return until the end of term will depend on the individual."

The local education authority counsellors are ready to begin tomorrow morning.