Sadness, siege and suspicion, but no relief

The solution to Caroline Dickinson's murder seemed too easy to be true. And so it proved. Now Launceston, a town already racked by sorrow and intrusion, steels itself for the arrival of the French police. By Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
As summer visitors play and picnic in the boiling summer sun beneath the Norman castle in Launceston, they cast only an occasional glance at the man in the suit and tie talking to a television camera. This is not a town accustomed to the limelight, unless you count the odd visit from the Prince of Wales to his Duchy of Cornwall, or the tempestuous town hall rows over a controversial car park scheme that have enlivened the local front pages in recent years.

Barry Jordan, the man in the suit and mayor of Launceston's 6,500 citizens, shifts uneasily in the heat, but sticks to his task. He has had to get used to television crews in the four weeks since the death ofCaroline Dickinson, the 13-year-old who was savagely raped and murdered on a school trip to Pleine-Fougeres in Brittany.

The murder of Caroline, a fair-haired angel of a girl who loved music and writing, would have been appalling wherever she had come from. The sense of grief in Launceston was almost palpable. "You could just feel it," one man says. There was some consolation felt at the arrest of a vagrant who, in a police interview, confessed to the rape and murder. But the wound merely deepened when DNA tests showed that French police had nabbed the wrong man.

Now the town is awaiting the arrival of French detectives this weekend and preparing for the ordeal of watching the 39 youngsters and five teachers on the ill-fated trip be interviewed once again. The town's worst fear is only being whispered - that though the children are to be interviewed as witnesses, maybe police believe one of them to be a suspect. The five boys on the trip are widely expected to be asked to undergo voluntary DNA tests.

Launceston is a place knitted together with a sense of pride and history. Every Launcestonian will tell you that it is the ancient capital of Cornwall, even though Truro has long been acknowledged as the county town. They can cite John Betjeman's praise of Castle Street's fine Georgian architecture and tell of the 16th-century martyrdom of St Cuthbert Mayne near St Thomas Priory. The works of Charles Causley, the town's lyrical poet, are taught at an early age while older folk recall the days when he taught at the National School.

"This isn't the conventional Cornish holiday town. It isn't close-knit, it's interwoven," says Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall. "Everybody knows everybody and when something hits, it hits everybody."

The same family names go back generations, names like Hicks and Vanstone, and everyone is described in terms of their relations. "You know who that is, that's (whoever's) boy", is a common expression. While agriculture is less important than it was once in the surrounding countryside, the butcher still displays bold signs backing British beef. And though new businesses have opened in the Pennygillam industrial park on the edge of the town, many are still familiar Launceston names taking advantage of more space and up-to-date premises.

The police station opens at 9am, closes for lunch and is unmanned overnight, as befits a town with just six crimes of violence in the past three months. It is the kind of place where the church and state still matter. The Rev Tim Newcombe, the town's vicar, says proudly that church attendance is higher than the national average. For Caroline's funeral, all the shops and even the banks and building societies closed. "People do still want to mark in a public way those significant moments in life," the vicar says. "I'm sure that's something that has been lost in many larger towns and cities where there's a floating population. There was a feeling that this kind of thing may happen in big cities, may happen in other parts of the world, but it doesn't happen in a beautiful quaint town that Betjeman wrote about."

Launceston College is the town's only secondary school, its 1,200 pupils drawn from up to 17 primary schools and a catchment area 100 miles square. In that sense, the community is quite diverse. But the sense of belonging is strong.

The college's end-of-term "activities weeks" are a now traditional part of school life. As one group of pupils was heading for Brittany a month ago, others were in Paris, some canoeing in Britain. Staff were experienced and highly trained, all facilities previously inspected. The week followed a well-established itinerary: visits to nearby St Malo and Mont St Michel, a chance to practise the language and sample French cuisine.

Caroline was sharing a first-floor dormitory with four friends; she slept on a mattress on the floor between two sets of bunk-beds. On the night of Wednesday, 17 July, after laughing and joking, they settled down to sleep. Sometime in the early hours, her attacker is believed to have entered the room. She was raped and smothered.

Under the ever-watchful eye of the British press, who arrived within hours and were later to be blamed for the French police's haste, the inquiry began. The Pleine-Fougeres town hall was turned into inquiry HQ and surrounding streets isolated by guarded barriers.

One by one, they interviewed the school party and took DNA samples from the two male teachers and the coach-driver, though not from the five boys. French rules prevented such a move, it transpired this week.

The ordeal is hard to imagine. For reasons known only to the police, they insisted the party should remain in the hostel where the party had been staying. Caroline's parents, John and Sue, though divorced, arrived together to identify her body. Both parents and school party finally left for home on the Saturday evening.

Everybody was shocked, and left more so by the absence of information from France. Under French rules, the examining magistrate is in charge and says little or nothing while the inquiry proceeds. So although shopkeepers in Pleine-Fougeres were being shown a portrait of a man aged 35 to 40 with curly hair, the picture was never released. It then emerged that on the afternoon the party was leaving, a vagrant, Patrice Pade, 39, had been picked up in Sourdeval, 40 miles away. In interview, he confessed.

As Caroline was laid to rest in a Launceston churchyard, the arrest was a "crumb of comfort".In a moving address, Mr Newcombe reminded the 700 or so people crammed into his beautiful 16th century church that with freedom always came the risk that someone would abuse it. "The freedom we love brings in its wake risk and danger," he said. "[But] how tragic that one so gifted and so gentle should herself be the victim of violence."

But as the generous words soothed the pain, the satisfaction at the arrest proved short-lived, When Pade went free last week, the wound re- opened. "A tragedy which seemed to have a resolution now no longer has one," Mr Newcombe said. The bewilderment was equally strong in France. Nadine Morin, a hotel owner, said: "We feel they have bungled this inquiry and now we are afraid."

To some, the news was unsurprising. Julie Jasper, the mother of one of the children in the party, said Pade looked nothing like a suspicious man her daughter described to police. Others spoke of the questioning being "on tram-lines".

The manner of the investigation always seemed strange to British observers. When the French girl Celine Figard was strangled near Worcester in December, every national newspaper carried police appeals for information. The contrast with the Dickinson inquiry was clear.

"They have a totally different approach," Paul Tyler says. "The examining magistrate is a law unto himself." Despite constant speculation, it is not even clear they want to DNA test the boys, although privately it is understood the families of the five expect to be asked. "Some of the families of the boys are saying, 'Can we do the DNA samples now?' so at least it's under way. But that can't be done," one source says.

The delay is infuriating. At Launceston police station, Inspector Paul Munns has spent the week feeling they should be doing more. Despite the drumbeat sounds of "the French are coming", he received an official request only yesterday .

"There was a great feeling of deflation when the DNA tests came out," the inspector says. "Now people are aware that the French police are coming and they want to get it done as quickly as possible."

The station already has one specialist child abuse suite, complete with soft furnishings and cuddly toys and the videoing equipment required when interviewing youngsters, and is preparing a second. Locals seem pleased the inquiry will now be directed by their own Devon and Cornwall force.

But people in the town are understandably weary of the constant media attention. Thus the public faces of Launceston have been doing as much of the talking as they can. Paul Tyler, Mr Newcombe and Alan Wroath, the head of Launceston College have all - along with the mayor, Barry Jordan - spoken for the town, a shouldering of the burden much welcomed by Caroline's parents and other townsfolk who have made it clear they wanted to grieve in private.

As the town awaited the arrival of the French police yesterday, even those who once spoke out were staying silent: "I've said what I had to say," one resident told me. "Everyone just wants to be able to put it behind them now."

On the day of Caroline's funeral service, there was a small public display of anger, as some townspeople shouted abuse at the press photographers. It was a rare discourtesy in a town so old-fashionedly courteous that even now few voice criticism of the French police.

In the long term, the town is hoping to return to normal. "To be thrust into the limelight was not something we would have wanted," says the mayor. "We want whoever did it brought to justice. End of story."

But before that can happen, more lingering fears must be banished. "Nobody wants to think it was one of us that did it," says a woman who would not be identified. "People are wondering now. But if they did, I don't know what everyone would do. They could never live in this town again."

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