How a girl's murder trial will lift shadow hanging over village

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The Independent Online

When Francisco Arce Montes enters the dock on Monday, his appearance will be regarded with grim satisfaction 30 miles away in the mournful, solidly built houses of Pleine-Fougéres.

When Francisco Arce Montes enters the dock at the Cour d'Assises in the Breton city of Rennes on Monday, his appearance will be regarded with grim satisfaction 30 miles away in the mournful, solidly built houses of Pleine-Fougéres.

This village of 1,800 people on the border of Brittany and Normandy could just as easily belong to the landscape of Wales or Scotland, with its grey stone buildings and verdant surroundings. But here, in the large building with blue shutters that serves as a youth hostel on the edge of the village, on 18 July, eight years ago, 13-year-old Caroline Dickinson was raped and murdered on a school trip.

For a long time, the people of Pleine-Fougéres were suspects. The investigating judge who led the murder inquiry asked for DNA tests on all 268 men in the village aged 15 to 60. None refused and all samples came back negative.

Then the alertness of an American immigration official led to the arrest in Miami in 2001 of M. Montes, an itinerant Spanish kitchen worker, and Pleine-Fougéres began to emerge from the shadow cast by l'affaire Dickinson. On Monday, M. Montes, 54, will face the charges that he sneaked into the hostel and entered the room where Caroline was sleeping with four classmates from her school in Launceston, Cornwall, then raped and suffocated her.

For the inhabitants of Pleine Fougéres, the start of the trial will signal the end of a period when divisive rumour ran rife; when suspicions were raised that local scores were being settled by supplying police with wrong information. Alain, a man in his fifties, said: "Until they found him [M. Montes], there was always a cloud of suspicion over Pleine-Fougéres. You could feel the cloud lift when the Spaniard was arrested.

"This is a quiet town, an easy-going town, but for five years we lived with the suspicion that there might be a murderer among us, or worse in a way, that other people might suspect you. Since then, people have wanted to forget, to move on, but there is always a great sympathy for the little English girl's family. It is harder for them. They cannot forget."

Indeed, when prosecution lawyers begin examining the evidence under the French inquisitorial justice system (rather than the adversarial British system), few will be listening more intently than Caroline's father, John. Mr Dickinson, 45, from Bodmin has been credited with keeping the hunt for his daughter's killer in the public eye. Gendarmes arrested a man within two days of the murder, and he immediately confessed. But when DNA tests showed he could not be the killer, officers restarted their investigation. But vital time had been lost. M. Montes was known to French police at the time. He had been arrested in 1994 after he woke a teenage Irish girl in her room in a youth hostel in the Loire Valley. But he was released after officers decided he had not committed an offence.

Then in March 2001, the sharp eyes of Inspector Tommy Ontko, an official with the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) in Detroit, brought M. Montes to court. The Spaniard, who worked across Europe and the United States, had been arrested in Miami, accused of breaking into a woman's bedroom, cutting off her underwear while she slept and performing a sex act in the room.

The investigating French judge, Francis Debons, had revealed that police were seeking M. Montes over the Dickinson case. But the Spaniard had given his name to Florida police as Francisco Arce. A month later, Inspector Ontko saw the name of Montes in a report in The Sunday Times about Caroline's murder and matched it to a general arrest bulletin circulated by the INS. Extradition proceedings began.

Seven thousand miles away in Pleine-Fougéres, the arrest signalled the welcome beginning of the end of an infamy which many of its inhabitants now want to consign to history.

A woman in her forties, who called herself Solange, said: "We lived with a feeling we were being blamed in some way, everyone in the town. I have great sympathy for the Dickinson family, who have behaved with great dignity and courage, but Pleine-Fougéres, in a way, was a victim too. I hope when the trial is ended that we can all start to put this terrible thing behind us."