Serial sex predator gets 30 years for the rape and murder of Caroline Dickinson

In his own eyes, he was an uncatchable "Superman" whose silent defiling of sleeping girls could always be explained with a shrug of the shoulders and a protest to his pursuers that there had been an "honest mistake".

Last night, in a French courtroom, three decades of sexual predation across two continents finally caught up with Francisco Arce Montes when a jury found him guilty of the carefully planned rape and murder of the British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson. He was sentenced to 30 years in jail.

With the parents of his 13-year-old victim sitting just a few metres away in the gilded splendour of the Cour d'Assises in the Breton capital, Rennes, the Spanish drifter's expression was blank as the verdict was delivered, ending an eight-year hunt for Caroline's killer .

John Dickinson, 48, who sat with Caroline's mother, Sue, stared straight at Montes as the verdict was delivered.

The jury of six women and three men, who deliberated with the three judges for four hours at the end of a six-day trial, found Montes guilty of murder of a minor preceded, accompanied or followed by rape. The sentence means that Montes may be eligible for parole after 20 years.

Just minutes after the verdict was handed down, Mr Dickinson stood on the steps of the courthouse and said: "I would like to be able to say this in French but the emotion is too much. I'm speaking on behalf of Sue, Jenny [his 19-year-old daughter] and myself.

"The first thing to say is this is all about Caroline or 'Caz' as some of her friends knew her. Although her life was short, she was happy, we knew she had a life ahead of her full of promise. We have some wonderful memories that we will cherish and she will never be forgotten."

Mr Dickinson said: "The events of the last week have been for us a necessary but draining experience, as of course has the pursuit of justice for Caroline over the last eight years. We will now start the process of rebuilding our lives."

Mr Dickinson thanked the family's supporters and "acknowledged" that there were other victims of Montes "some of whom gave evidence at the trial".

Mr Dickinson also read a brief statement from Jenny, who had returned to England before the verdict. Jenny, in her first words in public since her sister's death said: "We would like to say that all our thoughts and hopes are with all of the other families who are also seeking justice for the loved ones that they have lost."

In the absence of the Dickinsons, a civil hearing was held after the verdict where Montes was ordered to pay €35,000 (£24,000) to each of Caroline's parents and €25,000 to Jenny, as well as court costs of €15,000.

Earlier, Mr Dickinson had described how he had never given up hope that his daughter's killer would be found.

"Caroline would have been 21, coming up to 22 in October," Mr Dickinson said.

"She had her life taken away when she was 13.

"She was a lovely girl with a great future ahead of her. She was doing exceptionally well at school and was well respected by her friends and teachers.

"There have been times when I have been down and at the end of my tether, but I have never felt like giving up.

"I have found the strength from somewhere to keep on keeping on, and I am sure I would have carried on for the rest of my life," he said.

He said he and his former wife, who is a nurse, had grown accustomed to dealing with the loss of Caroline, but added: "It never goes away. It has never lost its impact on our family."

The guilty verdicts came at the end of a trial which cast disturbing light not only on the nature of the defendant's crimes but also the ability of police forces worldwide to catch border-hopping sexual criminals.

Montes, 54, struck in the early hours of 18 July 1996, when he entered the youth hostel in the Breton village of Pleine Fougères unchallenged and entered the dormitory where Caroline was sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

Olivier Dersoir, the lawyer representing Montes, insisted that his client had not meant to kill. "The victim died following an act of constraint and violence. It wasn't an accident, it was a tragedy, an exceptional tragedy but it was not wanted by Montes."

But it was clear that Montes's actions in Pleine Fougères were not an aberration.

Montes, a slight, wiry figure wasted from his previous muscular form by three years on remand waiting for his trial, has a history of at least 10 serious sexual assaults on women on two continents between 1974 and 2001, many of them in youth hostels.

When he was arrested five years ago at a hostel in Miami Beach, Florida, he was found to have a small pair of silver scissors, which he used to cut away his victims' underwear as they slept.

Francois Rene-Aubray, the state prosecutor, said the Spaniard had devoted his life to sex crime. "What has this man done with his life? He has done nothing positive in his life. He has done nothing except wander around from youth hostel to youth hostel, looking for young girls of 13 years of age to rape, looking for a few seconds of sexual satisfaction."

Montes told French police that he was high on a mixture of whisky and antidepressants which made him "feel like Superman" when he attacked Caroline, who was on a trip with classmates from Launceston Community College in Cornwall.

A post-mortem examination report revealed that the teenager had suffered several internal injuries.

But as Montes was led from the dock, there was last night little sign of a conclusive end to the long quest for justice for the Dickinson family. Montes was already a convicted rapist with a record for breaking into youth hostels when he killed Caroline.

Sources close to the case condemned the lack of global DNA records which might have led to him being caught sooner.

One officer involved in the French team, which helped to co-ordinate the murder hunt and eventually conducted nearly 4,000 DNA tests after criticism of a bungled initial inquiry, said: "When Montes struck, the information was already out there that he was a dangerous sex attacker. But it was hidden under a mountain of bureaucracy. A lot has changed and improved but the systematic availability of DNA samples to form an international database to catch serial offenders like Montes remains a far-off dream."

The officer was joined by Mr Dickinson, whose constant campaigning is thought to have spurred the French police into routine use of DNA testing.

The environmental health officer, from Bodmin, Cornwall, said the only way to prevent a repeat of his own family's tragedy was to close the loop-hole which allows murderers and rapists to "simply disappear from one country to another" in the belief that their DNA will not be traceable.

Asking for the setting up a global DNA database, he added: "We must work together to make sure these people cannot escape the justice they should face up to."

Before his assault on Caroline, Montes, from Gijon, in northern Spain, had already been arrested or implicated in at least two sexual assaults in youth hostels.

In one incident in June 1994, the Spaniard was arrested on the stairs of a hostel in the Loire region just 24 hours after a 14-year-old Irish teenager had woken to find her bedclothes removed and Montes calling her by name. He had to be freed because police could find no offence with which to charge him.

Checks with Interpol failed to reveal that Montes, then 46 and carrying a number of international youth hostel cards in his wallet, was already a convicted rapist who had terrified women at knifepoint in Germany eight years earlier.

After he had left behind a wealth of forensic evidence in the dormitory where Caroline was killed two years later, he managed to evade capture for five years despite being arrested again for rape in the Spanish resort of Llanes, some 50 miles from Gijon, and held in prison during the summer of 1997.

During the trial, French detectives spoke of their frustration that it was only in 1999 that they received information about the rape allegation.

By then, Montes had fled to America, where he would only be arrested for Caroline's murder in 2001 due to the diligence of a US immigration official who ran a check on his name after reading an article about the Dickinson murder in The Sunday Times.

Montes had by then set up a system of offending. Based in one country, such as France, Britain, Spain or the United States, he would disappear for weeks at a time to visit other countries to offend.

Police may investigate the activities of Montes during the time he lived in Britain, in the Earls Court area of London in the early 1990s.