Copycat killing fuels video violence debate



When the British video launch of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was cancelled this week after the Dunblane tragedy, the decision had particular resonance in France. A debate about media violence is raging here, centred on that same film and a couple of teenage killers.

Two weeks ago, police discovered a cassette of the film in the bloodstained bedroom of a 17-year-old - referred to only by his first name, Sebastien, for legal reasons - after a particularly bizarre and gruesome murder. The bloodstained body of a 16-year-old boy called Abdel Gharbiche had been found, wrapped in bedclothes, under the patio of Sebastien's family's respectable detached house near Paris. Abdel had been stabbed more than 40 times.

According to the police who questioned Sebastien and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Veronique Herbert, the scenario for the murder bore an uncanny resemblance to the plot of Natural Born Killers.

Together, it is said, they agreed that Veronique would lure Abdel, a one-time schoolfriend, into bed; Sebastien would find them together and see whether he was sufficiently overcome with jealousy to kill. That, more or less, is what seems to have happened, with a couple of unforeseen hitches: Veronique was accidentally grazed with the knife and had to seek hospital treatment during their subsequent flight. In addition, they had not anticipated the quantities of blood.

In the days that followed the discovery of Abdel's body, the hunt for Veronique and Sebastien was the talk of France. They had taken off in a Renault belonging to Sebastien's father. For two days there was no trace of them; then police were called to a garage in a small town in the Cantal, one of the wildest regions of central France, where a young couple had filled up with diesel and driven away without paying. The police lost the trail, but finally Veronique and Sebastien were cornered in a town 70km away in the rush-hour crowds.

According to police reports - released, unlike in Britain, at the time charges are laid - they admitted the killing at once. Veronique, a year older than Sebastien and past the age of majority, was dubbed the mastermind - "Veronique diabolique". Called confident and unrepentant, when advised to cover her head to thwart photographers on her way into the police station, she declined.

The French media made much of her background. Her parents were separated and she had lived briefly with her father, an enthusiast for American Indians, who took her on a trip to the "Wild West" of the US. The press printed pictures of her mixing confidently with the wolves her father kept in a pen by his suburban house.

Veronique, it was said, had been obsessed by death since childhood and written macabre poems since the age of 10. The Silence of the Lambs was said to have been her favourite film.

It will be months before the case comes to trial. Meanwhile, the French have found a new reason for berating the influence of American films and have opened a debate about violence on television. To many, the crime is not a one-off act of evil, but the logical culmination of what they see as a growing culture of violencethat makes it acceptable to bring knives, tear-gas pellets and even guns into the school playground.

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