Drifter suffocated Caroline with wad of cotton, court told

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The Independent Online

Shortly after 4am on 18 July 1996, the door silently opened to the dormitory in a French youth hostel where Caroline Dickinson was sleeping.

Shortly after 4am on 18 July 1996, the door silently opened to the dormitory in a French youth hostel where Caroline Dickinson was sleeping. When it swung shut minutes later, the 13-year-old was dead, her screams stifled as she was raped and murdered. Apart from a muffled groan which two classmates in the room assumed was a nightmare, no witness heard or saw anything.

Yesterday, in an elaborate gilded court room in the Breton capital of Rennes, the first full account of the events of that night was given by a French judge as Francisco Arce Montes, an itinerant Spanish waiter, went on trial for the rape and murder of Caroline. He said he was on alcohol and antidepressants which, he told police, made him "feel like Superman".

For John and Sue Dickinson, parents of the Cornish schoolgirl, and her 19-year-old sister, Jenny, it was the first time they had seen the wiry 54-year-old defendant who had a 10-year record as a sexual predator before he entered Caroline's dormitory. The failure of the French authorities to catch her murderer after errors early in the investigation propelled Mr Dickinson, 47, an environmental health officer for North Cornwall district council, into the limelight as he lobbied for resources and battled to keep his daughter's case in the limelight.

Montes was a drifter who kept maps of youth hostels to lead him to his victims. He had been convicted of at least one rape and one attempted rape and questioned about sexual assaults in youth hostels across Europe before he arrived in the village of Pleine-Fougères, 20 miles from Rennes, on a warm summer's night, in search of a sleeping adolescent girl.

The French jury of five women and four men was told Montes admitted sexually assaulting Caroline but denies her murder, saying she was still breathing when he left the room. Just 15ft from him, the Dickinson family listened impassively as they heard, in grim detail, how Montes had fled from another youth hostel in the area before the killing when he was disturbed while stripping and molesting another British teenager. Her friends had been woken by her muffled shouts.

Ninety minutes later, when Montes, who had told friends of his "preference for girls aged 12 to 15", entered Room No4 on the first floor of the Auberge de Jeunesse at Pleine Fougères, he came equipped to ensure his next victim would not escape..

In a statement read for the presiding judge, Fabienne Doroy, investigators said: "Montes ... furnished himself with a wad of cotton to obstruct the air passages of his next victim before raping her. Using this wad of cotton he could dampen the sound of the breathing that had attracted attention. But in totally blocking Caroline Dickinson's airways with force to rape her, Montes knew his actions would result in suffocation."

The body of the teenager was found at 8am the next day, covered by her sleeping bag. She had suffered sexual injuries as well as bruises to her neck and face scratches. On her mattress, on the floor between the beds of her four classmates, there was a large bloodstain.

Psychiatrists said that Montes was not suffering from a psychological disorder at the time but was instead under the influence of a cocktail of drink and an anti-depressant called Afranil which had given him a sense of invincibility. Montes told the experts that this combination of alcohol and Afranil did him enormous good and that it gave him the impression of feeling "like Superman". When he took it, "he was conscious that he would be excessive in what he was doing".

The jobless waiter, convicted of a rape and attempted rape in Germany in 1987, had arrived in Brittany within days of being caught in a Spanish youth hostel occupied by a school party. He told police he had intended to drive to his home, then in London, but decided to divert to a town south of Rennes to visit his son by a Frenchwoman.

On 18 July, Montes was seen first in the early evening walking around the Pleine-Fougères hostel and later around the lavatories and on a staircase. The court heard the violence of the attack meant Caroline had died quickly. "Experts estimated her death happened within tens of seconds up to a maximum of two minutes," the jury was told.

Five years later, Montes was arrested when a US immigration officer spotted his name after he was detained in a separate incident in Miami. A DNA sample linked him with Caroline. The case continues.