British girl shot dead in France ‘by neighbour who complained about noise and cutting trees’

Solenne Thornton, 11, has been named by French authorities after tragic incident in Saint-Herbot, Brittany, following ‘three-year neighbour dispute’

Peter Allen
In Paris
Monday 12 June 2023 17:15 BST
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The 11-year-old was shot when she was reportedly playing on the swings during a family barbecue in the French hamlet of Saint-Herbot, near Quimper, on Saturday night
The 11-year-old was shot when she was reportedly playing on the swings during a family barbecue in the French hamlet of Saint-Herbot, near Quimper, on Saturday night (TF1)

A pensioner arrested after a British schoolgirl was shot dead in France had allegedly been in a dispute with the neighbouring family for years.

Details of the build-up to Saturday’s attack emerged following the killing of the 11-year-old – who has been named as Solenne Thornton by French authorities.

Her parents were also shot while enjoying a family barbecue in the French hamlet of Saint-Herbot. The victim’s father, Adrien Thornton, is in a critical condition and her mother Rachel was also wounded.

Solenne’s sister Celeste watched in horror as her older sibling was shot while playing on swings, before the eight-year-old ran from the scene screaming: “My sister is dead, my sister is dead.”

Police launched a murder investigation after the tragic shooting
Police launched a murder investigation after the tragic shooting (TF1)

French police launched an investigation into the murder of a child under 15, and two attempted murders. A 71-year-old Dutch man, who has been named as Dirk Raats, is in custody along with his wife after both were arrested by firearms officers.

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An investigating source said Raats remained in custody on Monday and was facing murder and attempted murder charges, while his wife, who was named as Marlene van Hook, also in her 70s, was being questioned on suspicion of concealing a weapon.

The couple are both retired and have lived in a converted school house in Saint-Herbot for six years, the source added.

Officers from the GIGN – the Gendarme National Intervention Group – arrived to support local police during the fatal incident.

“The shooter locked himself in his home after the shooting so there was a brief siege,” a source said. “After some negotiation, the suspect gave himself up without a struggle, and he was arrested, alongside his wife. He had retired to Saint-Herbot around six years ago.”

Marguerite Bleuzen, mayor of Plonévez-du-Faou, revealed there had been “some trouble with a neighbour dispute” between the two families since at least 2020, while locals claimed the pensioner had previously threatened the family with a .22 rifle the same year.

The family were having a barbecue in their garden when they were attacked
The family were having a barbecue in their garden when they were attacked (Google Maps)

“That’s what the dispute three years ago was all about – police were called because he was threatening the family with his rifle,” one unnamed resident said.

“The two families were always arguing, and the rifle escalated matters, but nobody ever believed that he would use it.”

The weapon was a licensed hunting rifle, and no effort was made to confiscate it by the police or council officials.

Mr Raats – whose wife was said to be a “pleasant neighbour who said hello to people” – was described as “gruff and withdrawn”, regularly complaining about the family cutting down trees to make way for children’s play equipment, including swings.

“He was also regularly upset about the noise the family made, even though it didn’t bother anyone else – it was mainly just kids having a nice time,” a resident said.

Saint-Herbot in Brittany, where the schoolgirl was shot dead on Saturday
Saint-Herbot in Brittany, where the schoolgirl was shot dead on Saturday (The Independent)

Following an official intervention three years ago, there had been “no emergency”, but Ms Bleuzen was aware that arguments continued to simmer.

“I intervened with my deputies when we were elected,” she said. “There was a problem with the land around their properties, and with noise pollution – it started from there.

“I think they all had a little trouble getting on with each other.”

Ms Bleuzen added: “The family was well known and liked. There is a village fete every year and they always came.

“It’s incomprehensible to have shot a child. No one can understand how that could have happened.”

All of the Thorntons were in the garden of their property when shots were fired at around 9pm on Saturday.

They had lived in the converted sawmill, close to the local Catholic church, for around five years.

Mr Thornton was well known around the hamlet and surrounding countryside for helping out with DIY tasks, while Ms Thornton was a home help. Solenne was believed to be a pupil at Jean Jaurès College, in the town of Huelgoat.

Quimper prosecutor Carine Halley said: “An investigation has been opened into the murder of a minor under 15, and two attempted murders.”

She said she believed the Thorntons were originally from the Manchester area.

The UK Foreign Office said it was aware of the shooting and “offering consular assistance”.

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