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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Tragic case that broke new ground
By Hugh Schofield
In Rennes

Francisco Arce Montes arriving at court
The hunt for Francisco Arce Montes has changed police tactics in France
In a world sadly accustomed to newspaper stories of sex and murder, the Caroline Dickinson affair stood out from the start.

First of all there was the extraordinary nature of the crime itself. The dormitory which the 13-year-old was sharing with four schoolfriends in the Pleine-Fougeres youth hostel was so small that she was sleeping on the floor.

And yet Francisco Arce Montes was able to sneak in, attack and kill Caroline, and then leave - all without waking her room-mates.

Investigators, teachers, friends and journalists were all baffled how it could have happened.

It is now clear from evidence presented in the trial that he did not literally rape Caroline. In France the charge of rape is given a broad interpretation.

What the 54-year-old Spaniard did was re-enact a method that he had perfected over many years.

With supreme confidence - he told investigators that the combination of whisky and anti-depressants he had consumed made him "feel like Superman" - he slipped into the room and lay beside his victim.

With one hand over her mouth, he assaulted her with the other.

Only this time he had taken extra precautions to ensure silence. Two hours previously he had been surprised in the act of abusing another English girl at a hostel 30 miles away.

So now he used a cotton pad to place over Caroline's mouth.

Exhausted by a day of sight-seeing, the other girls were vaguely aware of a commotion. But they were half-asleep, and could not have conceived the horror of what was taking place.

Accusations that the case was being given a low priority because the victim was British became hard to refute
That was how the crime went undetected.

The other remarkable aspect was the investigation, which was begun in a way that could have been designed to excite the anti-French instincts of Britain's tabloid press.

A tramp was picked up almost immediately. Patrick Pade was mentally frail, he had a conviction for exposing himself, and after two days of interrogations he duly confessed to the crime.

But as he told the court last week, he only did it "to make them happy".

The vital first stage of the inquiry had been lost, and as the months went by Caroline's family - and in particular her father John - became increasingly anxious at the lack of visible progress.

Father's battle

Accusations that the case was being given a low priority because the victim was British became hard to refute, and after a year the investigation was a hot diplomatic issue.

In his constant visits to Rennes, John Dickinson argued for new avenues of inquiry to be opened up - especially the use of DNA tests.

France had fallen well behind Britain in the use of genetic material, and there was no national database holding offenders' imprints.

But after the appointment of a new examining judge in August 1997, the investigation got a sudden lease of life.

Male inhabitants of Pleine-Fougeres were tested, and later so were all suspects in sexual assaults. By the end more than 3,600 analyses had been made.

By his efforts John Dickinson has undoubtedly changed the way French investigators tackle cases of this kind
At the same time judge Renaud van Ruymbeke introduced other innovations to the French investigating code. He set up a dedicated police unit, and used the press and television to publicise a new Identikit portrait of the suspect.

These were new-fangled, and many in France remained suspicious of any hint of "mediatisation" of the justice system. But it was precisely this that eventually led to the breakthrough.

In early 2001, largely as a result of the relentless pressure from John Dickinson, British newspapers were running another series of stories about the case - this time including the names of several people the French police were interested in finding.

It was by sheer chance that a US customs officer read an article in the Sunday Times, recognised the name of Arce Montes, and made the link with a man behind bars in Miami. DNA did the rest.

It can of course be little consolation to a man who has lost his daughter.

But by his efforts John Dickinson has undoubtedly changed the way French investigators tackle cases of this kind. DNA tests are more routine, there is a national database, and there is less reluctance on the part of police to use the media as a useful ally.

After this case has long faded from the headlines, all this may prove to be of important and lasting benefit.

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