Accused shooter of girl in France 'doesn't understand what's happened'June 12, 2023
‘I don’t understand what’s happened’: Pensioner, 71, accused of blasting an English girl to death and severely wounding her parents at their home in northern France reveals confusion
- Solaine Thornton was playing on a swing in her garden when a man opened fire
- Dirk Raats, 71, spoke briefly as he was formally charged with the girl’s murder
- Prosecutor said this evening that Dutch suspect was ‘not aiming’ at the little girl
The pensioner accused of shooting an English girl to death and severely wounding her parents at their home in northern France revealed his apparent confusion tonight as he said: ‘It’s so horrible what happened – I don’t understand it’.
Dirk Raats, 71, spoke briefly on Monday evening as he was formally charged with the murder of Solaine Thornton, 11, and the attempted murders of Adrian and Rachael Thornton, in the Brittany hamlet of Saint-Herbot, near Quimper.
The Dutch national sent a volley of shots at the family, who are originally from the Manchester area, as they enjoyed a barbecue on Saturday. But prosecutors tonight suggested Raats was ‘not aiming’ at Solaine and that the schoolgirl was ‘not the target’.
Her eight-year-old sister, Celeste, who had been playing on a swingset with Solaine escaped unharmed after she reportedly ran away screaming ‘my sister is dead, my sister is dead’.
Raats was taken from a secure police station for a 10-minute appearance before a judge at Brest Criminal Court. Wearing a moustache and ponytail, he appeared to be in a trance as he spoke in broken French, after judges confirmed a test showed he was ‘on drugs’ on Saturday.
Solaine Thornton, 11, was shot and killed as she played on a swing with her sister in the garden of their family home at about 10pm on Saturday
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, public prosecutor Camille Miansoni said it did not appear that the Dutch neighbour had been aiming at the girl when he fired the shot.
He said: ‘It would seem that he was not aiming at the little girl.’
Solaine was shot as she played in her garden at about 10pm on Saturday evening. The little girl’s grandfather said earlier today that she ‘didn’t stand a chance’.
She and her family had been enjoying the warm evening in the garden of their home in the hamlet of Saint-Herbot, near Quimper, when the Dutch neighbour shot at them several times, French prosecutors say.
Solaine’s sister Celeste is believed to have raised the alarm as her parents were also gunned down.
‘How is she going to get over that? It will live with her forever,’ grandfather Irvin Thornton said of Solaine’s younger sister following the horrific ordeal.
The grandfather also revealed that his son Adrien is in a coma after he was shot in the head. The mother Rachael was also reportedly shot twice in the head and back while Celeste was said to be unharmed but in a state of shock.
It comes as Solaine’s alleged killer was today named as Dutch national Raats. The 71-year-old is now facing murder and attempted murder charges. During a search of his home, police also discovered a large amount of cannabis.
The court heard tonight that Raats had worked as a photographer, shepherd and carer for the handicapped before retiring to France some five years ago.
Anne Guillerme, his defence barrister, said he had ‘no criminal record’ and may have psychiatric problems.
Raats was remanded in custody following the charges, and could spend the rest of his life in prison if found guilty at trial.
A neighbour described him as a ‘little guy with long white hair, a long beard, and completely wild-looking’.
Solaine had been enjoying the warm evening in the garden of their family home in the small hamlet in Saint-Herbot, Brittany, when the Dutch neighbour shot at them several times
Raats’ wife, who was named as Marlene van Hook, also in her 70s, was being questioned on suspicion of concealing a weapon.
The couple were both retired and have lived in a converted school house in Saint-Herbot for six years, said a source.
Mr Thornton told MailOnline that police arrived at his house on Sunday night to break the devastating news of his granddaughter’s death.
He said: ‘We don’t know exactly what has gone on. We didn’t know anything about a dispute. How can a 71-year-old man shoot a little girl?
‘There might have been dispute over land but you do not do that. She didn’t stand a chance.
‘And in front of her sister. How is she going to get over that? It will live with her forever.’
Mr Thornton said he was set to fly out to France as he revealed that his son was still in a coma following the gunfire.
He added: ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be there.’
Solaine Thornton was shot at about 10pm on Saturday evening. Her parents Adrien, 52, and Rachael, 49, were also reportedly gunned down
Police forensics at the crime scene after 11-year-old Solaine Thornton was shot dead while playing on a swing in her garden in the French village of Saint-Herbot
Earlier today the Quimper prosecutor’s office said in a statement: ‘Initial evidence suggests the victims’ neighbour, a 71-year-old Dutch pensioner, suddenly appeared armed with a firearm and fired several shots in the direction of the victims… before retreating to his home with his wife.’
After barricading himself in his house next door, the neighbour surrendered when a police negotiator coaxed him out of his property. He was arrested along with his wife by elite firearms officers.
‘Tests were taken following his arrest, and he was under the influence of drugs,’ an investigating source said.
The attack followed a three-year dispute over noise and a plot of land in the hamlet of Saint-Herbot, in Brittany, according to the region’s mayor.
The Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie tactical unit was called and a negotiator persuaded the couple to give themselves up (Steve Parsons/PA)
Mr Thornton had begun clearing vegetation and detritus from his land, formerly the site of a sawmill – drawing the ire of the neighbouring couple known locally as ‘the Belgians’, although prosecutors say they had Dutch nationality.
With the neighbours also bothered by the noise of Mr Thornton’s chainsaw and by the fact their house was now visible from the road, the town hall initially stepped in to mediate the dispute.
‘We could see (the neighbour) was griping but there wasn’t anything at all alarming’ about the dispute, mayor Marguerite Bleuzen said.
‘It was (Adrien’s) land, he can do what he likes with it.’
Raats was said to be furious that the Thorntons, who are originally from the Manchester area, had cleared land of oak trees to install play equipment including swings.
The 11-year-old British girl was shot dead and her father seriously wounded when their Dutch neighbour in northwestern France opened fire on Saturday evening
Kim McKanney, 64, a British pensioner who was out with her poodle a few hundred metres from the scene of the crime said it was ‘a tragedy’.
‘I’m shocked and upset that a family has been affected like this and a child killed in a little village which is so quiet, peaceful and friendly,’ she added, looking close to tears although she did not know the victims.
‘You might expect it in a city but not here.’
Aside from the friction with their neighbours, the British family quickly put down roots in their village, sending their daughters to nearby schools.
Described as ‘a lovely person,’ the mother worked as a home carer for elderly people.
The family also helped organise village parties, even allowing visitors to park on their land.
‘They’re very nice, very kind, always happy to help,’ said a close neighbour in his 80s who asked not to be named.
He drew a contrast between the family and the shooter, who he said he had ‘never seen face-to-face’ since the couple arrived in 2017.
The house where 11-year old Solaine Thornton was killed, in Saint-Herbot, northwestern France
Sitting in the Monts d’Aree hills in western Brittany, the isolated hamlet of Plonevez-du-Faou had been home to the British family since 2019
‘We never saw them. No contact, nothing at all,’ added the elderly man, who said that ‘nothing has ever happened here’ in all the years since he arrived in 1948.
‘No one knew’ the suspect, agreed mayor Bleuzen, who described his appearance when arrested as ‘a little guy with long white hair, a long beard, and completely wild-looking’.
‘What on earth could have been going on in his head?’ she wondered.
Saturday’s multiple shootings were ‘appalling, abominable,’ said one woman as she left white roses on the threshold of the British family’s home.
The slain girl ‘was the same age as my grandson, I’m really moved. Who wouldn’t be?’ she added, appearing close to tears.
A source close to the investigation told AFP that a large amount of cannabis had been found in the suspect’s home when it was searched by police.
Sitting in the Monts d’Aree hills in western Brittany, the isolated hamlet of Plonevez-du-Faou had been home to the British family since 2019.
It is believed the Dutchman first threatened the family with a .22 rifle as far back as 2020, according to neighbours in the hamlet.
One said: ‘That’s what the dispute three years ago was all about – police were called because he was threatening the family with his rifle. The two families were always arguing, and the rifle escalated matters, but nobody ever believed that he would use it.’
Regine Guillot, secretary of the nearest town hall in Plonevez-du-Faou, said the British family had lived in the hamlet for five years and that the Dutch neighbour was a private man.
‘There were neighbourhood issues, yes, a hedge, a field, but nothing more than that, not that we were aware of,’ Guillot told Reuters. ‘The village is in shock.’
The case has been handed to the public prosecutor in Brest given its gravity.
Solaine’s sister, eight-year-old Celeste, reportedly ran screaming from the swing: ‘My sister is dead, my sister is dead’
The weapon was a licensed hunting rifle and no effort was made to confiscate it by the police or council officials.
The pensioner regularly complained 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.’
The attacker’s wife was said to be a ‘pleasant neighbour’ who ‘said hello to people,’ but her husband was gruff and withdrawn.
On Monday morning, an investigation ‘for the murder of a child under 15, and two attempted murders’ was ongoing. Mr Thornton is critically in a coma, according to his father, while his wife is also being treated. They have both undergone surgery.
Their youngest daughter – eight-year-old Celeste – had been playing on the swing with her sister but she was able to escape unharmed.
News footage showed forensic investigators scouring the scene, with the family’s belongings – including a picnic bag and a bottle of fizzy pop – lying abandoned next to a bench. Yellow numbered labels had been placed next to each item.
It was the couple’s younger daughter Celeste who raised the alarm, neighbours said, shouting ‘my sister is dead, my sister is dead’ as she ran away from the gunfire.
The little girl was unharmed and took refuge with a neighbour but is in a state of ‘shock’ following the ordeal.
People in the village called them an ‘adorable, kind and helpful family’.
The 71-year-old neighbour is said to have fired on the family through a hedge with a rifle on Saturday night. The swings are pictured on the far left
News footage shows forensic investigators scouring the scene with the family’s belongings – including a picnic bag and a bottle of fizzy pop – lying next to a wooden bench. A yellow label with a number had been placed next to each item
Solaine was playing in her garden when the neighbour brandishing a gun opened fire ‘several times’ on Saturday night. Investigators are pictured in the garden where the shooting took place
Adrien was well known around the hamlet and surrounding countryside for helping out with DIY tasks.
Marguerite Bleuzen, Mayor of PlonEvez-du-Faou, which covers the Saint-Herbot hamlet, further substantiated claims that there had been ‘some trouble with a neighbour dispute’ between the two families since at least 2020.
‘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.’
Following the official intervention three years ago, there had been ‘no emergency,’ but Ms Bleuzen was aware that arguments continued to simmer.
‘This morning, tongues are loosening,’ she said. ‘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.’
An 11-year-old British girl has been shot dead in France while playing on a garden swing after a neighbour allegedly stormed a family barbecue and fired on the family-of-four. Forensics are pictured at the scene
All of the Thorntons were in the garden of their property – a converted saw mill – when shots were fired on Saturday evening.
A local prosecutor said Solaine and Celeste were playing on a garden swing when the gunman suddenly emerged and ‘fired several times’. Initial reports said he fired on them through a hedge while the parents were tending to the barbeque.
The gunman then fled and barricaded himself in his house, before later being arrested on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
‘There was a dispute between neighbours, and a gun was produced,’ said an investigating source. ‘Tensions clearly reached boiling point. The older girl was shot dead and her parents seriously wounded,’ he said.
‘The father suffered a head injury and is critical in hospital, while the mother is also very badly hurt. The youngest child is the only one who is unscathed, having managed to flee to another neighbour’s house.’
The Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie tactical unit was called to the scene and a negotiator persuaded the neighbour and his wife to give themselves up before they were arrested, the prosecutor reportedly said.
A source described there as having been a ‘brief siege’ after the shooter ‘locked himself in his home’.
‘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.’
The couple’s eight-year-old daughter Celeste raised the alarm, neighbours said, shouting ‘my sister is dead, my sister is dead’ as she ran away from the gunfire
A direct neighbour of the Thorntons told L Telegramme that he saw the whole family under the oak tree at the bottom of their garden earlier that evening
The shooting took place on Saturday evening in the picturesque village of Saint-Herbot, near Quimper in the department of Finistere.
A direct neighbour of the Thorntons told Le Telegramme that he saw the whole family under the oak tree at the bottom of their garden earlier that evening.
‘The two little girls were playing near the games and on the swing, the parents were sitting on their usual bench and having a barbecue,’ he said.
Solaine was a pupil at Jean Jaures College, in the town of Huelgoat. She was in Year 6 in the school that has around 150 students.
Pupils at the school were receiving psychological care today, following her death.
Classes at the Jean-Jaurès college resumed as normal on Monday morning, with a ‘medical monitoring team’ in place.
Guylène Esnault, director of education services in the Finistere department, said: ‘This is a small area, and everyone knows each other. The children will have heard about what happened.
The incident took place on Saturday evening in Saint-Herbot, a small village near Quimper (pictured is a chapel in the village)
The girl’s parents, who both work locally, were taken to La Cavale Blanche hospital in Brest to be treated for their injuries
‘The college principal will say what is appropriate to her students, and a monitoring team including a doctor, nurses and psychiatrists is in place.’
Mael de Calan, president of Finister’s departmental council, said there was ‘Stupor and consternation after the murder of an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Plonévez-du-Faou.
‘Such a drama, between neighbours, reminds us that the rise of violence in our society must be fought unanimously.
‘I send all my condolences to the girl’s family and loved ones, and my most sincere thoughts to the teachers and students of the Huelgoat college.’
‘The reasons for this tragedy are not yet known. It would appear that a conflict has been opposing the two neighbours for several years over a plot of land adjoining the two properties,’ prosecutor Carine Halley said on Sunday.
‘An investigation has been opened into the murder of a minor and three attempted murders.’
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was providing consular assistance to a British family following a shooting.
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