A man appeared in court in France accused of shooting dead an 11-year-old British girl who was playing in the garden of her family’s home. The suspect, Dirk Raats, 70, originally from Antwerp, Belgium, has been officially investigated for the murder of Solaine Thornton and the attempted murder of her parents, Adrian and Rachel Thornton. Her eight-year-old sister, Céleste, was the only family member to escape unscathed from Saturday night’s attack.
Girls played on swings in her garden in the village of Saint-Herbot, near Plonévez-du-Faou in Brittany, western France, on Saturday night. The Thornton family, who bought an old sawmill in the village in 2019 and turned it into a home, had been enjoying a barbecue. At approximately 10 p.m., a man fired multiple shots at the property, killing Solaine and wounding her parents.
Adrian Thornton, 52, was shot in the head and taken to the hospital where his condition was described as critical. His wife was shot in the back and head, but her injuries were not life-threatening. Céleste escaped to a neighboring property and raised the alarm.
Marguerite Bleuzen, the mayor of Plonévaz-du-Faou, told reporters that she was aware of a “dispute between neighbors” over land adjoining both properties and over the noise dating back three years.
Neighbors described Raats and his wife as “recluses” and said he was angry that the Thorntons had cut down trees on his property. He had complained about the noise of the chainsaw and that the felled trees had shielded his property from view. In a hearing in a Brest court that lasted about 10 minutes on Monday afternoon, Raats told the judge: “It’s so horrible what happened. I don’t understand.”
Charged with fatally shooting British girl, 11, in France
Camille Miansoni, the Brest prosecutor, confirmed late Monday that the shooting had been sparked by a dispute between neighbors. “The couple in question blamed their British neighbors for repeated and increasingly intolerable noise pollution,” Miansoni told a news conference.
On Saturday afternoon, Adrian Thornton was “doing yard work on the hedge” that separated his property from the neighboring property. This exasperated his neighbor who took a rifle and fired three or four shots at the victims, he added.
Police called to the scene found three victims lying on the ground. Solane was dead. Her father is in the hospital with life-threatening injuries to her and her mother was also injured and she was taken to the hospital.
“The couple’s other eight-year-old daughter, who saw what happened, is in shock and was taken to a children’s hospital,” Miansoni said. She said the suspected gunman and his wife had tested positive for cannabis and alcohol.
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Raats has been officially placed under investigation, the equivalent of being charged, for murder and attempted murder. His wife, also Belgian, has been accused of “concealing an object related to a crime to obstruct the course of justice.” She allegedly put the gun away before the couple turned themselves in to police, who seized two rifles.
The prosecutor said the man had been taken into custody. It was clear that he had fired in the direction of the family, but investigators would question him as to whether he deliberately aimed it at them.
The court heard that Raats had arrived in France in 2017 and settled in Saint-Herbot. He had previously been a photographer and pastor, before spending 25 years working in a specialized facility for people with severe disabilities.
The prosecutor told the court that Raats should undergo a psychological and psychiatric evaluation. Anne Guillerme, in defense, said that the attack “goes beyond a neighborhood dispute.” She said: “Her actions of him reveal exhaustion and a desire to end it all.”
The gun used to shoot the Thornton family has been removed, the prosecutor said. At first, Raats and his wife had barricaded themselves in his house until a police negotiator convinced them to come out and hand over the gun.
Thornton’s parents, originally from Oldham, had been living in France for several years before moving to Saint-Herbot. Both girls were born in France. Solaine was a first year at Jean-Jaurès High School, where children and parents were said to have been deeply shocked.
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