A man has appeared in court in France charged with shooting dead an 11-year-old British girl who was playing in the garden of her family home.
The suspect, Dirk Raats, 70, originally from Antwerp in Belgium, has been officially put under investigation 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 member of the family to escape injury in the attack on Saturday evening.
The girls were playing on swings in their garden in the hamlet of Saint-Herbot, near Plonévez-du-Faou in Brittany, west France on Saturday evening. The Thornton family, who bought a former sawmill in the village in 2019 and converted it into a home, had been enjoying a barbecue. At about 10pm, a man fired several shots into the property, killing Solaine and injuring her parents.
Adrian Thornton, 52, was shot in the head and was taken to hospital where his condition was described as critical. His wife was shot in the back and the head but her injuries were not life-threatening. Céleste escaped to a neighbouring property and raised the alarm.
Marguerite Bleuzen, the mayor of Plonévaz-du-Faou, told journalists she was aware of a “dispute between neighbours” over a piece of land adjoining both properties and over noise that dated back three years.
Neighbours described Raats and his wife as “reclusive” and said he had been angry that the Thorntons had cut down trees on their property. He had complained about the noise from the chainsaw and that the felled trees had protected his property from view.
In a hearing at a court in Brest lasting about 10 minutes on Monday afternoon, Raats told the judge: “It’s so horrible what’s happened. I don’t understand.”
Camille Miansoni, the public prosecutor at Brest, confirmed on Monday evening that the shooting had been prompted by a dispute between neighbours. “The couple in question blamed their British neighbours for repeated and increasingly intolerable noise pollution,” Miansoni told a press conference.
On Saturday afternoon, Adrian Thornton was “doing some gardening work on the hedge” separating his and the neighbouring property. This exasperated his neighbour who picked up a rifle and fired three or four shots hitting the victims, he added.
Police called to the scene found three victims lying on the ground. Solaine was dead. Her father is in hospital with life threatening injuries and her mother was also injured and taken to hospital.
“The couple’s other daughter, aged eight, who saw what happened, is in a state of shock and has been taken to a children’s hospital,” Miansoni said.
He said the suspected gunman and his wife had tested positive for cannabis and alcohol.
Raats has been officially put under investigation – the equivalent of being charged – for murder and attempted murder. His wife, also Belgian, has been accused of “concealing an object relating to a crime in order to obstruct the course of justice”. She allegedly put the gun away before the couple surrendered to police, who seized two rifles.
The prosecutor said the man had been remanded in custody. It was clear he had fired in the direction of the family, but investigators would be questioning him over whether he deliberately aimed at them.
The court heard Raats had arrived in France in 2017 and settled in Saint-Herbot. He had previously been a photographer and shepherd, before spending 25 years working in specialised establishment for severely disabled people.
The public prosecutor told the court Raats should undergo psychological and psychiatric evaluation. Anne Guillerme, defending, said the attack “goes deeper than a neighbourhood dispute”. She said: “His actions reveal exhaustion and a desire to end it all.”
The gun used to shoot at the Thornton family has been removed, the prosecutor said. Raats and his wife had at first barricaded themselves into their home until a police negotiator persuaded them to come out and hand over the weapon.
The Thornton parents, originally from Oldham, had been living in France for a number of years before moving to Saint-Herbot. Both girls were born in France.
Solaine was in the first year at the Jean-Jaurès middle school where children and parents were said to be deeply shocked.