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Desperate Village Tries DNA Dragnet

October 11, 1997

PLEINE-FOUGERES, France (AP) _ This farm hamlet nestled in northwestern France is about as tranquil as French villages can get. But last year, something horrible happened here.

A 13-year-old British girl, on a visit with schoolmates, was raped and strangled in her youth hostel bed. Her killer was never found.

On Friday, 15 months after Caroline Dickinson’s death, a stream of young men came to the town hall to participate in a remarkable process: the DNA testing of all consenting male villagers between the ages of 15 and 35.

Investigators say there is no evidence the killer is local or belongs to the age group being tested. They feel, however, the testing could eliminate a large group of possible suspects.

The extraordinary measure stems from extraordinary efforts by Dickinson’s father, John. Not only did he bring about the testing; he got the judge in charge of the case replaced when he balked at the idea.

``At first nobody listened, and they told us nobody did this in France,″ Dickinson said in a telephone interview from his home in Cornwall, England. ``But I loved my daughter very much, and I wasn’t going to stop fighting for her.″

Though highly unusual, DNA testing of an entire town has been tried in Britain with some success. It is not used in the United States.

Since the testing _ in this case, of saliva _ is voluntary, an obvious question arises: Why would the actual killer ever volunteer?

But it has happened. In Wales last year, a murderer was caught in just such a roundup.

The answer, some say, is the fear of suspicion and ostracism.

``It appears that the guilty often prefer to risk the test results,″ says Dickinson’s lawyer, Herve Rouzaud, ``than risk drawing suspicion on themselves by not participating.″

The theory makes sense in a small town where everyone knows each other. There are about 1,800 people in Pleine-Fougeres. Only 170 men fit the age category and were in town when the murder occurred. There is no way to know yet whether they all will be tested.

One man who was, 25-year-old Karl Chauvel, said he was happy to do it. ``I have nothing to hide,″ he said after an 8:20 a.m. appointment. ``I hope they find the guilty one and punish him right away.″

But he added: ``If I didn’t come, maybe they would think it was me.″

Thierry Dubois, 29, finished his test and called on ``everyone to come get tested.″

``This attention hasn’t been good for Pleine-Fougeres,″ he said. ``We must find the killer.″

Asked if he’d have doubts about someone who didn’t come, he replied: ``Yes.″

That’s just what human rights groups fear.

``The voluntary aspect is a total illusion,″ the French League of Human Rights said. ``What attitude will there be toward those who don’t volunteer? .... Pressure and enormous suspicion.″

It’s easy to see why Pleine-Fougeres, on the border between Brittany and Normandy, is stunned by the sudden attention. The village of winding streets and stone houses is one of those places where there’s only one of everything: one hotel, one post office, one church. Elderly men and women ride bicycles with big baskets carrying the day’s food.

Just across the road from the youth hostel where Caroline died is the Sainte Marie nursery school. Mothers gather there each afternoon at 4:30 to chat and wait for their children.

``They should have done this much sooner,″ said Sylvie Bertrand, 33, collecting her three young daughters. ``What if the killer’s still here? They have to find him, whatever it takes.″

When Caroline died in July 1996, her parents, who are divorced, went through the trauma of collecting her body in a foreign country, and learning of the awful circumstances. Then it got worse.

Police informed them that a homeless man had confessed. ``I was leaping for joy,″ Dickinson said. But it turned out they had the wrong man _ a DNA test showed the sperm in Caroline’s body was not his.

``If it wasn’t for DNA testing, an innocent chap would be paying for this crime,″ Dickinson says.

The investigation bogged down, and when the judge blocked the DNA testing idea, lawyer Rouzaud appealed. In August, an appeals court replaced the judge and ordered the tests.

The new judge, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, sent letters to the young men of Pleine-Fougeres, promising that only saliva would be tested, and any negative samples would be destroyed. Test results will not be announced for several weeks.

He also ordered the questioning of all youth hostel directors in France. And in the past week, he’s ordered voluntary DNA testing of all sex offenders or suspected offenders in the region, Rouzaud said.

Some are skeptical that the killer will emerge after so long. But if the current tests _ set to end Sunday _ fail, the judge plans to expand them to other ages and nearby villages.

Dickinson says he expects no miracles.

``I won’t get my hopes up too high, but I can’t rest either,″ he says. ``Caroline deserves more, really, from all of us.″

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