Dutch suspect accused of gunning down English girl, 11, in France 'was high on cannabis and not aiming at her'

13 June 2023, 05:43 | Updated: 13 June 2023, 05:53

Solaine Thornton, 11, was killed in the shooting
Solaine Thornton, 11, was killed in the shooting. Picture: Facebook/TF1

By Will Taylor

A Dutch pensioner accused of killing an English girl in a shooting after a land dispute was not aiming at the 11-year-old and was high on cannabis, prosecutors in France allege.

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Dirk Raats is charged with murdering Solaine Thornton, who was killed after being shot in the heart during a family barbecue in their garden in the village of Saint-Herbot in Brittany.

The 71-year-old is also charged with attempting to murder her parents Adrian and Rachael Thornton, who were seriously injured. The father was shot in the head and is in a coma while the mother was hit in the head and the back.

Solaine had been playing on the swings with her eight-year-old sister Celeste, who managed to escape unscathed and get help.

He and the Thorntons, who are originally from Oldham, were in a long-running argument over their connecting land.

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Appearing in court in Brest on Monday evening, Raats said: "It's so horrible what happened – I don't understand it."

Prosecutors said Raats had been drinking and taking drugs when he opened fire on Saturday.

Prosecutor Camille Miansoni said: "It appears that he clearly aimed at the father, that he aimed at his wife, but however he seems less clear as to a possible admission that he aimed at the girl."

Solaine was killed in the shooting
Solaine was killed in the shooting. Picture: Facebook

Mrs Thornton had previously said they were threatened by a gun-wielding neighbour years prior when her family cut a hedge down.

Mr Miansoni said works on the hedge "exasperated" Raats "who later took a loaded .22 calibre rifle and fired three or four shots, hitting three victims".

Read more: British girl, 11, who was shot dead in France 'didn't stand a chance' and her sister 'will have to live with it forever'

Celeste managed to flee to another neighbour and said: "My sister is dead, my sister is dead." She is said to be in a state of shock.

Police searched Raats' home and found two rifles, one of which had not been declared.

He and his partner tested positive for alcohol and cannabis but prosecutors said they do not have any previous convictions.

Anne Guillerme, Raats' defence barrister, suggested he could have psychiatric problems.

The girls were playing on the swings when the attack happened
The girls were playing on the swings when the attack happened. Picture: TF1

Mr Miansoni said a mental health assessment had not flagged anything notable.

The Thorntons moved to Saint Herbot in 2019 and they were the only English family in the area. They were well-liked and would open up their grounds for the hamlet's festival in September.

Their home is based in a large plot. Mr Thornton works as a mechanic while Mrs Thornton is in social services.

Read more: Pictured: Two children, aged 7 and 11, found dead in Stoke-on-Trent named by police

Mr Thornton had been working on tidying and clearing the land, which was said to have otherwise been abandoned and was wild.

The mayor of Plonevez-du-Faou, Marguerite Bleuzen, said she had to intervene over "tensions" three years ago but had not needed to wade in since then. She was only told after the shooting there had been more problems.

The family was well-liked in the hamlet
The family was well-liked in the hamlet. Picture: TF1

"On one occasion, I was told that the Dutch man brought out a weapon. I wish I or the police had been told, and this might have been avoided," he said.

The 11-year-old's grandfather, Irvin Thornton, said police arrived at his house on Sunday night to break the news of his granddaughter's death.

"We don't know exactly what has gone on," he told MailOnline.

"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."