Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Innocent Man Serves 15 Years, Serial Killer Stands Trial

Patrick Dils.

In the eyes of the prosecutors, justice was done. They succeeded in convincing the court that 16-year-old Patrick Dils had murdered two young boys whose bludgeoned bodies were found in a bloody mess near railroad tracks in Metz, France. After the verdict, Dils was given a maximum sentence of life in prison.

But after serving 15 years for the double murder, a French jury in an appeals court decided that Dils was innocent of the charges brought against him. The French government acknowledged that monumental judicial blunders were made and Dils, whose intellectual capacity at the time of the crime was that of an eight year old, was awarded one million euros ($1.31 million) in damages.

Prosecutors now say they have their man: convicted serial killer Francis Heaulme, who was at the scene of the murder in 1986. Heaulme admitted to seeing the boys alive at the scene of the crime and then after they were bludgeoned to death with rocks. However, he claims he had no hand in their murder.

Dils says he holds no grudge after spending most of his adult life in prison for a crime he did not commit. He claims he is not bitter, either, even though he says he  was beaten, raped, and physically and mentally abused while in prison. He also has made it clear that Heaulme is not guilty of the crime charged until a court mind determine that he is.

“I am not overwhelmed with joy but am satisfied that justice will be done,” Dils said during an interview with France’s Europe 1 radio station, when asked about Heaulme’s upcoming trial. “But regardless of who the person on trial is, no one can say yet whether or not he is innocent.”

If Heaulme is found guilty, the verdict may serve as the final chapter in a case that has exposed serious flaws in France’s criminal justice system and remains one  of France’s most puzzling murder cases.


The Third Confession

Police only briefly questioned Dils the first time he was asked to come to the local police station after the murder of the two boys, one of whom was his neighbor. His alibi checked out at the time and he had no clear motive to commit the crime. Dils slipped even further off  the investigators’ radar screen a few days later when a local man was questioned and held as a suspect. The man was known to fly into fits of rage whenever someone came near the recycling bins he was responsible for where he worked at a local printing press. He admitted that he had seen the boys on the day of their murder and described how he had chased after them when they trespassed on the printing press’ property. In a fit of rage, he claimed that he bludgeoned them to death.

The problem was that the story never checked out. Several witnesses corroborated that they had seen the man at the time of the crime at a different location than the murder scene. When confronted by police, he admitted that he made the to making the story up for “no reason in particular.”

A few weeks later, police questioned another suspect who admitted to having seen the boys along the railroad tracks. During the course of the interrogation, he confessed to striking and killing the boys with a metal rod. He then changed his story, claiming that he had killed the boys by striking them with a rock. But after checking the facts of his story, police  found more than enough witness who verified that he could not have been physically present at the crime scene at the time of the double murder.

Police later received a tip that Dils was seen in the village on the same day and near where the double murder took place. However, nothing else was communicated that might otherwise implicate him. The police brought him in again and this time held Dils for over 36 hours. After marathon session of questioning, Dils broke down and said he had killed the boys. He later dictated and signed a detailed confession. When asked why he had tracked down and killed the two boys, Dils said he could not think of any reason to explain why he did that.

During the trial, Dils could barely speak in court, due to extreme anxiety and fear of an unknown universe in which he found himself that he barely understood, his lawyer said. He was also in great pain during the trial from a bad toothache, which made him even more uncommunicative.

It was hard for court-appointed psychiatrists to account for why Dils may or may not have murdered the two boys, according to the French newspaper Liberation.  Besides his learning difficulties, his shyness, and frailness; they could not find anything innately abnormal about him. He was not an alcoholic and did not suffer from any substance abuse issues and was not psychotic. Medical tests confirmed that he did not suffer from a brain tumor or any other neurological abnormality.

One psychiatrists said that it was possible for Dils to have what he described as a “pressure cooker” personality, which can account for rare acts of impulsive violence. The condition is less unusual among people who are shy, he said. However, the psychiatrist said that was just one possible explanation that might account for a violent act, but it was still highly unlikely that he was afflicted with a pressure cooker personality.

All told, the psychiatrists who evaluated Dils said that while it was not unthinkable to speculate that Dils could had committed the crime following their tests, but their analysis did not serve as proof in any way that he had committed the crime, either.

The psychiatrists also said that someone who gave false statements to the police and signed false confessions where usually children or adults who were either psychotic or pathological liars. Dils, they said, did not fall under any of these categories.

The judge in the Metz court was convinced that Dils’ confession was legitimate and was not given under duress. She sentenced Dils to life in prison for murder, the most severe punishment that could be given to a minor in France. The parents of the two victims reportedly would have preferred a death sentence, but capital punishment was abolished in France at the time of the verdict.

Just a few months into his sentence, Dils wrote a letter to his lawyer, claiming he was innocent. His lawyer then began building a better case that he thought at the time would quickly prove that Dils had nothing to do with the double murders.

The lawyer asked how Dils, who was physically frail, could have mustered the strength to strike the kids with such force that it left a 10 cm gash in one of the victim’s head. The lawyer also documented how Dils could not have been at the scene of the murder between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM since witnesses had placed him elsewhere at the time. There were also no traces of blood on Dils clothing, despite forensic experts who said the perpetrator would have been covered in blood after striking the two boys with a rock. The lawyer, like the court-appointed psychiatrists had said, also noted that Dils had no motive to murder the boys and there was no animosity between Dils’ and the victims’ families. But it would require even more evidence in order to convince an appeals court to hear Dils’ case again.


Enter the Serial Killer

Francis Heaulme. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Dils had already spent almost nine years in prison, when convicted serial killer Heaulme told an investigating official that he had witnessed the murder of two young boys during the course of another investigation in western France. He told the detective that he came across two boys throwing rocks at people who were walking near the railroad tracks where they were later murdered. He said he later saw the two boys lying dead surrounded by the police and paramedics, but denied killing them. The detective searched France’s crime investigation database, but since Dils was already convicted, the case had been removed from the electronic archives. A few months later, Dils’ lawyers contacted the detective and learned about Heaulme’s statement, placing him at the scene of the crime when the double murder took place. It was revealed that Heaulme was employed at a job site about 400 meters from the crime scene at the time.

Dils was granted an appeal after Heaulme’s statement was entered into evidence, but in a surprise verdict, a judge still found that Dils was guilty and Dils’ sentence was extended to 25 years. Dils appealed the judge’s decision and was given a jury trial about a year later. Witnesses during that trial confirmed that Heaulme was seen covered in blood on the day of the double murder close to the crime scene. Called in as a witness, Heaulme said he had a bike wreck that day, which he said accounted for the blood stains on his clothes and body. Dils also described how he was physically and mentally abused during his stay in prison during the trial, but he did not reveal why he had made a statement confessing to the crime.

It only took the jury a few hours to render a not-guilty verdict and Dils was let free a few hours later after serving over 15 years behind bars for a crime the jury said he did not commit.

Heaulme now faces serving another life sentence if convicted of the double murder for which Dils served 15 years. Heaulme’s defense team will have to explain why Heaulme’s t-shirt was covered in blood and prove that he was just an innocent bystander when he came across the two boys on the day they were murdered.

Heaulme’s wished Dils good luck when he was called in as a witness during Dils’ second appeals trail, the French news magazine L’Express reported. While Dils will probably not bid good luck to the man who might be responsible for ruining his life, he remains hopeful that Heaulme’s trial will reveal what really happened on September 28, 1986, Dils says.

“First, I was acquitted, then I was awarded damages to help compensate for the years I spent in prison,” Dils told reporters. “But the victims’ families and I need to know what really happened in order to begin trying to put all of this behind us.”

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