A French court on Friday jailed a man for 20 years over dozens of rapes and sexual assaults he committed over a 30-year period along the border with Belgium.
Dubbed the "Rapist of the Sambre" for the river running through the region where he operated, 61-year-old Dino Scala will serve at least two-thirds of the sentence behind bars.
A former janitor and family man seen as a pillar of the community, his 2018 arrest and subsequent trial for 17 rapes, 12 attempted rapes and 27 assaults shocked France.
"I want to apologise to my victims," Scala said Friday before the judges retired to consider their verdict, his voice betraying little emotion.
Prosecutors had called the defendant "extremely dangerous", saying he embodied "the unthinkable banality of evil".
And an expert psychologist consulted by the court spoke of a "gulf between the social face and the hidden face" of the accused.
"The law is not up to" the seriousness of Scala's crimes, said Fanny Bruyerre, who represented nine of the victims.
The maximum penalty of "20 years is so little" for 56 "lives destroyed", she added ahead of the verdict.
- 'Compulsions' -
Scala confessed to around 40 of the 56 rapes and assaults he was charged with, attributing them to uncontrollable "compulsions".
Investigators suspect that beyond the crimes tried in court, there were other victims who did not come forward to police.
Around half the victims stayed away from the trial, with some complaining they were mistreated when trying to file criminal reports or even told they were lying.
"I've been reliving this rape for 22 years, it's torture," one woman told the court.
Expert testimony suggested Scala's frustration at what he felt was a lack of recognition in his personal, professional and sporting lives -- he also coached a local football team -- may have contributed to a desire to dominate and inflict terror on others.
But the defendant himself said it would be "impossible" for him to reoffend if released from prison.
"I've caused too much unhappiness around me. When I attacked those people, I didn't realise how serious the things I was doing were," he told the court.
- 'Hunter' -
Between 1988 and 2018, Scala's youngest victim was 13, the oldest 48, and most were attacked the same way -- surprised on deserted streets on early winter mornings, strangled and dragged into nearby bushes or trees.
Police began their search in November 1996, when a 28-year-old woman said she was raped alongside a motorway near Maubeuge. Investigators found the attacker's DNA at the scene but found no matches in police databases.
Other attacks followed, with more than 15 alleged victims over two years, but then reports of similar cases suddenly stopped.
Despite increased patrols, the assailant was never found and the case was closed in 2003.
Three years later a new series of assaults in Belgium relaunched the inquiry, and police began to suspect that other earlier cases in the area might be linked to the same man.
It was only in February 2018, when a teenager was assaulted in Erquelinnes, Belgium, that video surveillance cameras revealed a Peugeot car at the scene, and Scala was arrested a few weeks later.
A knife, gloves and cords that could serve as garrottes were found during searches, and DNA matches were made at several of the crime scenes.
After his arrest he told investigators how he carried out his attacks.
"I hung around... I watched where women would pass by," he said. "I have the nature of a hunter."
© Agence France-Presse
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