TAKEN FROM HIS TENT
1998 SAW THE START OF THE BIGGEST COLD CASE IN DUTCH HISTORY, SO WHY DIDN’T POLICE ACT SOONER? COULD NICKY VERSTAPPEN’S FAMILY HAVE HAD JUSTICE FOR THEIR MURDERED BOY A DECADE AGO?
hope dwindled… until finally a suspect had been identified thanks to a nationwide DNA test
Barely a year before the body of 11- year- old Nicky Verstappen was found in a pine tree grove in the Dutch province of Limburg on a cold summer evening, the Netherlands DNA database was established. Although today the Netherlands is a pioneering country in the use of DNA testing in criminal cases, back when the freckle- faced scout disappeared from an annual camping weekend, DNA testing techniques had only recently sprung into action, marking the start of a revolution in crime scene investigation. While DNA testing made huge strides in solving rape, murder and robbery cases, there were limitations to what it could do back then compared to today.
Even more limiting for the Verstappen family were the attitudes of police officers, who, with a less- than- ideal level of urgency, investigated their son’s abduction, sexual assault and murder.
For almost 20 years Peetje and Berthie Verstappen, along with their daughter Femke, have searched for answers about who killed Nicky on the morning of 10 August 1998. In the new millennium, familial DNA began making headlines, a state of progress that gave hope to thousands of victims and families living in the shadows of their unsolved case. But as the years dragged on and the statute of limitations on Nicky’s murder approached expiration, hope for Nicky’s family dwindled, until finally, just in time, police announced that a suspect in Nicky’s murder had been identified thanks to a nationwide DNA test, and was currently being pursued.
According to Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries, who spoke to Real Crime from his office in Amsterdam, more shocking was the suggestion that Nicky’s murder could have been solved almost a decade earlier, had police not initially eliminated the suspect from their investigation pool.
Limburg in Limbo
On the morning of Saturday 8 August 1998, Nicky was one of 37 children who boarded a bus from the Dutch village of Heibloem in the province of Limburg. Their destination was the De Heikop camping grounds in Brunssum, which would host the annual summer scouting event. While dozens of children as old as 12 piled onto the bus, excited by the activities that lay in store for them, Nicky was anxious.
The year before, he had been on the verge of attending the camping trip but a bout of homesickness had stopped him in his tracks. This year, he had decided to go, although he was still nervous about leaving home.
Just as they were about to depart Nicky’s best friend decided that he would rather not go, leaving Nicky alone to venture into the woods with the other 36 children from the scouting community. At the camp the children divided up into ten tents, while the dozen camp leaders present that weekend divided into four tents. Each group was asked to pick a name for their tent. Nicky and his friends – 12- yearold Mark Hermanns, another boy named Mark, who was 11, ten- year- old Kay, and Ian, who was the youngest of the group – decided on the name ‘ Nightriders’ for their group.
The first couple of days at the camp went off without a hitch. On the evening of 9 August all the boys had retreated to their tents by 10pm. The leaders gathered in the larger tent after the final checks on the boys, eating and drinking until the early hours of the morning. In the tent closest to them the Nightrider children slept. As dawn threatened to unveil what would become a turbulent and exhausting day, one Nightrider boy awoke to use the bathroom. He recalled seeing Nicky still in the tent, while another boy who woke up shortly after said that at 6am Nicky was gone. Two hours later, when the scout leaders checked in to say it was time for breakfast, they discovered that Nicky had vanished. Worried that he had wandered off and hurt himself, the leaders searched the nearby forest, contacting his family at around 9am, telling them that they believed he had run away. His father Peetje immediately drove to the campsite.
That day Nicky’s friends and family searched the grounds of the campsite. While scout leaders were sure that the young boy had run off, his parents insisted Nicky was not the type to do something like that. In addition, his shoes had been left in his tent – so where had he gone without his shoes? Police officers who arrived at around noon briefly spoke to the camp leaders, although not to Nicky’s father. That afternoon they called in on nearby residents and asked if they had seen a young male ‘ runaway’, but no one had any information to offer. As darkness slowly descended on the search party, police officers began investigating beyond the campsite, with the search soon upscaled to include military personnel and police dogs.
The following day two more detectives arrived at De Heikop to speak to Nicky’s father, who again said he was sure his son hadn’t run away. By 4pm a search team made up of a platoon of the police mobile unit, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, personnel from a nearby military base, volunteers from the fire brigade, citizens from Heibloem and Nicky’s uncle and nephew had assembled. They set off four hours later beyond the vicinity of the campsite. Peetje was not permitted to join the search and waited near Nicky’s tent.
Real Crime spoke to Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries, a household name in the Netherlands when it comes to the unsolved and unexplained. Taking us through his two- decade pursuit for the truth about what happened to Nicky and his involvement in the biggest cold case in Dutch history, he told us, “In the beginning nobody was really disturbed about it, people were thinking he will return safely, because he is in the woods at the Brunssummerheide and maybe he is lost but he will find his way. But two days later, as we know,
Nicky was found dead and it seemed he was murdered. So that changed everything.”
Approximately 40 hours after he was last seen, the young boy’s half- naked body was found less than a mile from the camp by his father’s cousin, who spotted something red in the trees. Carefully concealed in a ditch between a copse of conifers was Nicky’s body, still wearing his red pyjama bottoms and blue boxer shorts. Although he was found deep in the woods, Nicky’s feet were clean – an indication he had not died there.
The young boy’s death hit no one harder than his parents, who de Vries said tormented themselves over concerns Nicky had expressed in the lead- up to the trip: “[ Nicky] said before the scouting week to his parents, ‘ Mum and Dad, maybe I would rather stay home because I’m not sure I’m going to like it.’ And of course his parents said to him, ‘ Oh you silly boy of course you have to go, you will enjoy it when you are there and nothing can happen.’ When he disappeared and was found dead, his parents blamed themselves and said, ‘ Maybe we should have listened to him. Why did we do it? Why did we take this risk?’”
For decades de Vries has actively campaigned and worked tirelessly to see justice done, not just for Nicky, but the unfortunate number of children who have been victims of crime in the Netherlands. He has also investigated the disappearance of American teen Natalee Holloway. In the Netherlands his TV program Misdaadverslaggever, a Dutch version of the British show Crimewatch, is hugely popular. “I’m always more interested than normal in children who disappear or are getting raped or murdered. It always has my special interest,” de Vries told us. “We have had, let’s say in the last 20 years, a couple of child murders that were very much in the news, a big affair nationwide, but Nicky’s was the biggest of all.”
Several missteps in the police’s investigation right from the offset hindered a successful outcome for the Verstappen family. While the location where the body was found was sealed off, the campsite was not for a number of days. According to de Vries, the time of year when Nicky was murdered was a holiday period, and police and forensic specialists were scarce on the ground. Nicky’s body had been abandoned in the forest in 30 degree Celsius heat. It took a further three days for a pathologist to examine the young boy’s cadaver.
several missteps in the police’s investigation from the offset hindered a successful outcome for
the Verstappen family
Police speculated that Nicky had been the victim of a sex crime, but no definitive cause of death could be established. “Police didn’t actually know what caused his death,” de Vries told us, “but on the other hand, an 11- year- old boy who was sound and well doesn’t just drop dead because of nothing.” He explained that Nicky’s parents approached him in the days after Nicky died, aware that his celebrity status might help their fight for justice gain momentum: “Very shortly after the murder they approached me and we had a meeting at their home.” De Vries told us that the family didn’t “trust that the police will solve this case very quickly” and had “serious doubts” regarding the force. “I promised that I would investigate the whole case, of course, not thinking that it would last another 20 years,” de Vries said. Evidently the family’s doubts were warranted. Having worked with the Verstappen family for the last two decades, de Vries described the difficulties they’ve endured trying to get police to investigate the murder: “They were asking for help and it seemed as though nobody really cared about it. Everyone was saying, ‘ Oh it’s a sad affair’ but police didn’t solve the case. They were still continuing with saying, ‘ Yeah, yeah, yeah we will do it’ and ‘ Now it’s a holiday period’ and ‘ There are not enough detectives right now’, and there was always something,” he told us.
Suspicions almost instantly fell on the organisers of the camp: “Initially people – including myself – thought something had happened in the scouting squad with the people who were organising the scouting camp,” de Vries told us. He went on to explain exactly why the public were so keen to blame the organisers, particularly its founder, Joos Barten: “The leader was somebody who we found out was convicted in the past for child abuse.” When searching for Nicky, Barten had repeatedly tried to steer the search party in the direction of the ditch where Nicky was eventually found. Even more suspicious was the allegation from a 15- year- old girl, who had attended a camp the weekend before and suspected that Barten had sexually abused her while she slept. However, police never formally made any of the camp leaders suspects in Nicky’s murder.
As well as the camp organisers, a number of local residents and passers- by were questioned about their whereabouts at the time Nicky was killed, and if they had seen anything suspicious around the time Nicky was suspected to have been abducted. As many as 45 people – labelled “passers- by on the heath” by police – were questioned, including 35- year- old Jos Brech. Speaking to us about how Brech entered the investigation, de Vries said, “What you have to know is that the evening Nicky was found, he [ Brech] was there three hours later at the crime scene with his bicycle.” However, Brech was not seriously considered as a suspect, just an innocent bystander.
Within three months of Nicky’s murder, police concluded that they didn’t have sufficient leads to warrant an investigation team and dissolved the unit that was looking into the crime. Despite their lack of urgency, de Vries kept Nicky’s story alive through his TV program, but even when potential leads were handed over to police, de Vries says they were reluctant to take the case seriously: “Over the
years a lot of good tips were given by people because of my TV program or because of the newspapers and magazines. When I asked [ police], ‘ What did you do with the tips?’ most of the time they were saying, ‘ Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know it’s there but we didn’t have time yet to dive into it, maybe next month.’” Attempting to get the public’s attention, Peter de Vries doubled the 25,000 guilders reward money the family had offered for information on the person who had killed Nicky. “Every week I had contact with [ Nicky’s family], had many meetings, contacted the police, the district attorney, everything – you name it, we did it.”
A Cold Trail
It took another two years before the investigative unit dedicated to solving Nicky’s murder was reassembled.
Nicky’s murder was linked to various high- profile offenders. Rumours around camp leader Barten were still circulating even after he died in 2003. Between 2001 and 2007, fingers were pointed at a known sex offender who had repeatedly been questioned by police for unrelated offences. Witnesses came forward to say they’d seen him near the campsite the night before Nicky vanished. He died in 2007, before police could establish him as an official suspect. Nicky’s murder was also linked to German serial killer and paedophile Martin Ney, who was also linked to the abduction of British child Madeleine McCann in Portugal. Ney was known to have travelled to the Netherlands and killed another young boy, and police suspected he could have targeted Nicky.
However, pointing fingers without significant proof was getting the investigation nowhere. Although biological materials were extracted from the crime scene, including a semen- stained tissue, and tested against 35 men who had submitted DNA samples as part of the investigation between 1999 and 2001, the results only succeeded in ruling them out of the investigation.
In 2010 came the startling revelation that foreign DNA had been extracted from Nicky’s pyjama bottoms thanks to advances in forensic testing. The foreign DNA was checked against samples taken from 80 men, but again the results were negative. Barten’s body was exhumed in November and his remains tested. They too were negative. By 2011 Nicky’s murder investigation was entering its 13th year with little gleaned from the police’s efforts. Dutch law states that there is a statute of limitations on all crimes, including murder, of 20 years. If charges were not brought against a suspect before late 2018, the case risked being shelved indefinitely.
In January 2018, as the statute of limitations on Nicky’s case fast approached, it was announced that around 20,000 men in the Limburg province would be asked to give samples of their DNA in an attempt to trace Nicky’s killer once and for all. It would be the most expensive and largest DNA test in Dutch history. As many as 15,000 attended and gave their samples. With the development of familial DNA tests in recent years, police were confident that this last- ditch attempt to catch Nicky’s killer would work.
In April 2018 police received a seemingly unrelated report from the family of Brech, the man who had been cycling past
Between 2001 and 2007, fingers were pointed at a known sex offender who had repeatedly been questioned by police for unrelated offences
the Brunssummerheide crime scene. They told police that he had gone missing. He had told his family he was going on a wilderness hiking trip in the Vosges region of France. He had last been heard from in February and now, two months on, they were concerned, having heard nothing more from him.
Police too were concerned not to have heard from him – they had visited his home twice to request that he make an appointment in order to submit a sample for the large- scale DNA testing. Both times Brech had been absent from his home, and a letter had been left at the house asking him to contact police. Jos Brech had been selected as part of a group that police deemed to be “men with prominence on the Brunssummerheide” at the time of Nicky Verstappen’s disappearance and death.
The last known location of Brech had been at his chalet in the Vosges in France. A team of police investigating his disappearance visited the chalet and extracted a number of items from the home, which were sent to the Netherlands Forensic Institute for testing. A team investigating Nicky’s murder also took samples and had them sent to the lab. DNA samples provided by a distant relative of Brech as part of the mass testing proved a positive familial match with the DNA on Nicky’s clothes. Brech’s own DNA from the items taken from his French chalet, meanwhile, was described as a “perfect one- for- one” match. The DNA on Nicky’s body was also deemed a “100 per cent match”, erasing any doubt that it could belong to someone else. It was a marvellous breakthrough in the case.
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above The annual scout summer camp was hosted at the De Heikop camping ground in 1998. The camp was founded by Joos Barten, who later became a suspect in Nicky’s murder The tent where Nic ky w as sleeping was sta tioned r ight next to the staff tent, where the camp leader s slept. Directl y behind it w as a hole in a f ence tha t led to the Brunssummerheide, where Nic ky’s body w as la ter f ound
hief ofIn J anuary 2018 the police ctha t Limburg, J oep P attijn, announcedfrom a mass testing of DN A samplesgest DN A around 20,000 men – the lar test in Dutc h histor y
opposite- top The location where Nicky’s body was found was a also well- known meeting spot for homosexualsopposite- bottom A man who was leaving ominous letters at Nicky’s memorial was questioned about the boy’s abduction. He was later deemed to not be a suspecttop Peter de Vries’s TV program Misdaadverslaggever continued to keep Nicky’s case in the public consciousnessabove Discussing the case, Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries described Nicky’s vanishing as “the nightmare of every parent”
above Peter De Vries said that the prime suspect in Nicky’s murder will have to explain how his DNA came to be on Nicky’s pyjama bottoms when the two were total strangersonl y Chief suspect J os Brec h liv edky’s 13 kilometres from the place Nichad body w as f ound in 1998, and been a suspect in a sexual assault case three y ears ear lier
above- left Approximately 15,000 men voluntarily gave DNA samples in 2018, in what was the largest mass DNA testing in Dutch history