Real Crime - - Case Notes - Words Tanita Matthews

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?’”

Scout’s Dis­hon­our

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.

be­low 11- year- old Nicky Ver­stap­pen had been a shy young boy and had ex­pressed con­cerns about go­ing on the camp­ing trip in the weeks be­fore he was killedked up Nic ky’s scent Why hadn’ t cada ver do gs picthe searc h the when they w ere in­tro­duced toin the w oods? It night bef ore he w as f ound deadques­tions is one of man y unans wered

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

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