Transcript: 41. The Netherlands | Gone in the Morning (The Nicky Verstappen Case)

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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones. 

Warning: this episode deals with the abuse and death of a child. It may not be suitable for all audiences. Listener discretion is advised.

As 11-year-old Nicky Verstappen was packing his bag for summer camp, he was still not sure that he really wanted to go or not. The previous year he didn’t go, as he was afraid he would be homesick. He loved spending summers at home in the town of Heibloem in the south of The Netherlands. Nicky could cycle over to visit friends or play at home with his sister Femke. And he loved his dog, he would miss him so much if he went away… 

The year before, his parents supported his decision to stay at home for the summer, but in the summer of 1998, he felt that he had to go. He wasn’t 10 anymore, he was growing up. He had told his mother that he was a little unsure about the whole thing, but she said that once he was there, it would be fun. Besides, his best friend was going, so everything would be ok no matter what. 

Nicky packed his red and white pyjamas – official merchandise for AFC Ajax, his favourite soccer team from Amsterdam. It was a Christmas present and he loved it. In fact, he loved anything with the Ajax logo and colours. The Sons of the Gods would do it again! They always came through!

Nicky took his backpack and looked around his room one last time: everything was just the way he loved it – Ajax red and white. A flag, a poster of Jari Litmanen, a duvet cover, a bedside lamp… Then he turned and left. Nicky would never come back home again.

>>Intro Music

Nicky Verstappen was born on the 13th of March 1987 in Heibloem, in the district of Limburg, The Netherlands. He was the eldest of two children in a tight-knit family. His dad was Peter his mom Berthie and his little sister Femke. The two siblings loved to play together and the family had a good and harmonious life.

Nicky was always laid back and friendly. There are countless photos of him, hugging his dog. He cycled all over his hometown of Heibloem, a small community with about 800 residents. People knew him to be a happy and well-adjusted young man. His mom called him spontaneous and sporty.

Most of all, when people think of Nicky, it is hard not to mention the Amsterdam soccer team, Ajax. He was a die-hard fan who would not miss a match. Nicky also played soccer himself, and he was known to be a rather good player.

On the 8th of August 1998, Nicky and 36 of his class-mates took the bus from Heibloem to the town of Brunssum – about a 45-minute journey – heading for the De Heikop camping grounds. It was time for the annual summer camp for 8-12 year-olds. 

All kids from Heibloem had the opportunity to attend this summer camp each year.

Nicky did not go the preceding year, as he was afraid he would get homesick. In 1998, he was a bit unsure again, as he loved spending summer holidays at home with his family. Just before the bus was about to leave, his best friend pulled out an opted to stay in Heibloem.  Nicky decided to stick it out and stayed on the bus as he waved his friend goodbye. 

Once the group arrived at De Heikop, the kids were split into their tent-groups. Alltogether the 37 kids were divided into 10 tents, while the 12 camp leaders split into the four remaining tents. As was camp tradition, each group had to name their new abode – the name would also be the name of their team. Nicky’s tent for the holidays was christened as  “Nightriders”. He shared it with four other boys, all friends of his, around the same age as him.

The first day was a lot of fun with team building activities and games. That night, all the campers huddled up around a campfire while one of the leaders entertained them with scary ghost stories. Wide-eyed and thrilled, the youngsters were sent to bed around 10pm. The camp leaders went to the biggest tent they had and ate and drank till way past midnight. As they went to bed, everyone was happy. Summer camp was off to a great start and there were a lot of activities planned for the next day.

On Monday morning 10 August 1998, one of the Nightriders woke up at 5am. He needed the toilet, so he got up and left the tent to go to the ablution facilities. At that time, all of the Nightriders, including Nicky, were still in their sleeping bags. When another kid from their tent woke up at 6am, he saw that Nicky was gone. They thought he had gone to the toilet or something. 

At 8am, when the trumpet played the song that signalled it was breakfast time, Nicky’s concerned tent-buddies told the camp leaders that they had not seen him since 6am. The leaders and campers started looking for Nicky all over the campsite, but they could not find him. They called out, but there was no answer.

The leaders were convinced that Nicky had run away. They called his parents back in Heibloem to tell them that he had left the campsite and that they had not been able to locate him. His mother, Berthie Verstappen, immediately knew something was wrong. He would never do something like that. He was quite nervous about going away from home with the group, it did not make any sense that he would go off on his own. Both Berthie and Peter left Heibloem immediately and made their way to the campsite to see what was going on. 

The first thing Berthie noticed, was that Nicky’s shoes were still in the tent. If he was planning to walk away, surely he would have put on his shoes first. Together with some of the camp leaders, they searched the immediate area, frantically calling Nicky’s name. But there was no answer. Around mid-day, they decided it was time to call the police.  

By late afternoon, the search party had grown significantly. Volunteers, mostly friends and family came from Heibloem, as well as from the local town of Brunssum. The Verstappen family made turns to wait at the tent and to go out and look for Nicky in the surrounding bushes and fields. They were desperately looking for Nicky, but they knew the outcome would be bad. He would not have walked off by himself.

Police questioned all the camp leaders extensively and went to homes near the campsite to enquire if residents had perhaps seen an 11-year-old runaway. Despite Nicky’s family’s insistence that something was seriously wrong, there was no real sense of panic. The general feeling was that Nicky had left of his own accord and got lost in the woods. They were expecting to find him alive and well.

It was 95 degrees (that’s 35 degrees Celcius) – one of the hottest days of the whole summer of 1998. Combing the area was an exhausting job in the heat and camp leaders took turns to look for Nicky, while others kept the camp going. The kids were kept occupied in the swimming pool, while adults sweated it out in the streets and fields, looking for their lost friend.

By nightfall, armed forces were called in to assist with the search. The campers were sent to their tents, like everything was normal. As they fell asleep they heard the military vehicles  and searchers calling out calling Nicky’s name into the darkness of night. It was everything but normal. 

On Tuesday morning there was still no sign of Nicky and camp leaders decided to cancel the camp. All the kids were loaded onto a bus and taken home to Heibloem. 

Meanwhile, the search effort intensified as it became evident that Nicky wasn’t a runaway. Police dogs were brought in and a plane did an aerial search of the area. The whole day resulted in no sign of Nicky and with sunset around 9:15, they were running out of daylight.

Then, just before 9pm on Tuesday the 11th of August, Nicky’s uncle who was one of the searchers saw something laying beneath a small pine tree. It was the lifeless body of 11-year-old Nicky Verstappen. The spot was less than a mile (about 1200 metres) away in a pine grove in the vicinity of nearby Landgraaf. 

His little body was naked from the waist up. He was wearing his red Ajax pyjama pants and blue underpants. The pyjama pants (a Christmas present from the year before) were inside-out and front to back. There was a wound to his head, but on first impressions, it did not look like it was severe enough to have caused his demise. 

Despite being in a pine grove, next to farmland and bush, Nicky’s feet were clean. He definitely did not walk to the spot where he was found. The theory was that he was killed somewhere else and his body was carried out to the spot and left there. The scene was near a parking lot that was known as a place where men would meet other men for clandestine sex. Other than that – there was not too much movement in the area. 

Around midnight on the evening he was found, Nicky’s body was taken to the morgue in Maastircht – the nearest city which was about 30 minutes away. 

The community of Heibloem all pooled together to help the family in arranging a memorial service for Nicky. The service was held on Saturday 15 August, a week after he left home for summer camp. 600 people attended the service, which was held at the Heibloem sports fields. Nicky’s coffin was covered with the red Ajax flag, something he would have loved.

Nicky’s family was in a state of shock and overcome with grief. His parents were wrought with guilt. Nicky wasn’t convinced that he should have gone on the trip, but they encouraged him, saying that once he was there he would have fun. What could possibly go wrong?

The Verstappens wanted answers, somebody had to pay for taking away their son and brother. But police had no leads. They re-interviewed all the camp leaders, as it was unlikely that Nicky would have left the campsite with a stranger.

The post-mortem examination took place three days after Nicky’s death, as the local pathologist was out of town at the time of the murder. Remember, his death had occurred in the middle of the summer holiday period. The family had to wait for two months before the results of the autopsy was released. 

The report said that Nicky was drugged. His body showed signs of sexual abuse. The pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death. A second autopsy was conducted, with the same conclusion: there was a possibility that Nicky was sexually assaulted and they could not determine how Nicky had died. The best guess as to the cause of death was suffocation, but there was not enough evidence to prove it conclusively.

Despite the extensive investigation that followed, the case of Nicky’s murder would remain unsolved for 20 years.

There were many unknowns in this case. One of the biggest questions was: how did Nicky disappear from the tent? He was 11 years old, if someone grabbed him against his will, he would have screamed or put up a fight. If he was drugged and taken the other boys in the tent would surely have noticed someone enter their tent. Perhaps Nicky had gone to the block of toilets and was taken from there, but without any eyewitnesses or physical evidence that would be impossible to prove. 

Investigators turned to the evidence they did have. At the scene where Nicky was found, there were some clues: a tissue containing semen, a cigarette butt and beer bottle top and forensic technicians were able to compile a DNA profile of a person other than Nicky. It was found about a 100 yards from Nicky’s body, closer to the parking lot, so it was not certain that the tissue was at all related to Nicky’s murder. Remember, people met in the parking lot and often had sex in the woods.

A year before Nicky’s murder,  in 1997, a DNA database was started at the National Forensics Institute of The Netherlands. At this time DNA resting was new forensic technology and tests were somewhat limited. Also, DNA testing against this base could only be overseen by the prosecutor and not the police. Police did not have their own database at that point in time and they did not have direct access to the NIF’s database without the approval of the prosecutor. The work-around was laden with red tape and waiting periods were very long.

In Nicky’s case, DNA samples of 40 men were taken. The men were camp leaders, men from a campsite nearby and other visitors in the area. But none matched the profile found in the tissue at the crime scene. It was a shot in the dark anyway, as the discarded tissue with semen was probably a left-over of a sexual encounter that had nothing to do with Nicky’s death. Still, they could not disregard the evidence. 

There was some hope when a single hair, similar in colour to Nicky’s, was found in the trunk of a car belonging to one of the camp leaders. The sample was sent to the UK for testing, but it was found that it did not belong to Nicky. 

It was a disappointment, but investigators felt that they were getting closer to naming a suspect. 

The first person of interest was the 80-year-old founder of the camp, Joos Barten. He was the former principal of the primary school in Heibloem, but had lost his job after he was convicted of child sexual abuse in the 1950s. He also admitted that he was near Nicky’s tent at 6am on the morning of his disappearance. But he was not there for Nicky, he went to check on one of the other boys who had burnt his hand the night before. 

Joos claimed that he woke up at 5am, then cleaned his tent as camp rules stipulated. After checking on the boy, he drove back to Heibloem to attend the funeral of a friend. He claimed that he heard about Nicky’s disappearance at the funeral and went straight back to the camp.

Joos also acted strangely on the morning of the search. He kept steering the search in the direction of the scene where Nicky’s body was eventually found. He was the one who informed searchers that the parking lot near the scene was a place where men would meet for sex. Also, in the aftermath, when it came out that Nicky was probably sexually assaulted, Joos Barten made a very unsettling statement. He said:

“Is it even possible to abuse the corpse of a child?”

There were many things that made police uncomfortable about Joos Barten and they started to explore his background. Up to Nicky’s murder in 1998, he was a respected member of the Heibloem community. After his incarceration, he founded camp ‘De Heikop’ in Brunsum and and he also started the local soccer club back in Heibloem. It is astonishing that he only served three months for his crime in the 1950s and that he was allowed to work with children again.

Joos was often seen in the changing rooms at the soccer club and he moved into an attic of a building that was part of the primary school. Many years later, it was discovered that he had photos of children, some taken at camp when boys were not wearing their shirts, or only their underpants. There was no proof that he did anything in that time, no more victims came forward, but he was certainly entrenched in the youth of Heibloem. In 1986, he was awarded the Royal Ribbon Award by the mayor for his contribution to the community. He was even the self-elected Sinterklaas (or Santa) of the town.

After Nicky’s death a 15-year-old girl came forward and said that she attended summer camp earlier that year and she had reason to believe that Joos Barten sexually abused her while she was sleeping. She was unwell one evening and he had given her medication that turned out to be sleeping tablets for adults. When she woke up, her clothing was dishevelled and different to the way it was when she went to bed. She also experience lower abdominal pain and discomfort. She immediately suspected the elderly Joos Barten of molesting her.

Because she didn’t report the incident earlier, there was not much that police could do so long after the fact. And there was also not enough evidence to arrest him in connection with Nicky’s kidnapping and murder. 

A reward of 250,000 Guilders was offered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Maastricht.

The Verstappen family was frustrated as there did not seem to be any sense of urgency in solving Nicky’s murder. They approached well-known television crime reporter, Peter R De Vries, and asked him to help them. He agreed to look into the case and his involvement in helping the family over the years turned out to be the most important lifeline they had.

Thanks to a campaign launched by Peter de Vries on behalf of the family, the reward money was doubled. Anonymous business people doubled the amount, making it 500,000 Guilder.

The first in-depth documentary about Nicky’s case was broadcast nationally in April 1999. The documentary exposed Joos Barten’s devious past and asked the obvious question: why was this man allowed to work with children after being a convicted sex offender? The program put pressure on police to investigate him further.

The small town of Heibloem was divided, Nicky’s case tore the community apart. Some people wanted to protect the leaders of the camp and some people supported the Verstappens in their quest to find out the truth, even if it meant asking confronting questions. 

On the 16th of September 1998, six of the 12 camp leaders who were in charge at Nicky’s summer camp visited the Verstappen family. It was a tense visit, but the family did appreciate the gesture.

As time went by, more and more people from the town chose to avoid the Verstappens. They only retained a handful of loyal friends who supported them through the ordeal. 

In the year 2000 a memorial was built for Nicky at the church in Heibloem in an effort to reconcile the different camps. A young member of their community was dead and they had to stick together. The moment of reconciliation only lasted for a fleeting moment. Towns people were rock solid in their support of Joos Barten and the other leaders and felt that the Verstappens were out on a witch hunt.

The Verstappens eventually moved away from Heibloem in 2003. The same year Joos Barten passed away. For Berthie and Peter it was extremely difficult to pack up Nicky’s room. They had to face the decision about what to do with all his things. His clothes, his shoes, all his Ajax memorabilia… It was almost like they were saying goodbye to him all over again.

In July 1999, Nicky’s case was ruled unsolved. The next month, in August, a year after the killing, Berthie and Peter Verstappen had the opportunity to meet with Queen Beatrix. They handed her a letter, an official complaint about the investigation in the death of their son. That was an effective move, as they could definitely see more efforts done by the Prosecutor in Maastricht in the wake of the complaint. 

In 2001, Nicky’s grandparents and the community of Brunssum unveiled a memorial for Nicky at the spot where his body was found. The whole event took place in silence.

But no monument or gesture would ever make it OK for Nicky’s parents. His mother lit a candle in their family home, as soon as she woke up, every morning for 20 years. She said in an interview with Peter De Vries:

“I wake up at night and hear his voice. He calls me. I get up and go to look for Nicky. But he is no longer there.”

Their happy family of four had become an incomplete, broken family of three. With the investigation into Nicky’s death closed, there was the possibility that they would never have the answers. Berthie vowed on national TV that she would never let it go, as long as she was still walking the earth, she would fight to bring Nicky’s killer to justice.

In February 2001, more than two years after Nicky’s murder, Berthie and Peter appealed to the Minister of Justice for help, by writing a public letter. They publicly stated that they were at the mercy of the police and the legal system and there were no answers. Nothing was being done to help them.

Decision makers realised they had to act. The case could not remain unsolved, there was a total breakdown in trust – the general population felt it was unacceptable that a young boy could be taken from summer camp, murdered and authorities washed their hands.

In an effort to renew the investigation, a ‘Second Opinion’ task force was handed the case in 2001. They would start from scratch and re-investigate everything.

On the 29th of June 2001, the new investigation was able to narrow down Nicky’s time of death. It was horrific news. They estimated that his time of death was between 2pm on the 10th of August or 9am on the 11th of August. That means that he was alive for at least eight hours before he was killed. Possibly still for one whole day, while everyone was out searching for him.

New DNA technology revealed that there were tiny specs of blood on Nicky’s pyjama pants. They only tested one of the specs and it turned out to be Nicky’s blood.

The second investigation also exposed many mistakes made by the first investigation. For starters, they focussed solely on the scene where Nicky’s body was found. It was cordoned off and processed as the crime scene, even though it was determined early on that his body was left there after he had died. Remember: he was not wearing any shoes and his feet were clean, he did not walk to that site. 

Next to the pine grove was a wheat field with a track that ran through it. This was a possible route of entry or exit from the place where the killer had left Nicky’s body. The field was not searched and it was reaped before investigators realised that they should have had a look for footprints or tyre tracks. One tyre track was found close to the pine grove, but police made an inadequate cast and it could not be used, Worse: evidence destroyed.

The campsite, the last place where Nicky was seen, was never treated as a crime scene. Multiple people came and went and destroyed possible clues that could have been vital to the investigation. 

The toilets, washing basins and trash bins at the campsite were never searched or tested for traces of DNA. Reports of a suspicious vehicle parked in the vicinity of the campsite was never taken down as official statements and could not be substantiated at a later stage.

Another problem was that Nicky’s murder was committed at the height of the European summer. Local police were running with a bare-bones, skeleton staff, as many officers had taken annual leave over that time. Some officers were inexperienced and not equipped to deal with a case of this magnitude.

The second opinion investigation had more people power and more resources and even though they could not correct mistakes made early-on in the investigation, they could certainly try and gather more evidence that would lead to the arrest of Nicky’s killer.

Besides the camp leader and founder Joos Barten, there were also other suspects in the case. At the time that Nicky and his friends were camping, there was another group from the Rolduc seminary who pitched there tents nearby. A man who had piqued police interest was Rolduc’s chef. He had had indecent contact with a child before and fitted the profile of someone who would do it again. On the morning of Nicky’s disappearance, he was not at the campsite. He also had no alibi for his whereabouts at the time. But before police could find enough evidence to arrest him, he died in 1999.

There was also another person of interest. A man simply referred to as ‘Wim’ was a sex offender from nearby Kerkrade. Various witnesses placed him near De Heikop in a dark coloured vehicle around August 10th. Police questioned him in 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2007, every time after a new witness came forward. But in 2007, Wim did at the age of 64. To the end he said that he had nothing to do with Nicky’s death. 

Someone police could not afford overlook was German serial killer Martin Ney who killed three boys and sexually assaulted at least 40 children between 1992 and 2001. He was known as the “Masked Man” or the “Black Man”, because he wore black clothes and a creepy black mask. He usually found his victims at campsites or in children’s homes. 

De Heikop campsite was located close to the Dutch-German border and one of Ney’s proven crimes was committed in The Netherlands. It was plausible to consider him as a serious suspect when he was caught. However, Martin Ney confessed to all his crimes when he was arrested in 2001. He emphatically denied any involvement in Nicky Verstappen’s murder.

French national Michel Fourniret, also known as ‘The Ogre of the Ardeness’, confessed to killing 11 people in France and Belgium between 1987 and 2001. But his victims were mainly female and ranged from 13 to 30-years-old. After his arrest in 2003, Dutch police interviewed Fourniret about Nicky’s case, but there was nothing linking him to the crime.

German sex offender and child murderer, Marc Hoffmann, was arrested in the town of Stade, north of Bonn in December 2004. It did not seem likely that Hoffmann was the man Dutch police were looking for, but they could not take any chances. In the end, it was proved that he was not in the vicinity of Brunssum in The Netherlands at the time of Nicky’s kidnapping and murder. 

In 2004 Peter R de Vries learnt about new testing techniques in the science of DNA. He  made a public request for police to re-examine the blood specs found on Nicky Verstappen’s clothing. Police said that they would follow up.

A year later, an anonymous person placed letters (that sounded like suicide notes) on Nicky’s memorial in Brunssum, claiming to have been responsible for the murder. Investigators were able to trace the letters to a 36-year-old man, but it turned out to be a false confession. The man was a psychiatric patient who had severe mental health issues. His therapists explained that he had written the letters as a way of getting attention. The man was placed in custody for two weeks for vandalism.

In 2007, Nicky’s memorial was vandalised again and supporters of the Verstappen family replaced it.

A year later, just when it seemed that all hope was lost, police announced that they had found foreign DNA on Nicky’s pyjama pants, as well as his underpants. It was said to be from a hair, saliva or skin, so the exact nature of the sexual abuse was not clear. They had tested the semen in the tissue found near Nicky’s body, but it didn’t match DNA found on Nicky.

Previous suspects were all re-tested, but there were still no matches. They also tested the boys who were in Nicky’s tent, forensic technicians and pathologists to exclude them – they were all excluded.

The Verstappen family felt positive. Even though it seemed like another dead end, what the discovery of the foreign DNA profile actually meant was that there was proof of a male person being in physical contact with Nicky before his death. They could only hope and pray that he would be found before he could hurt anyone else. 

In 2010, Nicky’s sister Femke, who was in her twenties by then, made a public appeal to all male members in the community to participate and have their DNA tested, so the family could have answers. Police had a list of more than 100 men, all of whom were part of the search party and camp management. 

Only 80 of the 114 agreed to provide saliva swabs, which means 30% refused. This was quite a high percentage and Peter de Vries took to the airwaves again to implore people to participate in the tests. He explained that samples would only be used for this investigation, so if people were concerned that past offences like theft or robbery would come up to haunt them, it wouldn’t. It would only be used for the purposes of this case and once it is solved, the samples would be destroyed.

An additional 40 men came forward. Most of them had been tested during the first round of tests in 1998. But the new tests were more comprehensive. Still, there was no match to DNA found on Nicky’s clothes.

In a desperate attempt to find the truth, the remains of Joos Barten were exhumed for testing. There was a momentary moment of hope, as Joos was the strongest suspect throughout the years. To many people’s surprise, the DNA of confirmed paedophile Joos Barten  did not match the DNA on Nicky’s clothes.

In September 2012, the cold case of the murder of Marianne Vaatstra was solved thanks to a mass DNA sweep of 8,000 men. 16-year-old Marianne was raped and murdered near her home in 1999. At first suspicion fell on asylum seekers living in the area, but DNA from blood and semen found at the crime scene, pointed to local farmer, Jasper Steringa. Steringa was arrested in December 2012 and confessed to the murder.

Earlier that same year, Nicky Verstappen’s case was handed to a cold case team. The new investigators on the case vowed to go through the expansive casefile from beginning to end. They identified a group of 1500 men, all of whom had a connection to the area surrounding the campsite we Nicky was last seen. The people on the list were either camp workers, people from the nearby town or registered sex offenders. Again, they were out of luck.

But police were far from giving up. In 2017, they appealed to the public for help again. They requested over 20,000 DNA samples, to perform kinship analysis. This would give them information about family members of the possible killer, which would narrow down the search tremendously. In the end 15,000 people volunteered. This was the biggest DNA dragnet operation in Dutch history. 

It was a long shot, also the very last resort, as there was nothing else left to do. Mass DNA sweeping is a major undertaking and people have raised many ethical questions about it. Most people felt that if they had nothing to hide, but their DNA-profile could assist in solving the murder of a child, co-operating was a no-brainer.

Police notified all the men by mail that they needed fresh DNA samples. If there was no response, police would pay them a visit at home to try and convince them to help. One of the men requested to give a sample, didn’t show up. Police visited his home twice, but he wasn’t there.

According to his family the man had gone to France in February, but he had not been in touch. In April, the man was reported missing by his family. He had been missing from his home in Simpelveld, probably fleeing before police could reach him to take his DNA. 

Police felt uneasy about this man and dug into his past to see who he was. Jos Brech was was 35 years old at the time of Nicky’s murder. He lived with his mother in Simpelveld, about 12 miles (or 20 kilometres) from the campsite. 

He was an active member of the Scouts and often went on camps as a camp leader. He had also worked in childcare in Brunssum for some years.

1985 he was involved in a case of the sexual abuse of two 10-year-old boys. He confessed to the crime, but was not convicted. He only received a two year probation. This mere slap on the wrist meant that his name never made it onto the sex offender’s list. So when police did the DNA sweep of all sex offenders in the area, he went undetected. His name never came up.

Jos Brech was in the direct area of Nicky’s disappearance on the 10th of August 1998. Police stopped him as he was cycling on a road, near the crime scene around midnight on Tuesday 11 August. This was only hours after Nicky’s body was found. In fact, it was around the same time Nicky’s body was taken from the scene to Maastricht for the autopsy. 

When police asked Jos Brech what he was doing out cycling at that hour, he said that he was delivering letters to scout members, as it was too hot in the daytime hours to have done so. As it had been a very hot day, officers found his explanation plausible. When he was questioned at a later stage, he gave a different reason.

In August 1998, the same month as Nicky’s murder, child pornography was found on his home computer, but again, he only received a warning.

Back to the mass DNA sweep of 2017, one of the 15,000 samples given to police came up as a close match. It belonged to a family member of the person who had left a DNA trace on Nicky’s clothing. That person happened to be related to the missing Jos Brech. 

Police knew they were getting closer and asked Brech’s family if he had left behind a toothbrush or a hairbrush, so they could compile a DNA profile. They co-operated with police and gave them some of his personal items.

After 20 painful years, all the hard work finally paid off. In the beginning of June 2018, they hit pay dirt: a 100% match. There was no doubt that Jos Brech’s DNA was on Nicky Verstappen’s clothing when his body was discovered. But they asked investigators to keep the new information quiet, as they did not want to tip the offender off. The low-profile missing person’s case from the town of Simpelveld, had turned into a large scale, international manhunt.

Jos Brech’s last known whereabouts were in the Vosges Mountain-region in the north of France where he lived off the land and worked as a survival expert who led nature expeditions into the mountains. Remember he had years of experience in the Scouts, so he knew what he was doing. Brech did not use his credit cards and he did not use his cell phone, so when he left The Vosges, nobody knew where he had gone. 

Police determined that he had prepared to disappear and live off grid as he had upskilled himself in survival strategies and techniques. His computer search history showed that he was well prepared and he had researched small towns all over Europe, places where Dutch news would not make the airwaves.

Law enforcement decided that the only way to smoke him out of his hiding place, was to appeal for help from the public. They held a press conference on August 22nd,  and announced that DNA samples from belongings and DNA supplied by the man’s relatives matched DNA found on Nicky’s clothing. They also revealed his name: he was 55-year-old Jos Brech. In the Netherlands, it is customary to only use the initial of a surname, due to privacy laws, as a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, this case was an exception, as law enforcement needed help to track him down. 

And they did… One week after the press conference, a Dutch man living in northern Spain recognised Jos Brech’s photo in the newspaper and reported his location to police. He was living in a tent next to a commune house in the village of Castellterçol, north of Barcelona.

On the 26th of August 2018, twenty years after Nicky Verstappen’s murder, Jos Brech was arrested. His identity was confirmed by his passport that was on his person at the time of his arrest. He was extradited to the Netherlands on the 6th of September and made his first court appearance in December.

After the arrest, Peter de Vries celebrated with Nicky Verstappen’s family. There was a great sense of accomplishment and relief. The journalist pointed out a shocking fact, though: Jos Brech was questioned in 2001 about his presence near the crime scene on the night that Nicky’s body was discovered. That is less than two years into the investigation. The casefile notes that Brech blandly stated: 

“Yes, I can imagine why you’d want to speak to me, because I have had some brushes with the law in the past – in connection with child abuse.”

Why was this not followed up on, or a DNA sample taken? He was not on the sex offenders list, but he had effectively placed himself on it. Police should have flagged him back then already.

The trial commenced in Maastricht in December 2018. Jos Brech was charged with manslaughter, not murder. Manslaughter is a lesser charge, because there is not enough evidence to show that the murder was pre-meditated, as it would be in a murder case.


Berthie, Peetje and Femke were in court: they wanted look the beast who had taken Nicky from them in the eyes. Berthie could not contain herself and shouted at Brech: 

“Look at me! Look at me!” 

He turned his head away from her and looked down at his feet.

Prosecution presented their most damning evidence. Hair belonging to Jos Brech was found on Nicky Verstappen’s pants. They did not know each other and there was no reason for the presence of Brech’s DNA other than him being the man who killed Nicky.

The Defence argued that Brech’s hair could have been in the woods, on the ground or on the trees, as that was a location where he trained and practiced his survival skills. Defence attorney, Gerald Roethof, stated that there was a fight in the tent of Nightriders on the night of the 9th of August. The fight became physical and a couple of slaps and punches were thrown. Nicky said that he was going to run off, which is what he must have done. 

Then a shocking statement:

“Children walk away, just like [Nicky’s] sister who once ran away from the primary school she hated. Another fact of life: sometimes children just die.”

This caused an audible reaction from Nicky’s parents and their supporters in court. To insinuate that Nicky simply walked off and died was complete nonsense.

Jos Brech refused to make a statement to explain how his DNA came to be on Nicky’s clothing. In court, he said that he did not murder Nicky. He said:

“I am very well aware that this must be extremely difficult for the family, his loss and death. That must be painful and cause a lot of grief. That must be difficult, but I also find it difficult to hear the facts of what I’m accused of, and to see that I’m in prison because of it. I’ve said before: I’m not the person who kidnapped Nicky, murdered him or abused him. However, I am guilty of sourcing and watching child pornography on my computer.”

Jos Brech was not granted parole and was ordered to stay in remand. He was in court again as recent as the 9th of March of this year. He still maintained his innocence, but Dutch authorities were not going to take any chances. Brech will remain in custody until his hearing in the fall, later this year. The Evidence Locker will follow this case and keep you updated as it progresses. We can only hope that the Verstappen family will find justice for Nicky after 20 painful years.

Nicky’s family may have some answers, but will they ever have closure? As Nicky’s friends grow older and live their lives, their son will be forever 11-years-old. Hundreds of unanswered questions haunt them daily: would he have grown up to live his dream of becoming a professional soccer player? They have been scarred and have lost their faith in humanity. How could they trust anyone after what had happened to their beautiful boy? 

Femke Verstappen, who is a grown woman with a child of her own, carries on her mother’s  tradition of lighting a candle for Nicky every day and always having fresh flowers in her home.

Nicky’s dad, Peter Verstappen, said that Peter R de Vries was the most important person in bringing a solution to Nicky’s case, as he never forgot about it, and he would not let anyone forget. He put pressure on law enforcement and used any opportunity he could to keep the story in the news.

After Nicky’s death, his idol, Jari Litmanen sent a signed soccer jersey to his family. It was displayed in Nicky’s room for a while, along with all his Ajax things. After some time, the family decided to give the jersey to Peter de Vries, as a gesture to thank him for all his support. Peter kept the jersey from in his office to remind him of Nicky for all these years. Even when the trial is over, he will keep it there to remind him of the bright and happy kid he only got to know when it was already too late.

If you’d like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes. 

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