Suspect in 1998 murder of Dutch boy arrested after mass DNA testing
The Guardian, UK: A suspect in the murder of an 11-year-old Dutch schoolboy 20 years ago has been arrested in Spain after a Europe-wide manhunt triggered by the Netherlands’ largest ever DNA testing programme.
Jos Brech, a former scout leader and playgroup worker, was detained on Sunday afternoon, police in southern Limburg province said, adding that the 55-year-old “was taken into custody and will be returned to the Netherlands”.
Dutch authorities placed Brech on Europol’s list of the continent’s most wanted fugitives last week after announcing significant evidence that they said amounted to a important breakthrough in the case.
Investigators said advanced analysis had revealed Brech’s DNA was a “perfect one-for-one match” with traces found on the body of Nicky Verstappen, who was reported missing from a summer camp near the German border on 10 August 1998.
De Telegraaf newspaper Brech near “a kind of commune” outside the village of Castellterçol, about 30 miles north of Barcelona, reportedly while he was out collecting firewood.
The paper said it had been called on Saturday by a Dutch national visiting the isolated, wooded area who had recognised Brech from police photographs.
“The witness had spoken to Brech on several occasions and had specific information,” Telegraaf crime reporter Marcel Vink told the Dutch national broadcaster NOS. “He wanted to do his civic duty, and had details I could reasonably check.”
Dutch media reported that Brech, the chief suspect in an unsolved murder that has held the Netherlands in thrall for two decades, had been living partly under canvas and partly in an abandoned building on the site. Brech is a survival expert used to living for extended periods in the wild.
Johan Mees, a fellow bushcraft enthusiast who knew Brech well and found his laptop in a cabin he had used earlier this year in the mountainous Vosges region of France, told NOS that in the weeks before his disappearance the suspect had carried out several online searches for deserted villages in Spain.
Nicky’s body, which showed signs of sexual assault, was found in woodland a few miles from the camp in the Brunssummerheide nature reserve the day after his disappearance. Despite an intensive and heavily publicised manhunt at the time, police failed to identify a suspect.
Following recent rapid advances in DNA analysis, however, Dutch authorities appealed in May last year for some 20,000 men in the Limburg area to come forward and provide samples for a mass testing programme. Almost 15,000 did so.
Brech, who left the Netherlands in October last year and in February told his family he was on an extended wilderness hiking trip in the mountainous Vosges region of eastern France, was not among the volunteers.
But the DNA of a close relative showed enough similarities with the 1998 sample to flag him as a potential suspect. He was formally reported missing in April, and following a search of his home forensic scientists successfully lifted DNA from his pyjamas. It also emerged that Brech, who at the time of Nicky’s death lived with his mother 13km away from the campsite, had been questioned three times during the inquiry – including two days after the murder, when he was stopped close to the crime scene after midnight. But although his name was recorded, he was never considered a suspect.
A video released by the Dutch crime watch TV show Opsporing Verzocht said Brech, who was briefly a suspect in a separate 1985 sexual assault case, was an experienced woodsman and survivalist who frequently used natural hiding places, mountain huts and caves for shelter when on his treks.
“This is someone who often takes a long time to respond to emails, does not seek contact often and, because he has no mobile phone or social media accounts, us used to being unreachable for long periods,” police said last week.