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17,500 Dutchmen Gave Their DNA in a Murder Inquiry. After 20 Years, an Arrest.

A practice known as familial DNA profiling, in which investigators take samples from potential relatives of a suspect, has led to the resolution of two major Dutch cold murder cases.

© Piroschka Van Der Wouw/EPA, via Shutterstock The grave of 11-year-old Nicky Verstappen in Heilbloem.

By MILAN SCHREUER, The New York Times
BRUSSELS

For 20 years, the Dutch police investigated the rape and murder of an 11-year-old schoolboy, and the Dutch news media chronicled the case’s many twists and turns.

Now, after an investigation in which 17,500 Dutchmen voluntarily took part in DNA profiling, a suspect has been arrested in Spain.

The boy, Nicky Verstappen, had attended a summer camp at a nature reserve in the southern Netherlands in 1998. On a night that August, he left his tent and never returned. His body, pajama-clad and barefoot, was discovered the next day, hidden in a dense pine forest about a mile away. He had been raped and killed.

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DNA found on the boy’s clothes was of male origin. But no samples in Dutch and international criminal databases matched it. Nor did hundreds of samples initially taken from men living near the nature reserve and from men linked to Nicky or the camp.

A Dutch law passed in 2012 allowed for a practice known as familial DNA profiling, which involves taking DNA samples from people who could potentially be relatives of a suspect, based on geographic and social profiles.

The hope, said Nicky Jansen, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Forensic Institute, which carried out the analysis, is that “if the DNA of a volunteer shows any familial relationship to the suspect’s DNA, investigators can identify the suspect by analyzing the volunteer’s family tree.”

The technique has since led to the resolution of two major Dutch cold murder cases, Ms. Jansen said.

It also opened new doors for the investigation into the murder of Nicky Verstappen. In 2013, a Dutch prosecutor ordered two new DNA sampling investigations based on the DNA found on Nicky’s clothes: the voluntary sampling of up to 21,500 Dutchmen based on familial profiling, and the obligatory sampling of 1,500 men of special interest to the case.

“This was the biggest DNA investigation in the Netherlands so far, and we’re proud of it,” said Judith Verbaan, a spokeswoman for the regional police of Limburg, the Netherlands’ southernmost province, where Nicky was killed.

Eventually, 17,500 Dutchmen volunteered to have cells swiped from the inside of their mouths to provide DNA for the investigation. None matched the original sample.

Yet when one person of special interest — Jos Brech, a 55-year-old Dutchman who had been missing since last April — failed to show up for obligatory sampling this year, investigators dug deeper.

At the time of the murder, Mr. Brech lived with his mother about 10 miles from the scene of the crime. A former scout, an outdoorsman and a children’s camp organizer, Mr. Brech was also cited in a sexual offense case in 1985, investigators said. And in the days after Nicky’s body was found, Mr. Brech was seen walking by the camp site and was questioned by the police, though he was never arrested or officially listed as a suspect.

But when the police took DNA samples from Mr. Brech’s family members and from his old clothes at his mother’s home as part of the new investigation, and pulled DNA from a parallel inquiry into his disappearance, all three samples matched the DNA found on Nicky’s pajamas in 1998.

Last week, investigators publicized the suspect’s identity. And within days, a “golden tip” led them to an abandoned house on a hill near Castellter├žol, a tiny town on the outskirts of Barcelona, said Ms. Verbaan, the police spokeswoman. The Spanish police arrested Mr. Brech there on Sunday.

The Spanish authorities said they had arrested him while he was cutting wood in a field. Among his belongings were survival items like fishing instruments, a book on edible wild plants, dried food, boots and mountain gear, and batteries, the police said.

Mr. Brech is a member of a Dutch bushcraft club, where members share experiences about living in the wild. Since he went missing this April, investigators said, Mr. Brech had lived in outdoor shelters and in abandoned houses across Western Europe.

The Dutch public prosecutor’s office said it expects Mr. Brech to be extradited soon — within a week if he cooperates, officials said. If he appeals, a Spanish judge will have 90 days to rule on the extradition.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Nicky’s mother, Bertie Verstappen, thanked the Dutch authorities, investigators, the news media and in particular a Dutch crime journalist, Peter de Vries, for having continued to ask questions over the years.

“I don’t dare to call names, out of fear to forget someone, but all those people who gave DNA, who looked around, who called around, I am so grateful to them,” she said tearfully of Mr. Brech’s arrest. “Now, I hope he will talk, so we’ll get answers to our questions.”

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World News: 17,500 Dutchmen Gave Their DNA in a Murder Inquiry. After 20 Years, an Arrest.
17,500 Dutchmen Gave Their DNA in a Murder Inquiry. After 20 Years, an Arrest.
A practice known as familial DNA profiling, in which investigators take samples from potential relatives of a suspect, has led to the resolution of two major Dutch cold murder cases.
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