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Guardian Weekend – It Happened Again

In a Belgian suburb, as crisp and tidy as cotton sheets, Marc Dutroux built a dungeon. Fastidiously constructed in the basement of an unexceptional home in the winter of 1994 it was a little more than two metres long and a little less than a metre wide. The unemployed electrician calculated that by laminating the walls with layers of cement and bricks he could soak up the sounds of the children he planned to lock inside.

By mid-1995 it was finished. Dutroux incised a small air vent. None of his captives should suffocate accidentally. Everything and everyone, his prey and co-conspirators, had to submit to his will. When events ran away from Dutroux or came under the control of accomplices who were less fastidious, the consequences were spectacular and terrifying – as the Belgian police would later discover while digging in the backyard of one of Dutroux’s houses in the south of the country.

But it was the entrance to Dutroux’s secret dungeon of which he was ‘truly proud’, recalled Sabine Dardenne, a 12-year-old who survived 80 degrading days locked inside. A sturdy set of shelves had been built and then stacked with the musty accoutrements of a basement storeroom – jam jars, paint cans and stiffening brushes – before being bolted to a hinged sheet of heavy concrete that swung across the opening to the dungeon like an imperceptible and muffling bung. Its design was indicative of the fastidiousness of the campaign that was about to be unleashed, (six girls abducted from all over Belgium, to be held captive in shackles, filmed while they were sexually abused, four of whom would die).

A concealed dungeon, a trick door, and an impending hunt for child victims, everything about the charnel house that Dutroux built was unconscionable, dumbfounding and melodramatic. According to psychiatrists who would interview him after his arrest in 1996, fantasy and fact were all the same to him. He borrowed from both to create a repugnant drama whose aftershocks are still felt keenly, especially in one Belgian city, in this particular year and month – that marks a decade since Marc Dutroux’s crimes were first exposed.

For the people of Liege, 70 miles east of Brussels, August 13, 1996 is an important day to commemorate. Back then police armed with the fragment of a number plate glimpsed by a witness to one of Detroux’s abductions arrived at his home in Sars-la-Buissiere, a town near Charleroi. They arrested a predator who had hunted for victims in the lanes of the ancient city of Liege, the capital of the Francophone Wallonia region of Belgium, a settlement that was built on murder 1,301 years ago when St Lambert, a tireless converter of pagans was seized and killed by an unknown assassin.

Two of Dutroux’s victims, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, were both eight when they vanished while cycling down a Liege street on June 24, 1995. Pictures of the two gap-toothed pony-tailed girls were posted across Belgium and for more than a year the country was consumed by their disappearance. Then on August 17, 1996, three days after his arrest, Dutroux led police to his house in Sars-la-Buissiere, one of seven properties he owned, and pointed to where the girls were buried.

What heightened the distress felt by the people of Liege and the grieving families was that Dutroux insisted he had only captured Julie and Melissa as temporary sex slaves and was planning to set them free. Beside their bodies in the garden at Sars-la-Buissiere, police also discovered the corpse of Bernard Weinstein. Dutroux had been forced to bring in Weinstein to help with the girls when in December 1995 he had to give himself up to serve a three-month sentence for car theft. A raddled junkie, Weinstein had forgotten to feed the captives and when Dutroux was released he found that Julie and Melissa had starved to death. Incandescent Dutroux drugged the stoned Weinstein before crushing his testicles, burying him alive besides the bodies of the young Liege captives who had been allowed to die too soon.

Today, Julie and Melissa’s bodies have been re-interred in a joint grave on a grassy slope overlooking Liege’s private airport. ‘The world will not forget two little innocents, the martyrs of their time, who could do nothing else that watch the world in agony,’ their epitaph reads, and besides are the scores of cards and alabaster plaques that decry the sadistic killing. The huge black headstone, engraved with photographic likenesses, remains buffed and tended, surrounded by fresh tributes, recently placed bouquets and wreaths that testify to how strongly Liege still feels about their needless deaths.

But while the anniversary of Dutroux’s capture will forever haunt the people of Liege, it is another, more recent and almost identical crime that has served to heighten feelings in the city this summer. On June 9, 2006 garrulous step-sisters Stacy Lemmens, 7, and Nathalie Mahy, 10, disappeared during a Friday night braderie, a local street party thrown in the poor St Leonard district of Liege, bounded to the south by La Meuse River where the Quai St Leonard once serviced the barges carrying steel and coal before the industry collapsed. St Leonard and Grace-Hollogne, the suburb where Julie and Melissa had lived and from where they were snatched by Dutroux, were barely 10 miles apart.

Catherine Dizier, 40, Nathalie’s mother, and her boyfriend Thierry Lemmens, 35, Stacy’s father, had been close by, drinking at the Aux Armuriers cafe and the girls had been last seen playing on a bouncy castle outside. But to make things a little uncomfortable and untidy, Catherine and Thierry were drunk and had failed to notice that their girls had gone missing until the early hours of Saturday morning.

For the second time in a decade everyone in Liege spilled out onto the streets to search for two missing little girls. Posters showing two smiling faces went up all over the city again, especially in Grace-Hollogne where residents plastered the streets, feeling a special connection to Nathalie and Stacy – even though the girls had never visited that area. But by Sunday night not a single eye-witness to the girls’ disappearance had been found. Like Julie and Melissa 11 years earlier, Nathalie and Stacy had simply vanished without trace.

A rising feeling of dread began to seep through the streets of Liege. Children in Belgium were supposed to be safe after reforms prompted by the Dutroux case. Comparisons between the two incidents were voiced immediately. A national tabloid La Derniere Heure carried a black front page on Monday, June 12, with two large photos of Nathalie and Stacy beneath the headline ‘Belgium is Afraid’.

In the margins of the Dutroux case a decade ago a particularly sordid and frightening shadow had been glimpsed the courts or police never adequately investigated that. Dutroux had always insisted that he had not acted alone but was in the pay of a European paedophile circle backed by powerful and influential Belgian establishment figures. There was only scant evidence to support his allegation but events would conspire to give credence to it.

Judge Marc Connerotte, in charge of the Dutroux inquiry, offered anonymity to witnesses who came forward, opening the so-called Belgian ‘x’ files, with testimony from 11 witness who described how senior police, a judge and politicians had participated in a paedophile network. Investigators verified critical elements of their stories leading them to re-open an unsolved murder case, involving a teenage girl. But on October 10, 1996, as the investigation began to gain traction, Judge Connerotte was controversially dismissed after attending a fund raising dinner for the families of missing children.

His replacement, Jacques Langlois, immediately closed down the inquiry into a wider network, claiming it diverted attention away from the Dutroux case. He also refused repeated requests from victims’ families to analyse more than 6,000 hair samples discovered in the Dutroux dungeon.

Maybe another member of Dutroux’s circle, who had slipped the net last time around, had struck again this year in Liege. On Tuesday, June 13, 2006 Le Derniere Heure carried ‘the last photo’, a grainy shot taken with a mobile phone of Nathalie and Stacy jumping on a bouncy castle. Inside, beneath photographs of their weeping parents, was the simple headline: ‘Nathalie and Stacy: the terrible agony of waiting’. The parents of Julie and Melissa had waited for more than a year before learning of their daughter’s fates. Would Catherine Dizier, the mother of Nathalie, and Thierry Lemmens, the father of Stacy, be forced to wait that long too? The newspaper summarised how the city was feeling with a headline: ‘The spectre of Dutroux.’
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