Iris van den Hooff’s suicide seems less likely following autopsy

A short while back René Diekstra argued that for any death where suicide is suspected but a small amount of doubt might exist, a forensic autopsy would be useful in determining cause of death. He explicitly argued that cause of death (homicide, suicide, accident, or natural causes) cannot be determined by method of dying (e.g. hanging, stabbing, shooting, etc.).

On July 6th earlier this year, Iris van den Hooff was found hanging in her apartment in Groningen. Within 24 hours the police and the public attorney conclude that Iris committed suicide. Yet neighbours heard a fight in her apartment and Iris had been received threatening notes. This made Iris’ family suspicious of her alleged suicide.

The public attorney refused to consider reopening the case, so Iris’ family with their lawyer Richard Korver to the mayor to request her body be exhumed for a forensic autopsy. Something the police and the public attorney did not deem necessary as it was “just” a suicide and therefore not a matter for further criminal investigation. The mayor granted the family the rights to exhume her.

Today Richard Korver revealed that the forensic autopsy does not support the conclusion of suicide. He does suspect a homicide.The public attorney still does not see any reason to reopen the case. To force the public attorney to properly investigate Iris’ death, Korver started an article 12-procedure: a request to the court to order the public attorney to investigate the case. This is the only legal route someone has in the Netherlands to reopen/start an investigation. This option is not cheap (cost for lawyers, court, forensic expert, etc.) which means that most people won’t be able to fight a conclusion of the police and public attorney. Iris’ friends and family therefore have started a fundraiser.

Update 2014.11.26 – There are indications crucial evidence might have already been destroyed by the police and public attorney, including her ripped clothes and dog leash she was found with.

Charges pressed against senior police officer in Talitha’s ‘suicide’

A short while ago I wrote a piece about the suspicious “suicide” of Talitha. Today, Wednesday, November 19th, the saga continues. According to a news report the lawyer of Talitha’s family, Sébas Diekstra, has pressed charges against a senior police officer. Near the body of Talitha the police found a note. According to the senior police officer the note contained times at which the train would depart for the nearby town of Heerhugowaard as well as the route which she needed to walk from the train station to the location just outside Heerhugowaard where she was found. There is also mention of a fence near this remote location.

After some time Talitha’s family received the note. To their surprise the note did not contain a route description or any mention of a fence. It did have times for the train to Heerhugowaard, but these times were for a different than April 16/17th, 2013.

For the police this note was their ‘smoking gun’. It would explain why Talitha took a 1.5 hour train ride to a town she doesn’t know well and walk for 30 minutes to a remote location to commit suicide. The various bruises on her body were ignored, even though these were estimated to have been obtained minutes or hours before her death and not a consequence of having been run-over by a train.

Now Diekstra has taken official steps to try to move the public attorney’s office (Openbaar Ministerie) to prosecute a senior police officer for perjury by filing an official police report (proces verbaal) with the police. Even if Diekstra is correct with his assertions and he has all the evidence to make the case for the police as straightforward as possible, I would be extremely sceptical if the pressed charges would be followed up by a police investigation and subsequent prosecution by the public attorney.

Saint Nicolas and Black Petes are back with a vengeance

A while back I wrote a piece about the Dutch children’s tradition of celebrating Saint Nicolas and his helper Black Pete. About the latter one, Black Pete, a rather violent discussion is currently raging in the Netherlands. About a year ago the latest discussion ensued. It even went up as far the UN. One Dutch judge made it illegal for Saint Nicolas to parade around Amsterdam with Black Petes and then another judge overturned the initial ruling. The extreme-right political part of Geert Wilders wants to make a law guaranteeing that Black Pete remains black. In short, the Black Pete discussion will continue to rage on for some time.

The celebration of Saint Nicolas starts with his arrival by steamboat all the way from Spain. After a few weeks of touring the Netherlands he quietly returns to Spain right after he gave all the good kids their presents on the eve of December 5th. His arrival by steamboat is a big event. Often thousands of kids (and their parents/guardians) will line the streets to get a glimpse of Saint Nicolas and maybe a handful candy from one of the many Black Petes who accompanied Saint Nicolas.

Today, November 15th, was his arrival in the Netherlands and the town of Gouda was the scene of many happy children. As the discussion around Black Pete has been going on for a while, a group of people came to demonstrate against the character of Black Pete. They perceive his character to embody a negative stereotype of black people. For some reason today’s protest did not go smoothly and resulted in at least 90 people being arrested [BBC report]. 60 for demonstrating in a non-assigned area (they were not allowed at the celebration sites) and 30 for disorderly conduct. One of the people arrested was the journalist Sunny Bergman, who is in the process of making a movie critiquing Black Peter, and her camera was convincated as well. Shortly after her arrest the camera was returned to her employer.

This event has elisitated a response from both Saint Nicolas himself as well as the Dutch Prime Minister. Where Saint Nicolas says that all will be fine and not to worry as he embodies a fatherly figure. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was less fatherly in his response. He remarked that he was saddened that a children’s party was disturbed and he hopes that this won’t happen for the remainder of the Saint Nicolas celebrations.

It is apparent that the discussion about the role and physical appearance of Black Pete as part of the Saint Nicolas celebrations evoke many emotions on both sides of the aisle. Except for a very small group, the role of Saint Nicolas is not in contention nor is the celebration itself. Whereas one group argues that Black Pete represents a racist stereotype based on his appearance and the role of the Netherlands in the transatlantic slave-trade. The other group, pro-Black Petr, argues that Black Pete is an integral part of the Saint Nicolas celebration and there is nothing racist about him. He needs to be black, but is not a stereotype. Video’s such as the one below, where the character Black Pete is introduced to a non-Dutch crowd in London, are ridiculed. “These foreigners don’t understand our tradition, so why should be listen to them.” Overall the arguments made by the pro-Black Pete group sound to me like a provincial attitude. Almost isolationist-like. Responding from the gut without taking a second to consider alternative viewpoints (sort of like a national version of the psychological phenomenon of groupthink). This quickly creates an entrenched position which can only upheld by even more extreme comments, such as the PVV wanting to make law demanding Black Petes always be black. This behaviour strongly contradicts how the Dutch economy is heavily dependent on trade with the same silly foreigners. Pretending that foreign opinions don’t exist or matter to you is rather naïve.

It would also be very naïve to assume that there is little to no racism is day-to-day life in the Netherlands. Just like people in the US will become more vigilant if they see a small group of black youth standing at a corner, Dutch people will become more vigilant when they see a small group of youth of Turkish- or Moroccan-descent. The Dutch even invented a word to describe someone of not 100% Dutch origin: allochtoon. Racism is also about stereotyping minorities. It doesn’t matter if this is done with malintent or even consciously. The guise of tradition does not justify stereotyping. When considering the historical position of the Netherlands with regards to black people (establishing settlements or participating in the transatlantic slave-trade) an aware posture would be expected, yet we see the opposite when it comes to Saint Nicolas and Black Pete.

The comments of the mayor Milo Schoenmaker of Gouda, who also functioned as the host of Saint Nicolas, were very typical: “it were outsiders who came to to us to cause ruckus”. The old bogeyman argument. Back in 2011 when UC Davis police pepper sprayed several students, the chancellor used identical arguments. In that case the initial handling of the event was extremely poor. As the mayor is in charge of the police, it is important to know why 60 demonstrators were able to mingle with celebratory crowd in the first place. Of course it is tempting to be cynical about these arrests as all 90 people were charged with a € 220 fine, which mean they expect to receive €19,800 (or $24,795).

With what I have learned I have to revise my former position. I will celebrate Saint Nicolas, but the Black Pete part I will leave out, at least as a Black Pete. It is not so much that Black Pete is an established part of the celebration for the last 150 years. It stereotypes the black population in the Netherlands, which is wrong. Revising the looks of Black Pete would be one way of resolving the issue, as well as changing his name to for instance Pete the Helper. I doubt the kids will care what Pete the Helper looks like, as an argument of the pro-Black Pete camp is.

Doubt about another ‘suicide’ in the Netherlands

There are moments when you go through your regular breakfast of news feeds that you see an article that looks too familiar. Too familiar as in “I’ve seen such type of news before”. You are not shocked per se, but you are disappointed to read about it … again. Then you realize another family is going through the pains you have been through and are still going through.

Today, November 6th, was such a day.

As I scrolled through De Telegraaf website I noticed a headline I dread to read: “Investigation into Talitha’s death one big mess” [Nederlands | English]. On April 17th last year Talitha was killed by a train. Sadly enough a far too common method of suicide. The driver recalled seeing Talitha laying motionless on the track as he approached her. The assistant public attorney (hulpofficier van justitie), the detective who is in charge of the investigation on location, immediately assumed it was an obvious case of suicide. Subsequently, the surroundings of the ‘crime scene’ were not investigated. The forensic doctor (schouwarts) was not able to establish either suicide or homicide, yet no autopsy was requested.

The qualifications / quality of their work of both the assistant public attorney and forensic doctor have recently been publicly questioned. The lawyer Sébas Diekstra (I don’t know if he is family of psychologist René Diekstra) of the family of Talitha argues that the problem in this particular case lays with the former. So he wrote a letter of complaint to the head public attorney Bob Steensma.

The arguments of Diekstra show striking similarities to ours. Yes, suicide cannot be excluded, but the investigation performed does not support such a conclusion. In fact it does support a conclusion at all. A general lack of professional interest by the DA seems apparent in both cases: Talitha’s name was consistently misspelled in official documents, as was the case with Eline’s name misspelled at various moments.

Besides the legal expertise of lawyer Diekstra, Talitha’s family asked the forensic expertise of Mandy van Geuns. Let’s hope their complaint to the head public attorney Bob Steensma will be successful, although past events do not instill much hope.

Again, a family is forced to go through the long and difficult route of fighting the conclusions of the Dutch public attorney’s office. With every media coverage they will be forced to re-live the horrors of what happened to their beloved Talitha. With every request from the media for an exclusive coverage moment they will ask themselves: how much longer do we have to fight before we are taken seriously by the public attorney? Why not just give in because we ‘know’ what happened, even when in reality you don’t. Just for the thought of not having to fight the public attorney’s office anymore. For not having to read Talitha’s in the media anymore. For not having to read the comments ranging from supportive, to personal attacks, to “you are just relatives who just can’t accept that Talitha committed suicide”. The temptation to give up the fight is all too real. Yet, I am glad that one more family has decided to take on the fight to contest the conclusion of swift suicide by the Dutch police and public attorney. I feel for them. I feel for them having lost a loved one. I feel for them that they feel forced to have to go this route. I wish them all the strength and stubbornness they need for this fight. Every suspicious death should be investigated thoroughly. After all, homicide is one of the worst crimes anyone can encounter.

Coincidentally right next to Talitha’s article was article about the Dutch police restarting an investigation into several suspicious deaths [Nederlands | English] near psychiatric hospital Parnassia. After the sixth death found on the premise of the hospital, the police started an initial investigation earlier this year. Quickly a suspect was identified, but after failing to obtain the medical files, the police halted its investigation. Now a man has come forward who suspects his brother might be the suspect. The first death, seven years ago, was their mother, Tineke Verhagen.

Looking at previous cases discussed on this blog and these two recent cases, it is very tempting to think that the Dutch police has little interest in engaging in labor-intensive investigations. Let’s hope this is just a false notion.

Update 2014.11.09 – Both newspaper De Telegraaf and local TV station RTvNH report that the Public Attorney’s Office claims to have done a thorough investigation into the death of Talitha. This is not a surprising comment from the public attorney’s office. I have heard such comments from the Public Attorney’s Office before, including in the case of my sister’s death. Of course on August 17th we learned that the public attorney’s office will review Eline’s case after they reminded us multiple times they had done a thorough investigation.

Local Dutch newspaper discuss need for psychological autopsies

Quote

Yesterday, Tuesday September 23rd and today Wednesday September 24th several articles were published in various local newspapers including De Gelderlander, De Stentor, Brabants Dagblad, Tubantia, BN DeStem, Eindhovens Dagblad, PZC, and De Limburger / Limburgs Dagblad discussing various cases where the local police swiftly called a death a suicide. All these local newspapers have a national editorial staff named De Persdienst. In an earlier post I talked about a column of psychologist René Diekstra. He wrote one of the three articles published [Dutch | English] and he was interviewed for another [Dutch | English]. The third article was an interview by Peter Winterman [twitter | De Persdienst | LinkedIn] with my parents about Eline’s death [Dutch | English].

Joep Timmermans, the lawyer of Mart, reiterated that “he does not agree with the factual and judicial accusations that again have been made against his client. Also, his client finds it very hurtful that incorrect information about his role, involvement, and person are being spread. Without going into detail: none of the accusations have merit.” Of course Mart has every right to defend himself against any defamation or slander, especially if this behinders him in his daily functioning. Afterall, the Netherlands is a democracy, which means that you are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This also means that Mart has absolutely no obligation to incriminate himself.

But how do you prevent any fingerpointing to Mart In this particular case? I think it is neigh impossible to not make a logical connection between Eline’s death and Mart, as Mart was the only other person present when Eline “committed suicide”. Simply by questioning suicide-by-stabbing, you invariably imply that Mart must have been actively involved, whether or not you intend to or not. If Mart therefore feels cornered as he described in his interview in De Limburger [Dutch | English] on December 31st, 2012, I can understand and sympathise with his feelings. Especially if a thorough police investigation confirms the swift first conclusion of suicide to be correct. It is this swift first conclusion of suicide that we question.

As I described earlier suicide can indeed not be excluded, but the statistics make Eline’s self-inflicted death not very plausible, thus a thorough police investigation is most certainly warranted. I do not consider an investigation of less than 36 hours a thorough investigation, especially when the Sittard police assumes suicide hours after finding Eline’s body. Ergo our call to the public attorneys office to re-open the case.

The column and interview by and with psychologist René Diesktra bring forth three additional cases where the police were very quick in concluding suicide, yet no indication was found that the police ever launched a thorough investigation. This does not appear to be because of lack of indications of foul play. Once the Dutch police suspect a suicide and label a ‘crime’ scene as such, little to no effort is made by the police to try to contradict its own suspicion. You could call this is a form of tunnel-vision or confirmation bias as described by the Posthuma Commission following the Schiedammer Parkmoord. The Dutch police is further supported by the public attorney’s office (Openbaar Ministerie) who simply state that there is no time to investigate all suicides. To quote DA-spokesperson Désirée Wilhelm: “When it appears to be a suicide, the case is closed for us. (…) When there is doubt about the cause of death we do an as thorough an investigation as possible.”

To me it seems that René Diekstra is correct to advocate for mandatory psychological autopsies for any suspicious ‘suicide’ or any suicide by a younger person. I like to add an addendum to Diekstra’s suggestion. If there is a second person present at a suicide, a psychological autopsy/survey of this person also has to be mandated. This all can become part of a much needed overhaul of the Dutch forensic investigation procedures. Very few forensic autopsies (340 in 2012) are performed in the Netherlands and a recent report by the Dutch tv-program Brandpunt showed that too often the forensic doctor (schouwarts) who is called to a crime scene does not follow protocol and provides poor advice to the investigating police and public attorney. (Quick note: a forensic doctor only does an “quick” external inventory, whereas a forensic pathologist performs a full internal and external autopsy.) It can only be expected that many homicides go unnoticed in the Netherlands because of systematic laziness and unwillingness by the authorities to invest in thorough homicide investigations. Ironically the forensic pathologist who performed Eline’s autopsy, Frank van de Goot, has been saying this for years.

Psychologist René Diekstra argues for psychological autopsies for suspicious suicides. I agree.

On Monday August 25th the renowned Dutch psychologist René Diekstra [personal website] wrote a column for the local newspaper Noordhollands Dagblad about three cases where young women died and subsequently the police swiftly concluded these to be suicides. Yet their respective families argue different and face an uphill battle to get the recognition and corresponding action from the authorities, more specifically the public attorney’s office (Openbaar Ministerie). Here is the original piece in Dutch [in pdf just in case] and below is my translation.
Noordhollands Dagblad
By René Diekstra
August 25th, 2014 10:00am
Last update: August 25th, 2014 10:00am

Three deceased daughters 

There are this moment in our country at least three sets of parents who are struggling with intense problems. All three have lost a daughter. According to the police and public attorney’s office all three daughters committed suicide. But each of these sets of parents question these conclusions. They have taken action to get their daughter’s death re-investigated.

Both the authorities, psychiatrists, and psychologists are tempted to ascribe such behaviour by the relatives as expression of having trouble accepting that a loved one has died. Yet, there is more than meets the eye with these three deceased daughters.

First this. As far as I know it is not normal for the police or the public attorney’s office to request a psychological autopsy or a ‘regular’ forensic autopsy in cases where there is suspicion, but no certainty, of suicide.

Even though years ago former colleagues, such as Prof. Speyer and myself, argued for such psychological autopsies. We even developed a protocol. The consequence of non-action by the authorities has led to various insufficiently supported claims of suicide and thus subsequent (criminal, red.) investigations were never performed.

Furthermore it is not uncommon for two things to be mixed up, namely ‘mechanism of dying’ (arterial bleeding or suffocation) and ’cause of death’ (how did someone die). There are four causes: natural causes, accident, homicide, and suicide.

The golden rule for psychological autopsies is that the ’cause of death’ cannot be determined from the ‘mechanism of dying’. Both need to be independently investigated by respective experts. Someone can be found hanging in a bedroom, but the question how the person got there (suicide, homicide, or accident (think of erotic auto-asphyxiation) is thereby not answered.

Systematic investigation of someones psychological history, behavioural patterns, recent hardships, and documents that were left behind (diary, farewell letter) will help in determining the most likely cause of death.

No psychological autopsy was performed on Eline Melters (23) who found dead in 2009 on a grassy knoll in Limburg. The official conclusion of suicide is therefore insufficiently supported. The same can be said about Iris van den Hooff (23) who was recently found in her home. Also for a ‘third’ deceased daughter, whose name I have omitted upon request, little proof to support the conclusion of suicide was given.

It is my humble opinion that the public attorney’s office fails to consider the ramifications of quickly establishing an unexplained death as a suicide. Not only does this mean that a murderer continues to roam the streets, it also causes great confusion and distress for those left behind.

When you have never noticed anything ‘suicidal’ about your daughter, yet the authorities conclude that anyway, how much do you start doubting yourself and how well you knew your daughter? Possible forever.

A fourth case can also be added to this list, namely the initially presumed suicide of Michelle Mooij. She was found hanging in her apartment in January 2010 and the police directly assumed it had to be a suicide. Her parents did not trust the former boyfriend who was present in the apartment when it happened and filed an article 12-procedure, which they won. Now the public attorney has decided to charge the former boyfriend and a court case is pending. More than four years after her death.

The position taken by the public attorney’s office, police, psychiatrists, and psychologists with regards to families who question the conclusion of suicide also holds true for most judges in the Netherlands. After all, victims of crime and relatives of victims are just very emotional and only want revenge and loads of money to soften their pain. Anyone who has been victim of crime or is a relative of a victim knows this is only true for a very small portion of us. In general I would say that of course we would like to see justice (not revenge). Part of justice is that similar cases do not happen again or happen substantially less frequent. That we, as a collective, learn from past mistakes. Justice. Nothing more.

I can only agree with the arguments of René Diekstra that any suicide where there is (the slightest) suspicion of foul play a psychological autopsy is mandated. Currently, something similar is done for about 220 suspects per year upon court order where the suspect is placed in a closed observation clinic for 7 weeks. I addition I would argue that a ‘regular’ forensic autopsy be mandated as well for all these cases and thus igniting a corresponding criminal investigation by the authorities. This to guarantee that experts in homicide investigations critically look at the case. In Belgium for instance it is common that part of an investigation of a suicide includes the exclusion of homicide. An additional advantage of doing more extensive police/forensic work on a regular basis is that more knowledge will be gathered, both by the police, the public attorney’s office, forensic psychologists/psychiatrists, and forensic pathologists. Currently, the former two determine how many and which cases the latter two will receive for their professional analysis. Traditionally suicides, accidents, and other unexplained death are not subjected to a forensic autopsies in the Netherlands. It is to be expected that the number of autopsies is very low. To make matter worse the number of forensic autopsies in the Netherlands have been in decline. In 2005, 617 autopsies were performed by the NFI whereas in 2012 only 340 were performed. Therefore the amount of knowledge that is being gathered must be in decline as well.

Will this cost the Dutch government (more) money? Obviously! But the government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens and provide justice for all. Afterall, it is them who claim to have a monopoly on the use of violence. This leaves the Dutch citizen with little more than to (blindly) trust that the government will do its job and provide justice. And it is the public attorney’s office who is the responsible government organisation for these matters. Of course this does not mean that mistakes won’t be made, but at least a proactive attitude and subsequent protocols exist to catch as many homicides as possible. After all, homicide is one of the worst crimes anyone can encounter.

Edit 2014.08.28 – The preliminary results from the autopsy on Iris van den Hooff cannot exclude homicide [link1 link2 link3 link4].

Eline’s dossier will be reviewed

Last Tuesday, August 19th, 2014 we, our lawyer Arthur van der Biezen and us, met with the deputy head-public prosecutor George Rasker (plaatsvervangend hoofdofficier van justitie) and public prosecutor Olav Beckers (recherceofficier) at the offices of the DA in Maastricht. At first we were somewhat hesitant in what to expect from this meeting, but our first fears were dramatically proven unjustified. The public prosecutors were respectful and they seemed to have a listening ear to our frustrations of the last 4.5 years.

Since Eline’s death we never felt that we were taken seriously by the authorities, we were rather positively surprised to learn that both Rasker and Beckers agreed to review the dossier of Eline. Today, Thursday August 21st, 2014, it was made public that this is indeed what is going to happen (statement by DA press officer Cindy Reijnders: transcript Dutch | English). Of course this does not mean the case will be re-opened, but at least people will be reviewing the dossier and these people have not seen the files before. All in all, we consider this the first step forward in the 4.5 years since Eline’s death on December 8th, 2009. As to the reasons why the DA made a 180º turn from its previous position, we can only guess. In the end we are only interested in understanding what happened on December 8th, 2009, so Tuesday was a good day for us.

With this latest development I can only thank all those people who have helped us and supported us. Most notably De Telegraaf‘s Cold Case Team, L1, SBS6’s Hart van Nederland, our lawyer Arthur van der Biezen and all our friends and family.

One step at a time.