The brother, the lawyer, now the journalist

The narco-state vs. Peter R. de Vries, crime reporter (1956-2021)

THE NETHERLANDS’ BEST-KNOWN CRIME REPORTER, Peter Rudolf de Vries, died on July 15, nine days after he was shot in the head in broad daylight on a central Amsterdam street. Within hours of the shooting, caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte and justice minister Fred Grapperhaus met the National Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism to discuss this “attack on the rule of law,” reported AD.

De Vries, 64, was shot at about 7.30 pm on July 6 in Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, as he walked to his car from a television studio where he had appeared as a guest on RTL Boulevard. A statement from his family, published by RTL, said the journalist died in hospital, in the company of relatives. 

His long-running television programme, Peter R. de Vries, crime reporter, was broadcast for almost 17 years from 1995. An obituary on the website of public broadcaster NOS noted “his steadfastness and ability to bring cases to light”. That tenacity was admired by victims' families and wrongfully convicted convicts alike.

Two suspects were detained: a suspected gunman, identified as the Dutch rapper Delano G., 21, from Rotterdam, and Kamil E., a 35-year-old Polish national from Maurik, who is suspected of driving the getaway car. The men were arrested shortly after the shooting on the A4 motorway near Leidschendam. 

Assisting B. was a request De Vries could not refuse. It sent a signal that that such crimes never pay, he said

De Vries’s murder was the third “liquidation” ostensibly related to the prosecution of drug trafficker Ridouan Taghi and sixteen co-defendants, in proceedings known as the Marengo trial. Taghi, a Moroccan-born Dutchman and leader of the Angels of Death gang, was detained in Dubai in December 2019. A police spokesman described him as the Netherlands’ most dangerous man. Taghi was reported to have ordered killings “like cups of coffee”. 

De Vries was a confidant of Nabil B., a key witness in the Marengo trial, who took on the role of a de facto publicist for the prosecution witness. The head of public prosecution service, Gerrit van der Burg, told Nieuwsuur, the NOS evening news programme, that De Vries was more likely to have been killed for his involvement in the trial than for his work as a journalist.

The brother, the lawyer, the journalist

The serial liquidations highlight an ongoing assault on the Dutch legal system from organised criminals. Politicians, including Grapperhuis, fear that the Netherlands - a key transit point for drug shipments - is becoming a narco-state.

A controversial figure among other reporters, De Vries was retained last year by the law firm of one of B.’s defence lawyers to prepare B to testify against Taghi, for the prosecution. His close relationships to other known crime bosses included Klaas Bruinsma, a drug dealer who consorted with a minor Dutch royal, and Freddie Heineken’s kidnapper Cor van Hout.

De Vries’s murder followed the “liquidations” of B.’s brother, widely seen as retaliation for  B.’s decision to collaborate with the police, and of B.'s lawyer Derk Wiersum, who was shot dead outside his home in Amsterdam-Buitenveldert in September 2019. The trial of two suspects in Wiersum’s murder resumed on July 19. 

De Vries welcomed the acquittal of two suspects in the Putten murder case as ‘the most beautiful moment’ of his life

The journalist's prominence owed much to the Dutch fascination - also, often nostalgia - for an indigenous white criminal fraternity whose dominance in the underworld has been disrupted by immigrants of Moroccan and Turkish heritage or Asian triads. In January, Tse Chi Lop, a Chinese-born Canadian national and one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, was arrested at Schiphol airport on charges of leading an Asian drugs syndicate.

Respected by media colleagues as a “pitbull”, a reference to his tenacious reporting, De Vries built his professional reputation on close links to Dutch gangsters. In 1987 he wrote a bestselling book, The Kidnapping of Alfred Heineken, which told the story from Van Hout's point of view. When Van Hout was gunned down outside a restaurant in Amstelveen in 2003, De Vries spoke at his funeral. 

An obituary written by De Vries described Van Hout, a violent alcoholic married to the younger sister of fellow Heineken kidnapper Willem Holleeder, as "the most special man I've met". De Vries was instrumental in bringing Holleeder's sisters into contact with prosecutors. He also testified against Holleeder, with whom he clashed during the trial. In July 2019, Holleeder was convicted of ordering the killing of his former accomplice. The verdict is on appeal.

A taste for scandal

De Vries maintained that his personal relationships did not compromise his independence as a journalist. He rejected advice from other reporters, including his friend Mick van Wely who urged him not to assist B. in the Taghi trial. The request to assist B. was one he could not refuse, De Vries told Van Wely. He believed that his involvement sent a signal to the murderers that such crimes never pay.

His journalistic career began in 1978 as a reporter for the Telegraaf, before moving on to become editor-in-chief of the weekly new magazine Aktueel in 1987. He investigated many of the most high-profile cases in recent decades, including the wrongful conviction in the Schiedam park murder of a 10-year-old girl in 2000. His work was instrumental in reviving “cold cases” where the evidence trail was weak.

A keen gossip with a taste for criminal society, he revealed a secret relationship between Princess Mabel and Amsterdam drug lord Klaas Bruinsma

On television, De Vries collaborated with journalist Jaap Jongbloed to make Crime Time, before pursuing a career from 1991 as an independent crime journalist, later presenting his own television programme from 1995. 

After years of work on the case of Christel Ambrosius, a 23-year-old found dead in her grandmother’s house near Putten in 1994, De Vries exposed one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the Netherlands. Two suspects were acquitted, and each received compensation of €900,000 - a verdict that De Vries welcomed as “the most beautiful moment” of his life, reported NOS. In 2008, a new suspect was jailed for her murder for 15 years.

He was similarly tenacious, over a period of 20 years, in the Schiedam park murder, and in seeking justice for the family of Nicky Verstappen, an 11-year-old boy found dead on Brunssummerheide in 1998. A conviction based on new DNA evidence was secured in 2018.

Among many ratings-boosting television appearances, he revealed a secret relationship between Princess Mabel and Amsterdam drug lord Klaas Bruinsma. On the late-night talk show Pauw & Witteman, De Vries challenged convicted murderer Joran van der Sloot over the disappearance in Aruba of Natalee Holloway, an American citizen, while celebrating her high school graduation in 2005. His interrogation of Van der Sloot drew an audience of more than seven million viewers.

Like a thirsty wildebeest

In a tribute to his late friend in the Telegraaf, Van Wely recalled De Vries’s characteristic delivery of explosive information in a monotonous, bone-dry voice - en zei dat met de voor hem zo typerende, monotone, gortdroge stem. 

A keen gossip with a taste for criminal society, he divulged little of his method of working: you never know how a cow catches a hare... - je weet maar nooit hoe een koe een haas vangt... Mostly, his emails ended with three “ominous” dots - drie onheilspellende punten.

In person, De Vries - a father of two - was an enthusiastic gossip who enjoyed wine, women and media antics in Hilversum. He never cooked in the spotless kitchen where he entertained friends. His voice grew louder after drinking wine. Then he pulled up a chair and, with a “mischievous smile”, drank in stories like a thirsty wildebeest at a water source - als een dorstige gnoe bij een waterbron, Van Wely wrote.

Two weeks before his death, De Vries launched a new campaign to raise a million-euro bounty in return for a “golden tip” in the unsolved case of 18-year-old Tanja Groen, who disappeared near Maastricht in the summer of 1993. “Tanja's parents are in excruciating uncertainty," De Vries told a press conference, “They are getting older. Their greatest fear is never knowing what happened to their child”.

De Vries’s family described their inconsolable grief, but also great pride in the reporter’s legacy.

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SUMMER PLANS

After the long lock-down, the summer season is here. With the holidays, for many of us, comes a summer project. Or several. Mine include a “busman’s holiday” to learn more about the differences between ‘good’ offsetting and ‘bad’ offsetting of carbon emissions - a task helped by publication in November 2020 of the Oxford Principles for Sustainable Offsetting.

I’ll also be drafting scenes for a stage play to capture the human drama behind the existential struggle for Big Oil. As I’ve reported here, that contest that has enveloped climate activists, investors and oil executives - many of whom are engaged in a parallel inter-generational struggle, often within their own families.

And if time allows, I’m keen to learn more about #neurodiversity - a challenge to each and every one of us, whether we realise it or not. This isn’t a new issue, but it is more ubiquitous than previously understood, a corollary of our digital lives and ever-increasing screen time. The promise of neurodiversity is immense, but every other kind of diversity - cultural, racial, sexual - seems a walk in the park by comparison.

In the coming months, I’m hoping to post updates on all these themes - in tandem with my summer projects - as I go along. So the editorial remit for 2ndOpinion will change. I won’t abandon the Letter From Amsterdam format, but I’ll try to use it sparingly.

Big bedankt for being here.