Amidst the media storm surrounding the MH17 disaster it went almost unnoticed, but last week the Utrecht police believe they have finally caught the serial rapist who was active in the area between Utrecht University and surrounding towns for years almost two decades ago. At the time he was riding a black mountain bike and later a scooter whilst preying on victims along the many kilometres of unlit cycle paths. As far as we know, he raped five women and is responsible for eleven attempted rapes in 1995, 1996 and in 2001.
I do not know how this arrest feels for victims. But for women who lived in the area at the time - including myself - his arrest feels like victory. Cycling to the university, working late at night in one of Utrecht University’s buildings, running along the riverside and through the woods to my parents’ house. Suddenly all those previously seemingly normal aspects of my life became problematic because of one man on a mountain bike. I felt terribly restricted and so did most of my co-students and friends. Officially, as far as we know now, the man probably victimized 15 to 20 women. In reality he deeply affected daily life in the area for years.
During all those years, despite intensive police effort not much progress was made in the investigations. This frustrated the police and the public alike and led to many rumours. Now, finally, one of the country’s longest running crime stories seems to have ended with a DNA hit in three cases of sexual assault. Once again, bikes play a major role in this Dutch case, as the suspect was obliged under new law to provide DNA after he had stolen two bikes. In the past he had apparently refused to give a DNA sample voluntarily, but now he was forced to cooperate.
I only refer here to what I have read in the media and seen on TV. Of course the main thing now is to bring the suspect to court and it is far too early to draw firm conclusions. Yet, from a criminological point of view many additional questions call for further study. In any investigation, even if it turns out well in the end, there are all kinds of dynamics going on and all kinds of complex decisions that have to be made. This case seems particularly relevant for the purpose of learning through hindsight. After all, as far as we know, the suspect who is now arrested has been under the scrutiny of law enforcement twice over the years during the course of investigations. How could he escape detection twice? Have there been leads that were not been followed up and why was that the case? Have certain people been ruled out too easily and if that is the case, why? Were any aspects of the investigations overlooked? Of course in hindsight all is easy. Thousands of men have been under the eye of the police in this case and choices had to be made. I am not trying to evoke easy criticism. I just hope that this unique case will be used to derive lessons from for future police investigations. This would also reassure the public that the police organisation has the capacity for self-examination. Hopefully, the debate will go beyond arguing for lower thresholds for obligatory DNA testing. More lessons are to be learned.