Suspect in Dutch boy's 1998 murder agrees to be extradited

Sara MAGNIETTE with Daniel SILVA in Madrid
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Eleven-year-old Nicky Verstappen who vanished two decades ago on August 9 at a summer camp in southern Limburg province, near the German border

A survival expert arrested near Barcelona over the brutal 1998 rape and killing of a young Dutch boy after one of the most extensive murder investigations to date in the Netherlands agreed Monday to be extradited from Spain.

Spanish police arrested Joseph Brech, 55, on Sunday afternoon in a mountainous area near the town of Castelltercol some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Barcelona while he was going out to cut wood.

The authorities believe Brech -- an experienced mountain climber who had scaled Mount Everest -- killed eleven-year-old Nicky Verstappen who vanished two decades ago on August 9 at a summer camp in southern Limburg province, near the German border. Brech had worked at the camp at the time, according to Spanish police.

Verstappen's body was found a day after his disappearance close to the camp site, with authorities later confirming he had been sexually abused before his death.

Police at the time mounted a massive search closely followed by Dutch media and the public, but the killer remained on the loose -- until advanced DNA testing earlier this year led officers to Brech.

Spanish police on Monday escorted the suspect to a tribunal in the city of Granollers where he told a judge from Madrid's High Court by video conference that he had been in Spain since March and agreed to be extradited to the Netherlands, the court said in a ruling.

Brech will be held without bail until he is extradited, the court added. He is accused of murder, sexual aggression and kidnapping, it added.

- 'Love to have answers' -

His arrest follows a public appeal on Wednesday, during which Dutch detectives shared photographs of the suspect.

A Dutchman living in Spain recognised the man in the photos and sent a tip-off to Dutch newspaper the Telegraaf, which contacted police.

Brech was living "in a tent in the woods" near an abandoned and isolated house where several homeless people live, the unidentified man told the newspaper.

"He told me he liked living in nature and that was why he was there," the man said.

Brech had extensive survival gear at the time of his arrest, including fishing roads, a book on edible wild plants, batteries and dehydrated foods.

In a picture shared by Spanish police, he appears face down on a dirt road with his hands handcuffed behind his back as police stand over him.

The boy's mother, Berthie Verstappen, said the family did not expect the arrest would come so soon after last week's police appeal.

"We feared he would hide so well that he would not be found for months. We would love to have answers to the questions we have, even if we dread hearing what happened," she told Dutch public television on Sunday night.

- DNA evidence -

The case regularly returned to the public eye in the Netherlands over the past two decades.

Police said new digital techniques helped them to develop a DNA profile in 2008, from traces found on Verstappen's clothing, but there had been no match.

As time ran out to catch the suspect, police in February appealed to 21,500 men to donate DNA samples in a bid to close in on the perpetrator.

Some 16,000 men living in the area where Verstappen was murdered volunteered to hand over DNA samples.

But Brech, a former scout worker who was 35 at the time of the murder, was not among the volunteers, and as he was previously interviewed as a witness, police became suspicious.

When his family reported him as missing in April, Dutch and French police searched his cabin in France's mountainous eastern Vosges region, where he owns a chalet.

They found traces of DNA on his personal belongings which matched samples taken from the slain boy's clothes.

A European-wide warrant for Brech's arrest was issued on June 12.