(First published in the NewStatesman July 2017)
On 2 September 2003, a Dutchman named Romano van der Dussen walked to the beach in Fuengirola, a resort on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It was noon, and the high-rise apartment blocks along the seafront shimmered in the heat. Van der Dussen opened a can of beer, lay down on his towel and looked out at the Mediterranean.
He had moved to Spain three years before to start a new life. It hadn’t always been the paradise he had dreamed of. He had lost his job working in an ice-cream parlour and broken up with his partner, and he saw little of his two-year-old daughter. Often, he slept in the vestibule of his old apartment building, to which he still had a key, or on the couch at a friend’s house. But he was only 30 years old and he knew there was plenty of time to sort things out.
At around 5pm, van der Dussen left the beach and was walking along the promenade when a police car pulled up. Two officers got out and told him to stop. One of them addressed van der Dussen by name and held up an identikit photograph. “This is you, isn’t it?” he said. The picture showed a man with long, scraggly hair, bulging eyes and a broad nose. Van der Dussen, who has small eyes, a pointed nose and wore his hair short, said he saw no similarity. He asked if this had anything to do with the shopfront window that he had smashed the previous year while drunk and paid damages for. The officers said this was about a different matter, which they would only discuss at the police station.
Van der Dussen was gregarious and well liked by friends and work colleagues, but he could also be irascible. When the policemen insisted he should go with them, he pushed one of the officers and swung his arms wildly as he tried to flee. But the officers quickly pinned him down, cuffed his hands and bundled him into the back of their car.
Twenty-three days earlier, at 5.33am on 10 August, police had been called to an apartment in the centre of Fuengirola. When the two officers arrived, they found a woman covered in blood. She was crying. Her trousers and underwear were ripped. The 29-year-old Spaniard said that she had been walking alone at around 4.30am when an unidentified man punched her to the ground and then attempted to rape her. A female witness told the police that, from her balcony, she had seen a man lingering near the scene after the attack.
An hour later, the assailant struck again on a street just 500 metres away. The modus operandi was similar: the man hit a 33-year-old women in the face, threw her to the floor, took her mobile phone and wallet and then tried to rape her, before fleeing when a car approached.
On a nearby side street, some 30 minutes later, he struck for a third time, pouncing on a 19-year-old, whom he robbed and sexually assaulted. The victim told police that she was attacked with such aggression that she felt that the rapist hated her, even though he did not know her.
In the police interrogation room in Fuengirola, van der Dussen listened to the descriptions of the rapes with bewilderment. His Spanish was poor and the police denied his request for an interpreter. It took some time before he realised he was the prime suspect. He vehemently denied any involvement. He said he did not know the part of Fuengirola where the crimes had occurred and volunteered to submit to DNA testing. He also had an alibi: he told the officers that, on the night of the attacks, he had been at a party in Benalmádena, ten miles from Fuengirola, and that he had witnesses to prove it.
Yet the police never tried to confirm his alibi or investigate his other claims. They believed – or wanted to believe – that they had their man, because they were under huge pressure to solve the crime.
Since the early 1980s, thousands of northern Europeans, many of them British, had moved to the Costa del Sol for the weather, the low cost of living and, in some cases, to escape justice. Over time, the south of Spain became so well known for criminal activity that the British press took to calling it the Costa del Crime. Relations between locals and expats were increasingly strained, and the sexual assaults, along with the murder of a Spanish teenage girl four days later in Málaga, had left residents fearful and demanding justice.
Over the following days, van der Dussen was interrogated for many hours and, he later claimed, the officers assaulted him in his cell every night. “They beat me so badly that one night I started to pee blood,” he declared in a police statement seven months after his arrest.
For their part, the police made much of van der Dussen’s behaviour under interrogation. According to their reports, he had been aggressive and uncooperative, and made misogynistic comments that confirmed “his profound hatred towards the opposite sex”. Their interest in this part of the Dutchman’s conduct was unsurprising, because it was his history of trouble with women that had led the police to him in the first place. (The Spanish national police ignored requests for a comment for this article.)
Romano van der Dussen was born in Leiden, near The Hague, in 1973. His father, Robert, ran a small business, while his mother, Johanna, looked after Romano and his two sisters. The children attended the local school, and at weekends Robert would take them to see the canal boats sailing up and down the waterways. Though Romano struggled academically, owing to his problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in those early years the family had few obvious problems. “He was a handsome little boy, who was very close to his mother,” Robert told me. “We were a happy family back then.”
But the van der Dussens were suppressing a trauma. “Romano’s mother was raped when she was 16, two years before I met her,” Robert said, “and she carried it with her for the rest of her life.”
Johanna, a Catholic, decided to keep the daughter she gave birth to as a consequence of the rape but thereafter suffered from chronic depression. At the age of eight, Romano was taken into care by social services and later moved to a home for disruptive children where, his father suspects, he started taking soft drugs and became involved in petty crime.
After a spell in a juvenile prison, he moved to Amsterdam, where he found some stability, taking a job at a Hilton hotel. Yet before long, he was bingeing on hard drugs and alcohol. It took until his mid-twenties before van der Dussen resolved to change his life. He checked into rehab and promised himself that when he finished the programme he would make a new life outside the Netherlands.
“I was trapped in a vicious cycle, with the same group of friends, doing the same things I had always done,” he told me. “I thought it was time to move on.”
He arrived in Spain with his Belgian girlfriend and baby daughter in 2000 and found work at Irene’s Ice Cream Shop in Fuengirola. But the following year, he got into trouble with the police when his girlfriend accused him of threatening behaviour following an argument in the street. In early 2003, he was arrested after a Brazilian prostitute accused him of rape. Although he was not charged in either case, his conduct towards women was recorded in police files, and his photograph appeared in an album of local offenders. It was this album that was shown to the victims of the Fuengirola rapist immediately after the attacks.
The women’s initial descriptions of their assailant were varied, describing him as either tall or short, with either brown or blond hair, and wearing either a dark or light-coloured T-shirt. When the second and third victims were shown the police album, neither identified van der Dussen as the attacker; nor did the witness who had seen a man loitering after the first attack. (The first victim was suffering amnesia as a result of her injuries and was not shown the album.)
On 20 August 2003 – ten days after the sexual assaults – the identikit image was drawn up using the third victim’s description. The women were shown the identikit, and then asked to look at the album again. This time, the third victim identified van der Dussen, as did the witness. The second victim expressed doubt and requested an identity parade.
On 5 September, three days after van der Dussen was detained, police organised a line-up. Spanish law dictates that all members of an identity parade should be of similar height, build and complexion. Yet van der Dussen, who is pale and slim, was put alongside men of dark complexions and stocky builds. The law also prohibits witnesses from speaking to each other beforehand. A court document later submitted by van der Dussen’s lawyer claimed that the three women talked prior to the parade.
After the line-up, all three identified van der Dussen as the assailant. He was charged and sent to prison without bail.
Accused rapists are targeted in prison and van der Dussen was no different. After being beaten up by other inmates, he was moved to solitary confinement for almost 14 months, where for 23 hours a day he was locked in a cell, except for a one-hour break in an open-air courtyard. “All I could think of was: why? Why was I here? How had this happened to me, to an innocent person?”
Ten months after his arrest, while he was still on remand, two people who claimed to have been with him at the party on the night of the attacks wrote to the Spanish police saying that they were willing to testify in court. One of these witnesses, Frank Donnelly, a British expat then living in the area, told me that he remembered playing drinking games with van der Dussen – one involved the Dutchman karate-kicking beer cans off his head – for much of the night. Donnelly claims that the Dutchman stayed over at his house that night.
Other factors gave van der Dussen confidence that judges would acquit him when the case reached court. He did not appear in any of the CCTV footage taken from the neighbourhood at the time of the attacks. The fingerprints found on the outside of a parked car near the scene of the first assault were not his. And forensic officers had confirmed that the DNA of an unidentified male extracted from the pubic hair of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s.
The trial began in Málaga in May 2005, more than 20 months after his arrest. The Dutchman stood accused of three counts of sexual assault, three counts of assault and two counts of robbery. Entering the courtroom, his certainty of acquittal began to wane. In front of him was a large screen covering where the victims were sitting; they could see him but he could only hear them. As he sat down, one of the women shouted, “I hope they send him to hell.” The gallery responded with affirmative murmurs.
On the first day of proceedings, two of the victims and the witness testified. (The first victim did not give evidence, owing to her amnesia.) When the second victim got up to give evidence, she called the Dutchman a “son of a bitch”. The third victim began to cry as she recalled the details of her assault, while the witness told the court that she was certain that she had seen van der Dussen from her balcony around the time of the first attack. The prosecutors focused on his troubled past and drug addiction. They portrayed van der Dussen as an evil misogynist.
When it was the turn of the defence, the court heard that the DNA found on the body of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s. His lawyers argued that this alone was enough to exonerate the Dutchman, as the only other possibility – that the DNA had come from a known sexual partner – had also been ruled out. The defence also pointed to the absence of any fingerprint or CCTV evidence linking van der Dussen to the crimes. But, crucially, the lawyers had failed to submit the requisite paperwork that would have allowed the statements from the witnesses who said they saw van der Dussen at the party on the night of the attacks. The testimonies supporting his alibi were never heard.
The Dutchman grew increasingly anxious. During the cross-examination of one of the scientific experts, he panicked – just as he had done on the promenade on the day of his arrest. Standing up, he began proclaiming his innocence, shouting raucously in Dutch, and pleading with the court translator to explain his plight to the three judges. They ejected him from the courtroom for contempt.
On 25 May, the judges reached their verdict. They agreed with the prosecution that the geography, time and modus operandi of the attacks suggested that there could be only one attacker. With this in mind, and solely on the basis of the women’s testimonies, they found van der Dussen guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 15-and-a- half years in prison.
Van der Dussen received news of the decision in jail. “I will never be able to explain what I felt at that moment,” he told me. “To be found guilty of something that you didn’t do. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t know what to do.”
Days after the sentencing, he fashioned a knife out of the lid of a tin and started to slash his wrists. But it was not sharp enough and, as he struggled to pierce his skin, he began to think what his death might mean. He didn’t want to be labelled a rapist – the type of man who had ruined his mother’s life. He did not want to give anyone else cause to believe that he might be guilty. He put the knife down.
On 25 September 2005 – four months after van der Dussen’s conviction – the body of Sally Anne Bowman was found next to a skip in Croydon. The 18-year-old singer and part-time model had been out the night before with friends and on the way home had quarrelled with her ex-boyfriend. She had climbed out of his car to walk the rest of the way home. Soon afterwards, at around 4am, Bowman was attacked just metres from her front door. According to reports, the young woman was stabbed, bitten and then raped while she was dead or dying.
Almost nine months later, Mark Phillip Dixie, a 35-year-old chef with a long criminal record of burglary, sexual assault and indecent exposure, was arrested for fighting outside a pub. As is routine, police took a DNA swab. When it was found to match that of Bowman’s killer, Dixie was arrested for murder.
His genetic profile was subsequently added to various criminal databases, including that of Interpol, where, in November 2006, staff found that it also matched the unidentified DNA found on the first victim of the Fuengirola attacks in August 2003. Interpol alerted the British and Spanish authorities, noting that Dixie had lived in Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol from late 2002 to October 2003. The implications were clear – the wrong man was in prison. Furthermore, if Dixie had been correctly identified and arrested as the perpetrator of the rapes, Sally Anne Bowman would still be alive.
Responding to the Interpol notice, the Spanish police said they needed more proof, and in April 2007 asked for a fresh sample of Dixie’s DNA to be sent to Spain. The Metropolitan Police in turn petitioned the Fuengirola court for their officers to be able to reinvestigate the rapes, as part of their case against Dixie.
“Both these requests should have taken a matter of months to process,” Francisco Carrión, a lawyer on van der Dussen’s current legal team, said. “Instead, they became entangled in a hellish administrative web.”
In February 2008 at the Old Bailey, Dixie was found guilty of Sally Anne Bowman’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Newspaper reports of the verdict speculated that Dixie might have committed other sexual crimes, possibly even murders, in Australia during the 1990s. But the Spanish sexual assaults went unnoted, and for good reason: the Metropolitan Police had not sent the sample of Dixie’s DNA to Spain and had never received permission to investigate the crimes. (The Metropolitan Police has declined to comment on this.)
There was one more crucial thing that had not happened. Nobody had informed van der Dussen that the real perpetrator of the Fuengirola attacks had been identified.
The Dutchman had been in prison for nearly four-and-a-half years. He concerned himself with staying healthy – scrubbing his cell with bleach to kill the cockroaches until his eyes puffed red – and out of danger. At one point, an inmate had held a knife to his throat and sworn to kill him. With few friends, he spent most of the time alone in the library, immersing himself in the complexities of the Spanish judicial system, reading thrillers – he enjoyed James Patterson novels – and writing his memoirs.
Early in 2009, he learned that his mother, Johanna, had cancer and was dying at the family home in the Netherlands. Van der Dussen asked for special dispensation to visit her. “The prison authorities agreed, but only on the basis that I admit to the crimes,” he told me.
Though he was desperate to see his mother, van der Dussen refused. “Clearing my name became an obsession and one that I couldn’t let go,” he said. He asked the warden if he could speak to his mother via a video call, but his request was denied.
“To be made to hurt the person you love most in the world or to maintain your integrity as a human being: that was the inhumane choice I had to make.”
In May 2010, a Dutch diplomat who had recently learned of the evidence implicating Dixie visited van der Dussen in prison and gave him the news. Van der Dussen was incredulous – and furious. “How could two governments from two European countries take so long to process paperwork?” he said. “And why had nobody thought to mention it to me?”
He decided to seek a new lawyer. Though he had no money, he wrote to every legal firm he could find details of and explained his plight. Silverio García Sierra, a Madrid-based lawyer, agreed to take on the case. “At first I was reluctant,” García told me, “but as I read more and more about it, I couldn’t believe some of the irregularities and the number of injustices that Romano had suffered.”
In May 2011, García appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court to reopen van der Dussen’s case on the basis of the DNA evidence implicating Dixie. But by 2013, there had still been no progress, prompting García to accuse the ministry of justice in writing of negligence and malpractice.
In its response, the ministry did not recognise any failings. “They said that what had happened in 2007-08, regarding the processing of the DNA and the UK’s request, had legally expired, and that the problems of recent years did not fall under the responsibility of any magistrate,” García told me.
Every week van der Dussen would ring him from prison, hoping to hear news of his imminent release, and every week García would have to tell him that there had been yet another delay.
On 19 August 2015 – nine years after Interpol first informed Spain about the evidence implicating Mark Dixie – the Spanish forensic police finally confirmed a match between Dixie’s DNA and the sample found on the first victim’s body. García’s appeal to the supreme court was accepted and, in early 2016, the case went to trial.
Van der Dussen’s legal team was confident. It had the DNA match. It had the testimony of Marcus Downie, a British citizen who accounted for the Dutchman’s presence at the party on the night of the attacks, and whose testimony had not been heard during the first trial. And, most importantly, it had a written confession from Mark Dixie.
A Dutch lawyer, Rachel Imamkhan, who had been hired by van der Dussen’s father, Robert, using funds from a Kickstarter campaign, had travelled to HM Prison Frankland in Durham to record Dixie’s testimony. Dixie told the lawyer that he had assaulted and attempted to rape the first victim. However, he said that because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night, he could not remember the other two attacks. (I wrote to Dixie in Frankland requesting an interview, but he did not respond.)
During van der Dussen’s original trial, the judges concluded that the three attacks were the work of a single perpetrator. But when considering the new evidence, the Spanish supreme court said it could only consider a revision of one of the three sentences (that which corresponded to the first victim) because the new physical evidence pertained only to her and not to the other two victims.
On 10 February 2016, it absolved van der Dussen of the crimes committed against the first victim. Since he had already served his time for the other two charges, he was free to leave prison. However, he would do so as a convicted rapist.
The next morning, van der Dussen walked out of Palma prison on the island of Mallorca into the pale winter sun. He carried two plastic bags filled with old clothes and €33. He was met by his Spanish girlfriend, a volunteer whom he had met at the prison two years earlier, and Father Jaume Alemany, the prison chaplain.
He looked haggard and thin, and there was no joy on his face as he told the press that his life had been ruined. “The blame doesn’t lie with the victims. The authorities created this hell,” he said.
He had been locked up for 4,542 days. The world had changed. “When Romano first left prison, he needed to make a call and he asked me where the nearest phone box was,” Father Alemany told me.
At first, the freedom was overwhelming. The day after his release, he drank six espressos in a row at a café. He bought a pair of Nike Airs with money lent to him by his family and stopped wearing them when he realised he was not the 30-year-old who entered prison but the 43-year-old who had been released. “In jail, time doesn’t pass like it does in the real world,” van der Dussen told me at a café near his rented flat in Palma. “Things don’t change and you experience nothing that makes you different. It is only when you’re out and you look at yourself in the mirror that you see you’ve grown old.”
He felt nervous in wide-open spaces or crowds. At night, he dreamed that he was back in prison; that his fellow inmates were trying to kill him; that his mother was still waiting to say goodbye. According to his psychiatrist’s report, van der Dussen suffers from severe depression and anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks.
He had a job as a hotel receptionist for several months, but could not handle the stress of dealing with demanding clients. Although his girlfriend is helping him keep his life together, he still spends a lot of time alone, wandering the streets, or watching the Discovery Channel – and waiting. The Spanish government owes him compensation for the 1,231 days he spent wrongly incarcerated for the crimes against the first victim. He asked for €6m and the government has yet to make a counter offer.
When he is paid, he plans to go to England to try to track down more people who attended the party on the night of the attacks. He hopes these additional testimonies will persuade the supreme court to reopen his case and clear his name of the other two convictions. Until then, he says, he won’t permit himself to think of a future.