To the British tabloids, he was ‘the Pied Piper of paedophiles’, the UK’s ‘most wanted child abuser’. But we all knew him as Willem: the fat, jolly, occasionally lecherous Dutchman who was a mainstay of Prague’s expatriate gay community. If you visited one of the city’s same-sex watering holes before last August, when Czech police arrested him, chances are that you would have seen, if not heard, the Pied Piper of Prague holding court at the end of the bar.
‘He liked his drugs, his drinks and his rent boys,’ one mutual friend, a young man I’ll name Thomas, recalls of Willem. The pursuit of such pleasures is hardly unusual in the Czech capital, which has long been known as the ‘Bangkok of Europe’ for its legalised prostitution and seedy sex club scene, attracting an unmistakable class of northern European gentleman tourist (of both the homosexual and heterosexual persuasion). ‘I thought he was doing nothing out of the ordinary because that’s what a lot of people in his age group do in this city. It’s not surprising and it’s socially acceptable in this country,’ another friend, Michael (also a pseudonym), told me. ‘He would always say he was pickled in vodka and cocaine.’
So cemented in our minds was his party-animal demeanour that, when he seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in late August, my circle of friends began to speculate — only half-jokingly — that he had died of a heart attack or was in jail for drug possession. We weren’t prepared for the BBC story that appeared three months later, in which it was revealed that our chum ‘Willem’ had been living for years under a variety of aliases, is English rather than Dutch, and has a criminal rap sheet which belied his innocuous ownership of a tourist apartment rental agency. The most troubling thing, however, was not that this violent paedophile had deceived us, but that he had been able to hide in plain sight for some 15 years, when British and Czech authorities knew he was living in Prague for nearly this entire time.
This is a salient fact to keep in mind in light of Britain’s latest paedophile hysteria, Operation Yewtree, which has rightly earned a great deal of criticism for its seemingly endless and reckless pursuit of a variety of former celebrities on thin charges of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred, in some instances, as long as five decades ago. Yet the case of my old acquaintance Willem demonstrates the hazards of an apathetic approach to claims of sexual assault on the young.
Though Willem’s victims are surely fewer than those of the late Jimmy Savile, his alleged crimes are still more ghastly. In 1995, Lewes Crown Court sentenced him to seven years in jail for charges including sexual assault at knifepoint, taking indecent images of children, and drugging a 14-year-old homeless boy and selling him into sexual slavery in the Netherlands. A harrowing 1997 report by the Guardian had him boasting to an undercover policeman of how he rounded up ‘chickens’ (paedophile slang for underage boys) across Europe to work as prostitutes. A 17-year-old told of a conversation in which Willem pointed to a group of young boys on the street in Amsterdam and said that he would pay £200 or £300 for each. A Birmingham man recalled Willem showing up outside a club holding an eight-year-old boy’s hand, explaining that he had to ‘make a delivery’.
But none of these revelations could top the most horrifying allegation, lent some credence by his conversations with undercover officers, that Willem was involved in the sale (and possible production) of ‘snuff films’, in which young boys were sexually abused, tortured and murdered on camera.
In 1996, a year after his trial, Willem’s sentence was reduced on appeal from seven to five years. The following year, he was awarded parole after having served 30 months. Part of the agreement was that he must remain in the UK for the duration of his probationary period. He promptly fled to the Continent.
According to press reports from the time, it was no mystery where he had gone. A September 1998 report in the Independent stated that he was ‘believed to be in Prague’ after his name was found on an ‘international Who’s Who of suspected paedophiles’ uncovered by Dutch police. The following year, the Sunday Mirror reported that he was on a Prague police ‘wanted list’ and running an accommodation agency in the city. But most revealing, in retrospect, of police ineptitude was the 2000 report in the People, complete with a photograph, reporting on his presence in Prague as an operator of ‘child-sex holidays for perverts’ who ‘poses as a Dutch property consultant’. The undercover reporter Roger Insall quoted Willem as asserting that he could procure boys, many of them ‘on the run from conscription into the army’, for as little as £10. ‘Just put the men on a plane and leave the rest to me.’
Granted, this article appeared before the internet was widely in use, at least in the Czech Republic. But it did mention an alias that Willem was using in Prague. Had UK authorities posted the newspaper to their colleagues in the Czech Republic, it would not have taken long to locate their wanted man. Asking around gay bars with a copy of the People would have turned him up.
Judging by his behaviour, Willem was not afraid of getting caught. In 2001 he wrote an indignant letter to the Prague Post, complaining about police raids on gay bars meant to stamp out underage gay prostitution. ‘If this is the way the Czech Republic violates basic human rights,’ he wrote, ‘it should never even be considered for inclusion into the EU or given membership among civilised countries that observe fundamental human rights.’ A few months later, his photo was published in the News of the World. This past August, just days before he was arrested, he gave an interview to the Post about the upcoming Prague gay pride festival.
How was Willem able to evade justice for so long? While the Czech Republic has changed a great deal from Cold War days, the residue of communism remains most visible in the corruption that infects society at nearly all levels. I would hardly be surprised if Willem, who lived large and bragged about the massive amounts of money he earned, was paying off the police. On the other hand, one should never attribute to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence.
As for Willem’s erstwhile friends in Prague, the most common feeling is one of betrayal. Thomas told me that he immediately threw up after reading that a man he had considered a close friend was a violent paedophile, and took an hour-long shower after running home. Were there signs that we missed? In retrospect, that time the other Dutchman playfully challenged Willem’s pronunciation, only to receive a torrent of abuse in response, was a portent. So too was the time he broke the American kid’s nose for not paying for his drugs on time.
But others, knowing Willem’s penchant for exaggeration, are sceptical as to the full extent of his alleged crimes. It was not uncommon for Willem to make outrageous claims, like having just had dinner with Shirley Bassey. Yet, ‘If you said “I want this” to Willem and showed him the cash, he would probably be able to procure you anything under the sun,’ Michael told me. ‘This is a businessman first and foremost and he’s always been a businessman.’