A passer-by who happened to notice what looked like the shape of a car underwater in a Bruges canal has helped solve the mystery of a man who disappeared without a trace from his home in the city in 1990.
The witness thought he could make out the shape of a car in the Damse Vaart canal, and notified the police. An officer of the Bruges police zone notified the Missing Persons Unit of the federal police. A diver confirmed the presence of a car, and a tow-truck was called to the scene.
The vehicle was a 1980s Ford Taunus, which allowed the missing persons unit to make a rapid connection with one of the oldest cases on its books.
When Ronny Lateste, then aged 38, went missing in the summer of 1990, the missing persons unit did not yet exist, and in fact neither did the federal police as we know it. His disappearance was a complete mystery. Even now it is not yet clear what happened to him or how he came to be in the waters of a local canal.
But for a coincidence, the mystery might never have been solved. After weather forecasts predicting heavy rain at the weekend, the waters in the canal were allowed to descend to reduce the risk of overflowing. The wreck of the Ford remained underwater, but the lower level made its outline just detectable.
The car’s vintage suggested the Lateste case, and a part of a number plate recovered backed up that supposition. Other evidence confirmed it.
“Furthermore, the car was meticulously searched and human remains found, as well as personal belongings of the missing man, such as his identity card,” said the Bruges prosecutor’s office.
It was simply a lot easier to go missing 30 years ago than it would be now, Remue explained.
“This unit was founded in 1995 and this is a case from 1990,” he said Remue.
“It just goes to show how important it is to keep an eye on cold cases. This disappearance was on the list ‘missing with vehicle’, which means that both the person and the vehicle were never found.”
When the unit was informed of the discovery in the Damse Vaart, they looked at the list of open cases from the period of the car and the location.
“There was no question of ANPR cameras [automatic number plate recognition] or even regular traffic cameras. That makes a significant difference. There were also no sonar boats to systematically search watercourses.”
The investigation will continue, but the prosecutor has enough evidence for a presumption that Ronny Lateste died an accidental death, without suspicious circumstances. His family, now almost as old as he was then, have been informed.