Suspect (41) to face a jury for the murder of Julie Van Espen
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Suspect (41) to face a jury for the murder of Julie Van Espen

The photo of Julie used on her funeral card. © Belga

A 41-year-old Antwerp man, Steve Bakelmans, is to stand trial before an assizes court in the city charged with the rape and murder of Julie Van Espen (23) in May 2019.

Julie left her home in Schilde on her bicycle on 4 May 2019, intending to cycle into Antwerp to meet up with friends. She never arrived.

A number of search activities were organised, particularly in the area of the Albert Canal in Merksem – the last location shown by her mobile phone signal.

The day after her disappearance, a blood-stained piece of clothing was found, and a bicycle basket. The following day Julie’s body was found in the canal.

An examination of CCTV images turned up a man in the area carrying the bicycle basket. He was immediately identified and arrested. He admitted he had killed Julie, claiming that he had no choice as she was resisting his attempts to rape her.

The court, composed of three judges and a 12-member jury, will hear how Bakelmans has a criminal record of offences including rape. At the time of the murder, he was at liberty while a rape case in which he was involved made its way to appeal.

That led to some severe criticism of the justice system, that a recidivist criminal already convicted of a serious crime should be allowed to walk free while an appeal was prepared at an extremely slow speed.

On that other charge, Bakelmans was finally sentenced to five years in prison, to remain on parole for a further ten years, meaning he could go straight back to prison at any time.

However that condition is now moot. If convicted on the charges he now faces, he could go to prison for 30 years.

Yesterday, the court in Antwerp had no hesitation in approving the prosecution’s motion to send the accused for trial. The defence, for its part, raised no objection.

There is no indication for the time being as to when the trial might take place. In the meantime, Bakelmans remains in custody without hope of release.