The trial officially began in Antwerp today of Steve Bakelmans, accused of the murder in 2019 of 23-year-old Julie Van Espen.
Julie went missing on a Saturday evening in May that year, after leaving her parents’ house in Schilde to cycle into Antwerp to meet friends. She never arrived.
The alarm was immediately raised, and the signal from her mobile phone traced to the vicinity of the Albert Canal in Merksem, another district of the city. The federal police’s missing persons unit were brought in.
The search continued until the following day, when first a suspect seen in video was picked up. Julies body was later found in the canal by a sonar boat. At around the same time, Bakelmans confessed to killing her and disposing of the body, explaining that she had resisted when he pulled her from her bike on the canal path and tried to rape her.
Bakelmans was no unknown to the justice system. Until 2004 he was known for petty crimes like threats, theft and traffic offences.
Then in 2004, when he was homeless for a time, a 58-year-old woman invited him back to her place for sandwiches, he attacked, raped and robbed her, and was sentenced to four years in prison. To that was added shorter terms to various petty crimes, eventually leaving prison in 2008.
After another eight years he was accused of brutally raping his girlfriend of the time and sent to prison on remand for two and a half months. Then, for some reason, he was released, and less than six months later was charged again with raping the same woman. He received another four-year sentence.
He appealed and was released to await the court’s decision. The sentence was eventually confirmed, but not until Julie Van Espen had encountered him on the road to Antwerp.
The case led to two reports by the High Council for Justice, the first of which dealt with how to improve the handling of sexual violence cases by the courts in general; the second looked at the Bakelmans case and what mistakes had been made.
The High Council was unsparing in its criticism of the Appeal Court of Antwerp, which had let Bakelmans walk around free despite his record as a brutal rapist. It also made several recommendations, whose effects will only be visible starting next year.
In the meantime, Bakelmans will stand trial for Julie’s murder, with the formalities taking place this week, and the trial proper starting on Monday in front of a jury of eight women and four men. Eleven civil parties have signed up, with five more expected next week. In addition, 61 witnesses will be called.
The court will decide next week whether to agree to a request from Julie’s family to have the trial take place behind closed doors.
A verdict is expected on 21 December.