René Hasee was 6 years old when he disappeared on a Portuguese beach in 1996. He was playing in the sand. His father and father’s girlfriend looked away momentarily — and then René was gone.
The beach from which René disappeared was in the Algarve region, on Portugal’s southeastern tip. Not far away is Praia da Luz, where Madeleine “Maddie” McCann disappeared from her bed in a hotel compound while her parents were dining nearby.
Since the publication of the latest findings in the McCann case, German media have been reporting that the suspect had been spending time on the Algarve coast in the 1990s as well.
For the past week René’s father Andreas has been giving interviews to German local media. The tram driver used an interview with local tabloid Express to appeal to the suspect in Maddie’s case to come clean:
“I just want clarity. I am appealing to you, the suspect: ‘Say what you know!'”
British daily The Guardian was quick to pick up René’s case as well, comparing it to that of Inga Gehricke (pictured above), who disappeared in 2015 near the town of Stendhal in eastern Germany. The five-year-old was attending an event with her parents, walked off into the woods with other children and was never seen again. The local newspaper Die Volksstimme has now reported that a day after her disappearance, the suspect in the Maddie McCann case had a minor traffic accident only 100 kilometers (80 miles) from the spot where Inga was last seen.
Some 60,000 children are reported missing every year in Germany: 99% return home — but some never do.
The ‘Tosa Klause’ bar, whose regulars confessed to killing Pascal
Many cases feature prominently in the national media, like that of Pascal, who was six years old when he disappeared from Saarbrücken, along the French-German border, in 2001. He was last seen riding his bicycle to a fairground nearby. As police began to investigate, a slew of spurious accusations, false testimonies, and retracted confessions arose. Finally, 13 regulars in a nearby bar were arrested as suspects and put on trial. All of them testified to having raped and suffocated the boy in the bar and then burying his body in a gravel pit just across the border in France. But police found neither the body nor the bicycle — nor any of Pascal’s DNA. One of the accused revoked his confession; the proof became insufficient, and the trial collapsed.
Twelve-year-old Manuel Schadwald went missing in 1993, on his way to an amusement park in Berlin. Police were quick to suspect that he had been abducted. Investigators in The Netherlands said that he may have been kidnapped by child porn producers. Then, in 1998, a Belgian network mentioned Manuel in connection with the Marc Dutroux gang, who abducted, abused and murdered young girls in the 1990s. But no proof materialized that Manuel had indeed become a victim of that gang.
Eight-year-old Deborah Sassen went missing in 1996 on her short walk home from school in the western German city of Düsseldorf, where her family had moved not long before. A major search operation led several witnesses to come forward and report having seen the girl on a frozen lake nearby or while she was dragged into a waiting car outside the school. But none of the testimonies emerged as a clear lead.
Read more (from 2018): Underage refugees in Germany increasingly go missing
Not long after Deborah’s disappearance, 11-year-old Annika Seidel went missing some 300 kilometers southeast, in the Hessian town of Kelkheim. She was shopping with her mother, went into a pet shop and never came home. A witness claims to have seen her standing by a car with a license plate from somewhere in Eastern Europe. In the meantime, Annika’s mother passed away without ever having learned what happened to her daughter.
Hilal Ercan disappeared in 1999 in Hamburg. The 10-year-old had come home with a good report card, so her mother let her go to the nearby mall to buy herself some sweets as a reward. Hilal never returned. Her mother found her hairclips and an earring on the ground near the mall. Passers-by said they saw a man drag a dark-haired girl by the arm; some said they heard screams. Hamburg police conducted what turned into the biggest search operation in decades — in vain.
In 2015 a man who had a history of child abuse confessed to having abducted and killed Hilal, but later retracted his confession. Another tip-off led police to dig up a small forest in 2018 searching for the girl’s remains — but again they turned up empty-handed.
Twenty years after his disappearance, Hilal’s brother Abbas Ercan wrote and published a letter addressed to his sister’s killer: “I am pleading with you to end our awful martyrdom, which my parents, my sister and I have been suffering through for 21 years now. Please put an end to it! Please face the truth and turn yourself in!”
Marc Dutroux’s crimes sent shockwaves through Belgium and beyond
The families of missing children say that what they need most is closure — no matter what the truth is.
Cold cases are reexamined regularly over decades.
The network Initiative Vermisste Kinder (Initiative for Missing Children) has published an online map http://www.vermisste-kinder.de/ with 48 dots designating places in Germany where children have gone missing. The map includes links with information that relatives or police have provided.
Shocked by the Marc Dutroux cases in Belgium, a concerned German citizen, Monika Bruhns, started the initiative in 1997 to provide solidarity and assistance to families searching for missing children. After her passing, her son Lars took over the organization, which describes itself as an increasingly strategic and professionally structured organization” helping fill the gaps it sees in missing child cases.
Lars Bruhns says that police often provide ambiguous information and are slow to publish statistics. What’s worse, he underlines, is that Germany has no official “Amber Alert” system run by the authorities, akin to those in neighboring France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. He calls this oversight “deplorable” and his organization is trying to fill the gap by at least operating its own version of an Amber Alert. Bruhns is not alone in his criticism — numerous experts agree that concerted action, like a governmental Amber Alert, taken in the first three hours after such a disappearance is critical in finding the child alive.