What drove a Belgian teenager to kill two strangers in the street – including a little girl?
In the early morning of 11 May 2006, the streets of Antwerp, Belgium, were bustling with life.
Commuters, tourists and shoppers all went peacefully about their business in the historic city centre.
And local teenager Hans Van Themsche was about to put a terrible plan into action.
He dressed in the notorious outfit of the skinhead – combat-style boots, leather coat.
He went to get his long hair shaved.
Then he called at a gun shop to buy a semi-automatic shotgun and ammunition.
With that, he was ready.
Just before noon, he began to prowl the city centre looking for victims.
It didn’t take long to find one – a woman of Turkish descent, wearing a headscarf, sat on a bench quietly reading a book.
The fact Songul Koc wasn’t white was all Van Themsche needed to convince himself she didn’t deserve to live.
So, in the cold light of day, surrounded by people, he shot her in the chest.
As she bled helplessly on the street, Van Themsche barely flinched before reloading his gun.
Soon, he spotted Oulemata Niangadou – a 24-year-old nanny, originally from Mali in West Africa – walking with her charge, 2-year-old white girl Luna Drowart.
Van Themsche shot the nanny in the back, killing her instantly. Terrified, Luna began to scream, but not for long…
Seconds later, Hans Van Themsche had reloaded his rifle and shot the little girl at close range.
Without batting an eyelid, the teenager walked past the lifeless bodies of his innocent victims and continued down the street to find someone else to kill.
At that moment, he was confronted by a police officer, who ordered him to put down his gun. The teenager refused, and the officer shot him in the stomach to incapacitate him.
Soon after, the 19-year-old murderer was arrested and taken to hospital for treatment.
So what drove a well-to-do teenager, who went to boarding school, to go on such a heartless killing spree in broad daylight?
From his hospital bed, Hans Van Themsche proudly admitted to being a ‘skinhead’, and said he set off that morning with the direct intention of killing black and Asian people.
He told police that he’d hoped to kill at least five people before dying – in his eyes, like some kind of ‘hero’ – in a hail of police bullets.
‘The suspect said after buying a hunting rifle and ammunition, he purposely sought out people of foreign origin, with the purpose of shooting them down,’ said Dominique Reyniers, a spokesperson for the Antwerp prosecutor’s office.
‘If he hadn’t been stopped, there would have been more victims,’ she said.
When quizzed on why he gunned down 2-year-old Luna, Hans Van Themsche said her ‘presence near a black was sufficient reason’ to kill her.
But what were the origin of the teenager’s racist attitude? It appears they may have been rooted in his upbringing.
Police in Belgium claimed Van Themsche’s father helped found the now defunct anti-immigration party Vlaams Blok. They also said his aunt is an MP for the right-wing party that replaced it, called Vlaams Belang.
However, his father is reported to have praised the police officer that gunned down his son.
‘In my eyes, the policeman who shot down my son is a hero. I’m glad the man had so much courage, or else even more victims would have fallen,’ said Van Themsche’s father.
In court, Hans Van Themsche’s defence lawyers argued that the teenager was mentally ill, suffering with both Asperger syndrome and narcissistic personality disorder, in order to try to sway the verdict in their favour.
The teenager himself blamed his actions on being teased by black and minority youngsters during his time at school.
Van Themsche admitted his guilt, but said his mental illness meant that he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.
‘I know what I did, that was wrong… I want professional help. I need to have psychological help,’ he told the court.
But it didn’t wash with the jury of 12 Belgian citizens, who found Hans Van Themsche guilty on all charges, including murder and attempted murder.
The jury also agreed that the teenager’s crimes were motivated by racism.
Hans Van Themsche was sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2007.
‘You acted with blind violence, without any respect for the lives and integrity of others,’ judge Michel Jordens said in summing up.
‘You reduced the value of life to nothing in order to affirm yourself.’
Van Themsche remained emotionless as the verdict was read out.
But the families of the victims were jubilant.
‘I have never seen more beautiful scenes than inside this courtroom,’ said Jef Vermassen, the lawyer acting for the parents of murdered toddler Luna Drowart.
‘I saw Luna’s parents hug a black man from the family of the babysitter. I watched and saw Luna’s mother shut her eyes. And when it was over and she came to kiss me… she said it’s a small victory. Luna won’t come back, but this is justice.’
Demba Modibo, the uncle of murdered nanny Oulemata Niangadou, also spoke out after Hans Van Themsche’s conviction.
‘He deserves to pay for the crimes he committed, and I hope this will set an example for all those who are racist,’ Demba said.
‘They must change. There is no place for them in the 21st century.’
Songul, the woman shot in the chest by Hans Van Themsche, survived but has been left with lasting injuries.