As It Happens

Discovery of family in Dutch farmhouse 'shocking for the whole community': local reporter

A small Dutch community is reeling after a family of seven was found living in complete isolation in a secret room inside a farmhouse for at least nine years, unbeknownst to neighbours. 

Farmhouse owner facing charges of unlawful confinement after family of 7 found living in secret room

A view of a remote farm where a family spent years in a secret room in Ruinerwold, Netherlands. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

Transcript

A small Dutch community is reeling after police found a family of seven living in complete isolation in a secret room inside a farmhouse for at least nine years, unbeknownst to neighbours. 

Six siblings, believed to be between the ages of 18 and 25, and a man they identified as their ailing father were found at the farm near Ruinerwold, in the province of Drenthe, where they had apparently lived in secret.

"This story is really shocking for the whole community," local reporter Josien Feitsma told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Feitsma works for RTV Drenthe, the first Dutch media outlet to break the story, and has been interviewing residents of the village, which she describes as a close-knit community where people look out for one another. 

"That this could happen just in front of them, of course, is very shocking."

In a statement, police said they found the family in a "small space in the house which could be locked" and that it was unclear whether they were being held against their will. 

The man who paid the rent on the farmhouse will appear in court on Thursday on charges of unlawful detention and harming others' health.

A man walks into a bar

The story broke after the eldest of the siblings, a 25-year-old man, walked into a local pub with dishevelled long hair and a messy beard, and began drinking.

"He ordered five beers and drank them. Then I had a chat with him, and he revealed he had run away and needed help," bar owner Chris Westerbeek told RTV

"He said he had brothers and sisters who lived at the farm. He said he was the oldest and wanted to end the way they were living."

A woman from animal ambulance holds cat carriers at the site of a remote farm where a family spent years in isolation. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

The bar owner and the man called the police together, Feitsma said.

Officers soon swarmed the farmhouse and found the other family members. That's when RTV became alerted to the fact that something strange was happening in the village.

"As a local broadcast service we have, of course, [many] contacts in this area. We work here every day, and we had different sources that came to us and asked about this police ... investigation going on at the house," Feitsma said.

"People thought it would be murder or anything because there were so many [police] cars. So we were digging into this story and we found some answers."

But they also found a lot more questions.

'A lot of speculation'

Authorities have not released the suspect's name, but RTV has identified him Jozef B., a 58-year-old man from Austria. 

"He was kind of a carpenter. So he looked after the house and looked after the garden," Feitsma said. "He was just some kind of a neighbour who was appearing every morning, going to his work and leaving every evening, and taking care of the house."

Villagers told Feitsma they'd tried to get to know him, but that he always kept to himself. 

"In this region, it's also a tradition to welcome new neighbours — and they tried," she said. "They have been talking to this Jozef, ordered him a bottle of wine, ordered him some flowers to get in touch with him but he wasn't interested."

Ruinerwold Mayor Roger de Groot told reporters the suspect is not the father of the family, and that the mother of the children was believed to have died before the family moved to the Dutch farm in 2010.

None of the family members were registered as residents with the municipality, the police statement said.

Some villages have told Feitsma and her colleagues that the family may have held apocalyptic "end of days" beliefs, but neither police nor reporters have been able to confirm this. 

"There is a lot of speculation in the media about what happened, but as police we deal with facts. We still have a lot of unanswered questions," Drenthe police spokeswoman Grietje Hartstra said.

Feitsma says she has a lot of unanswered questions too. 

"We are worried about the condition of these [people]. Are they safe? Are they able to function in the society once again or are they very traumatized?" she said. "Those kind of questions are still open."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Josien Feitsma produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

now