Belgium is a tiny country nestled between the Netherlands, Germany, and France. As a result, Belgium is home to one large community of Dutch-speakers, known as the Flemish, an equally large community of French-speakers, called the Walloons, and a small community of German-speakers. Despite its size, Belgium was once a colonial power that ruled the most resource-rich country in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Since the 1960s, when Belgium lost control of the Congo, it has gone back to just being another small Western European country. However, Belgium’s bliss was brutally interrupted in the early 1980s when at least 28 people were viciously murdered by a pack of criminals later known as the Brabant Killers. Besides the 28 killed, the “Crazy Brabant Killers” also injured 40 and committed a string of very violent robberies.
For the citizens of Brabant Province, Belgium, the era of the Brabant Killers left behind traumatic wounds that have never really healed. Making matters worse is the fact that the killers were never brought to justice.
The following 10 facts highlight just how terrifying the “Crazy Brabant Killers” really were.
10 The Robberies
Beginning in 1982, a series of armed robberies saw at least three men terrorize the cities and small towns of Brabant Province. The first heist occurred on March 13, 1982, when two men armed with a single 12-gauge shotgun attempted to rob a store in Dinant.
Months later, an Austin Allegro and a Volkswagen Santana were stolen by armed men. Eyewitnesses, the police, and the media began to call the thieves the “Gang of Brabant.” Between March and August 1982, they specialized in small-time robberies that targeted grocery stores and restaurants.
The violence escalated on August 14, 1982. While robbing a French grocery store, members of the gang engaged in a shoot-out with the police, resulting in two wounded officers.
On September 30, three armed members of the gang pulled off a brazen daylight heist in Brussels. Their target was a gun store. Once inside, the armed robbers forced all customers and workers to the floor and then began to ransack the store for semiautomatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns. When police officers responded, one was shot and killed while two others were seriously wounded.
The true horror of the Brabant Killers was exposed on December 23, 1982. On that date, police found the corpse of caretaker Jose Vanden Eynde inside the Beersel Inn. Vanden Eynde, a retired taxi driver, was likely targeted as part of the robbery of the Beersel Inn. However, Vanden Eynde had been tortured by the thieves.
At this point in the investigation, the Belgian authorities were not yet convinced that all the crimes were connected. After all, the gang had stolen cars, coffee, food, wine, and other random items so far. With the murder of Vanden Eynde, Belgian police officers initially suspected a political assassination because of the caretaker’s well-known support for General Francisco Franco, the former strongman of Spain.
8 Right-Wing Hit Squad?
One of the first breaks in the case of the Brabant Killers occurred in 2014. Michel Libert was taken in for questioning in relation to the Brabant Killers case by the Belgian police. Libert had once been the second-in-command of the Westland New Post (WNP), a right-wing terrorist network formed in Belgium in 1981.
The WNP had close connections with the Front de la Jeunesse, a Francophone private militia that was found responsible for the murder of an ethnic Algerian man in 1980. The WNP was specifically tasked with attacking immigrant cafes and shops as well as Arab immigrants themselves.
Years later, during the 1990s, certain former members of the WNP and other Belgian right-wing organizations told BBC interviewers that they were encouraged to carry out random attacks by NATO. These attacks, including the work of the Brabant Killers, were all part of Operation Gladio, a supposedly Italian-centric “stay behind” operation established to fight communism in Europe.
According to several sources, the Central Intelligence Agency sponsored and equipped right-wing terrorist groups in Italy, Belgium, and France to terrorize left-wing individuals and groups. Operation Gladio is often blamed as the cause of Italy’s “Years of Lead.”
While the truth of Operation Gladio continues to be debated, it is true that Libert was not charged with any crime and was released by the Belgian authorities in 2014.
7 The Terrible Events Of 1983
The ferocity of the Brabant Killers increased in 1983. Days before January 9, members of the gang murdered taxi driver Angelou Constantin and dumped his body in the trunk of his own taxi. When the police found Constantin’s body, they discovered the butt of a cigarette. Even though this cigarette end has been tested for DNA, no positive matches have yet been found.
Over a month later, three men wearing masks attacked a grocery store in the town of Genval. For the rest of February, the Brabant Killers engaged in several armed robberies that prominently featured the theft of automobiles. Amazingly, nobody was killed during this time.
This streak of no fatalities came to an end on March 3. On that day, three well-armed thieves attacked a grocery store in Halle, Belgium. The store’s manager was shot and killed after he opened the store’s safe for the gunmen. The survivors of this particular robbery also said that the three robbers repeatedly fired warning shots that came close to hitting bystanders.
This growing disregard for innocent life would become a major factor in the gang’s subsequent crimes.
6 The Terrible Events Of 1983
On May 7, 1983, less than $22,000 was stolen from a grocery store in Houdeng-Gougnies, Belgium. The gang’s next crime, the armed robbery of a mechanic’s workshop, proved equally low-paying.
On September 10, the Brabant Killers forced their way into a textile factory late at night. It belonged to the company Wittock-Van Landeghem, which had just begun making state-of-the-art bulletproof vests for the Belgian police. In total, seven vests were stolen and the factory’s night watchman was killed. The man’s wife was seriously wounded during the robbery, while eyewitnesses were threatened with warning shots.
Seven days after this robbery, the gang was busy robbing a Colruyt supermarket when a couple driving a white Mercedes pulled into the store’s parking lot. Seeing this couple, the thieves took them hostage at the same time as police officers responded to the store’s security alarm.
In the ensuing shoot-out, one police officer was killed and another was seriously wounded. The couple was also murdered, and one group of the thieves made their getaway in the stolen white Mercedes. This car was later used as a battering ram against a police roadblock and received several bullet holes as a result.
5 The Terrible Events Of 1983
The Brabant Killers ended their bloody year of 1983 by committing several robberies and murders. On October 2, the owner of a restaurant in Ohain was shot and killed by the gang after they led him outside during a robbery. Five days later in the town of Beersel, the gang attacked a Delhaize grocery store, wounded three customers, and killed the store’s manager.
The last crime of 1983 took place on December 1 in the small town of Anderlues. This time, the target was a novel one—a jewelry store connected to a family’s private residence.
After three gunmen entered the store, they shot and killed the storeowner’s wife, Marie Szymusik. Jean Szymusik, the murdered woman’s husband, shot back against the gunmen, but he was also killed. The Szymusik daughters, who were home during the robbery/murders, were unharmed and actually provided visual descriptions of the killers.
Like most of the gang’s robberies, this attack netted them little money or valuables.
4 The Crimes Of September 1985
For some unknown reason, the Brabant Killers took the entire year of 1984 off. When they returned to their criminal ways in 1985, they came back more bloodthirsty than ever.
On September 27, the gang attacked a supermarket in Braine l’Alleud. They took a child hostage and killed one customer before even entering the store. Once inside, they shot and wounded a man whom they felt was slow in getting prone on the floor.
When the gunmen made their escape, they shot at a white van that was pulling into the grocery store’s parking lot. This final attack killed the male driver and wounded the man’s child, who was merely sitting in the back seat of the van. Three people lost their lives at this location.
Half an hour after this attack, three gunmen attacked a grocery store in Overijse. One of the gunmen shot and killed one of the three children playing close to the grocery store.
When these gunmen entered the grocery store, they shot wildly at any customers they could see. They also took one man hostage. He was murdered after the gunmen made their getaway. Random cars were also shot at following the Overijse robbery. All told, five people died during this attack.
These crimes horrified the Belgian public and forced Prime Minister Wilfried Martens to publicly respond. In 1985, Belgium was also dealing with a Communist terrorist organization called the Fighting Communist Cells, which detonated 24 bombs that year that specifically targeted banks and NATO centers.
3 The Last Heist
The final crime of the Brabant Killers was by far their most gruesome. On November 9, 1985, the gang invaded a supermarket in the town of Aalst. They mostly carried pump-action shotguns.
Even before they entered the store, they started shooting and killing victims in the parking lot. In one instance, the killers cornered an entire family that included a nine-year-old girl and her brother. All were murdered except for David Van de Steen, the brother, who is today an advocate for victims of violent crimes.
Like their September robberies, the killers shot at random customers inside the supermarket. Several eyewitnesses later told the Belgian police that the killers were laughing and smiling as they executed hostages and attempted to shoot store employees. This final massacre by the gang killed eight people.
During most of the gang’s crimes, they worked in groups of three. Oddly enough, eyewitnesses managed to describe at least three of the gangsters. One gang member was called “The Giant,” and he was said to be somewhere around 193 centimeters (6’4″) or 198 centimeters (6’6″). The Giant was described as being the gang’s leader, and at least one eyewitness said that he had a birthmark on his neck.
The second gunman was dubbed “The Killer.” Like The Giant, eyewitnesses described this man as tall and thin. Reportedly, he spoke with a high-class French accent (the entire gang was Francophone) and had a dark complexion. He was also the one responsible for 22 of the gang’s 28 murders. The Killer was the man seen laughing during the group’s final massacre.
Last was the man known as “The Old Man.” He was described as the gang’s getaway driver. Unlike the other two, he was about 50 years old and short in stature.
1 Shocking Confession
For years, Belgian detectives were troubled by the professionalism of the Brabant Killers. Specifically, they noticed that these men knew how to handle weapons, thus convincing some that the gang included former or current soldiers.
In early 2017, the brother of a dead man from the city of Aalst came forward to tell police that his brother had confessed on his deathbed in 2015 to being one of the Brabant Killers. This man claimed to have been the murderer known as The Giant. Most shocking of all was the fact that he was revealed to be a former police officer.
Christiaan Bonkoffsky (aka The Giant) had once served in the elite Diane Group before being fired in 1981. Bonkoffsky’s brother said that Christiaan had been fired for an accidental discharge while on duty. His resentment over this turn of events haunted him for the rest of his life.
As for The Killer, Belgian police officers have long suspected that he was killed after the November 1985 massacre. This is a complicated conclusion given that a body was never recovered.
In October 2017, British newspaper The Guardian quoted Belgian police officials as saying that saliva samples taken from Bonkoffsky in 2000 produced negative results when compared to the DNA samples that had been collected at some of the original crime scenes.
Other suspects in the Brabant Killers case include two former police officers Madani Bouhouche and Robert Beijer, known criminal Philippe De Staercke, drug addict and convicted rapist Patrick Haemers, and former prison director Jean Bultot.
Bouhouche and Beijer were involved in the illegal trade of firearms, and both men sold weapons to extremist groups based in Belgium. Bultot and De Staercke were supposedly connected to a gang of jewel thieves who committed heists that were very similar to the ones carried out by the Brabant Killers. As for Haemers, he was known as one of the gangsters who abducted and ransomed former Belgian prime minister Paul Vanden Boeynants.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston.