Appreciating the Late Peter de Vries

The literary legacy of the Dutch crime reporter and author who attackers shot in Amsterdam on July 6

Right after the Dutch author and crime reporter Peter de Vries left a TV studio in Amsterdam on July 6, an attacker opened fire on a busy street, hitting de Vries in the head. Police swiftly made three arrests, but then released one detainee. The motives of the other two suspected in the brazen attack have not yet come to light, though speculation abounds. De Vries died of his injuries on July 15.

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The 64-year-old de Vries becamewhat so many others in the journalistic profession rarely dare to try to be: a writer producing articles and commentary important and influential enough for certain people to want him dead. Matt Taibbi has famously complained about the inability or unwillingness of journalists these days to put themselves or their livelihoods at risk in pursuit of the truth, and said that “All journalists are cowards,” but at least one reporter gives the lie to that generalization.

After more than four decades of work as a highly respected crime reporter, known especially for his coverage of the kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in 1983 and the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005, there are few people in Holland who do not know of de Vries and his bold investigative reporting.

De Vries has gone far beyond the role of the reporter as conventionally understood and has made himself a player in the high-profile cases, including some that he has covered. At the time of the shooting, de Vries was acting as an adviser to a prosecution witness in the so-called Marengo process, the trial of members of a Dutch-Moroccan mafia organization.

But de Vries is even more widely known for having helped obtain incriminating statements from Joran Van der Sloot about what happened to Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005. Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson’s book Portrait of a Monster details how de Vries encouraged a young man named Patrick van der Eem to gain the trust of Joran Van der Sloot over weeks and months, and then helped with the logistics of rigging a car with hidden microphones in preparation for a conversation with Van der Sloot. In the course of that exchange, Van der Sloot, thinking he was speaking to a good buddy in total confidence, told van der Eem about how Holloway supposedly had a seizure during their romantic encounter on the beach in Aruba, and Van der Sloot then panicked.

Peter de Vries in happier, more mustachioed times.

Instead of calling emergency services, he summoned a friend with a small boat to help dispose of Holloway’s body at sea. After so many years of frustration in the Holloway investigation, this taped conversation, with its blunt admission of a role that the police had failed over many months to extract, shocked the world. The Aruban authorities had been stumped for so long. Holloway’s family was crying for justice. People did not examine too closely the ethics of having someone pretend to be a friend, partying and snorting cocaine in front of Van der Sloot, in order to coax incriminating statements from him.

Life imitates art in the most surprising ways. The short story “A Tasty Tidbit” by Janwillem Van de Wetering, a prolific writer of thrillers popular in the 1970s and 1980s, is about a Dutch crime reporter who travels to the U.S. to meet with the suspect in a cold case involving a woman who disappeared, gains his trust, and then extracts a rather matter-of-fact admission that the man fed the missing woman to a shark.

Peter de Vries didn’t exactly shun the spotlight or go out of his way to respect the privacy of the accused. Nevertheless, despite what happened to him, we hope that journalists everywhere, even those who push the envelope in pursuit of a scoop, can continue to live and work in safety. For all the flamboyance of his persona and his tendency to edge into other realms of public activity, de Vries was, at bottom, a journalist writing truths some people don’t want aired.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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