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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Panos
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One night on the Costa del Sol: a true crime story of rape, murder and wrongful conviction

“All I could think of was: why? Why was I here? How had this happened to me, to an innocent person?”

On 2 September 2003, a Dutchman named Romano van der Dussen walked to the beach in Fuengirola, a resort on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It was noon, and the high-rise apartment blocks along the seafront shimmered in the heat. Van der Dussen opened a can of beer, lay down on his towel and looked out at the Mediterranean.

He had moved to Spain three years before to start a new life. It hadn’t always been the paradise he had dreamed of. He had lost his job working in an ice-cream parlour and broken up with his partner, and he saw little of his two-year-old daughter. Often, he slept in the vestibule of his old apartment building, to which he still had a key, or on the couch at a friend’s house. But he was only 30 years old and he knew there was plenty of time to sort things out.

At around 5pm, van der Dussen left the beach and was walking along the promenade when a police car pulled up. Two officers got out and told him to stop. One of them addressed van der Dussen by name and held up an identikit photograph. “This is you, isn’t it?” he said. The picture showed a man with long, scraggly hair, bulging eyes and a broad nose. Van der Dussen, who has small eyes, a pointed nose and wore his hair short, said he saw no similarity. He asked if this had anything to do with the shopfront window that he had smashed the previous year while drunk and paid damages for. The officers said this was about a different matter, which they would only discuss at the police station.

Van der Dussen was gregarious and well liked by friends and work colleagues, but he could also be irascible. When the policemen insisted he should go with them, he pushed one of the officers and swung his arms wildly as he tried to flee. But the officers quickly pinned him down, cuffed his hands and bundled him into the back of their car.

***

Twenty-three days earlier, at 5.33am on 10 August, police had been called to an apartment in the centre of Fuengirola. When the two officers arrived, they found a woman covered in blood. She was crying. Her trousers and underwear were ripped. The 29-year-old Spaniard said that she had been walking alone at around 4.30am when an unidentified man punched her to the ground and then attempted to rape her. A female witness told the police that, from her balcony, she had seen a man lingering near the scene after the attack.

An hour later, the assailant struck again on a street just 500 metres away. The modus operandi was similar: the man hit a 33-year-old women in the face, threw her to the floor, took her mobile phone and wallet and then tried to rape her, before fleeing when a car approached.

On a nearby side street, some 30 minutes later, he struck for a third time, pouncing on a 19-year-old, whom he robbed and sexually assaulted. The victim told police that she was attacked with such aggression that she felt that the rapist hated her, even though he did not know her.

***

In the police interrogation room in Fuengirola, van der Dussen listened to the descriptions of the rapes with bewilderment. His Spanish was poor and the police denied his request for an interpreter. It took some time before he realised he was the prime suspect. He vehemently denied any involvement. He said he did not know the part of Fuengirola where the crimes had occurred and volunteered to submit to DNA testing. He also had an alibi: he told the officers that, on the night of the attacks, he had been at a party in Benalmádena, ten miles from Fuengirola, and that he had witnesses to prove it.

Yet the police never tried to confirm his alibi or investigate his other claims. They believed – or wanted to believe – that they had their man, because they were under huge pressure to solve the crime.

Since the early 1980s, thousands of northern Europeans, many of them British, had moved to the Costa del Sol for the weather, the low cost of living and, in some cases, to escape justice. Over time, the south of Spain became so well known for criminal activity that the British press took to calling it the Costa del Crime. Relations between locals and expats were increasingly strained, and the sexual assaults, along with the murder of a Spanish teenage girl four days later in Málaga, had left residents fearful and demanding justice.

Over the following days, van der Dussen was interrogated for many hours and, he later claimed, the officers assaulted him in his cell every night. “They beat me so badly that one night I started to pee blood,” he declared in a police statement seven months after his arrest.

For their part, the police made much of van der Dussen’s behaviour under interrogation. According to their reports, he had been aggressive and uncooperative, and made misogynistic comments that confirmed “his profound hatred towards the opposite sex”. Their interest in this part of the Dutchman’s conduct was unsurprising, because it was his history of trouble with women that had led the police to him in the first place. (The Spanish national police ignored requests for a comment for this article.)

****

Romano van der Dussen was born in Leiden, near The Hague, in 1973. His father, Robert, ran a small business, while his mother, Johanna, looked after Romano and his two sisters. The children attended the local school, and at weekends Robert would take them to see the canal boats sailing up and down the waterways. Though Romano struggled academically, owing to his problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in those early years the family had few obvious problems. “He was a handsome little boy, who was very close to his mother,” Robert told me. “We were a happy family back then.”

But the van der Dussens were suppressing a trauma. “Romano’s mother was raped when she was 16, two years before I met her,” Robert said, “and she carried it with her for the rest of her life.”

Johanna, a Catholic, decided to keep the daughter she gave birth to as a consequence of the rape but thereafter suffered from chronic depression. At the age of eight, Romano was taken into care by social services and later moved to a home for disruptive children where, his father suspects, he started taking soft drugs and became involved in petty crime.

After a spell in a juvenile prison, he moved to Amsterdam, where he found some stability, taking a job at a Hilton hotel. Yet before long, he was bingeing on hard drugs and alcohol. It took until his mid-twenties before van der Dussen resolved to change his life. He checked into rehab and promised himself that when he finished the programme he would make a new life outside the Netherlands.

“I was trapped in a vicious cycle, with the same group of friends, doing the same things I had always done,” he told me. “I thought it was time to move on.”

He arrived in Spain with his Belgian girlfriend and baby daughter in 2000 and found work at Irene’s Ice Cream Shop in Fuengirola. But the following year, he got into trouble with the police when his girlfriend accused him of threatening behaviour following an argument in the street. In early 2003, he was arrested after a Brazilian prostitute accused him of rape. Although he was not charged in either case, his conduct towards women was recorded in police files, and his photograph appeared in an album of local offenders. It was this album that was shown to the victims of the Fuengirola rapist immediately after the attacks.

***

The women’s initial descriptions of their assailant were varied, describing him as either tall or short, with either brown or blond hair, and wearing either a dark or light-coloured T-shirt. When the second and third victims were shown the police album, neither identified van der Dussen as the attacker; nor did the witness who had seen a man loitering after the first attack. (The first victim was suffering amnesia as a result of her injuries and was not shown the album.)

On 20 August 2003 – ten days after the sexual assaults – the identikit image was drawn up using the third victim’s description. The women were shown the identikit, and then asked to look at the album again. This time, the third victim identified van der Dussen, as did the witness. The second victim expressed doubt and requested an identity parade.

On 5 September, three days after van der Dussen was detained, police organised a line-up. Spanish law dictates that all members of an identity parade should be of similar height, build and complexion. Yet van der Dussen, who is pale and slim, was put alongside men of dark complexions and stocky builds. The law also prohibits witnesses from speaking to each other beforehand. A court document later submitted by van der Dussen’s lawyer claimed that the three women talked prior to the parade.

After the line-up, all three identified van der Dussen as the assailant. He was charged and sent to prison without bail.

***

Accused rapists are targeted in prison and van der Dussen was no different. After being beaten up by other inmates, he was moved to solitary confinement for almost 14 months, where for 23 hours a day he was locked in a cell, except for a one-hour break in an open-air courtyard. “All I could think of was: why? Why was I here? How had this happened to me, to an innocent person?”

Ten months after his arrest, while he was still on remand, two people who claimed to have been with him at the party on the night of the attacks wrote to the Spanish police saying that they were willing to testify in court. One of these witnesses, Frank Donnelly, a British expat then living in the area, told me that he remembered playing drinking games with van der Dussen – one involved the Dutchman karate-kicking beer cans off his head – for much of the night. Donnelly claims that the Dutchman stayed over at his house that night.

Other factors gave van der Dussen confidence that judges would acquit him when the case reached court. He did not appear in any of the CCTV footage taken from the neighbourhood at the time of the attacks. The fingerprints found on the outside of a parked car near the scene of the first assault were not his. And forensic officers had confirmed that the DNA of an unidentified male extracted from the pubic hair of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s.

The trial began in Málaga in May 2005, more than 20 months after his arrest. The Dutchman stood accused of three counts of sexual assault, three counts of assault and two counts of robbery. Entering the courtroom, his certainty of acquittal began to wane. In front of him was a large screen covering where the victims were sitting; they could see him but he could only hear them. As he sat down, one of the women shouted, “I hope they send him to hell.” The gallery responded with affirmative murmurs.

On the first day of proceedings, two of the victims and the witness testified. (The first victim did not give evidence, owing to her amnesia.) When the second victim got up to give evidence, she called the Dutchman a “son of a bitch”. The third victim began to cry as she recalled the details of her assault, while the witness told the court that she was certain that she had seen van der Dussen from her balcony around the time of the first attack. The prosecutors focused on his troubled past and drug addiction. They portrayed van der Dussen as an evil misogynist.

Free at last: Romano van der Dussen in Mallorca, February 2016. Photo: Sofia Moro

When it was the turn of the defence, the court heard that the DNA found on the body of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s. His lawyers argued that this alone was enough to exonerate the Dutchman, as the only other possibility – that the DNA had come from a known sexual partner – had also been ruled out. The defence also pointed to the absence of any fingerprint or CCTV evidence linking van der Dussen to the crimes. But, crucially, the lawyers had failed to submit the requisite paperwork that would have allowed the statements from the witnesses who said they saw van der Dussen at the party on the night of the attacks. The testimonies supporting his alibi were never heard.

The Dutchman grew increasingly anxious. During the cross-examination of one of the scientific experts, he panicked – just as he had done on the promenade on the day of his arrest. Standing up, he began proclaiming his innocence, shouting raucously in Dutch, and pleading with the court translator to explain his plight to the three judges. They ejected him from the courtroom for contempt.

On 25 May, the judges reached their verdict. They agreed with the prosecution that the geography, time and modus operandi of the attacks suggested that there could be only one attacker. With this in mind, and solely on the basis of the women’s testimonies, they found van der Dussen guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 15-and-a- half years in prison.

Van der Dussen received news of the decision in jail. “I will never be able to explain what I felt at that moment,” he told me. “To be found guilty of something that you didn’t do. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t know what to do.”

Days after the sentencing, he fashioned a knife out of the lid of a tin and started to slash his wrists. But it was not sharp enough and, as he struggled to pierce his skin, he began to think what his death might mean. He didn’t want to be labelled a rapist – the type of man who had ruined his mother’s life. He did not want to give anyone else cause to believe that he might be guilty. He put the knife down.

***

On 25 September 2005 – four months after van der Dussen’s conviction – the body of Sally Anne Bowman was found next to a skip in Croydon. The 18-year-old singer and part-time model had been out the night before with friends and on the way home had quarrelled with her ex-boyfriend. She had climbed out of his car to walk the rest of the way home. Soon afterwards, at around 4am, Bowman was attacked just metres from her front door. According to reports, the young woman was stabbed, bitten and then raped while she was dead or dying.

Almost nine months later, Mark Phillip Dixie, a 35-year-old chef with a long criminal record of burglary, sexual assault and indecent exposure, was arrested for fighting outside a pub. As is routine, police took a DNA swab. When it was found to match that of Bowman’s killer, Dixie was arrested for murder.

His genetic profile was subsequently added to various criminal databases, including that of Interpol, where, in November 2006, staff found that it also matched the unidentified DNA found on the first victim of the Fuengirola attacks in August 2003. Interpol alerted the British and Spanish authorities, noting that Dixie had lived in Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol from late 2002 to October 2003. The implications were clear – the wrong man was in prison. Furthermore, if Dixie had been correctly identified and arrested as the perpetrator of the rapes, Sally Anne Bowman would still be alive.

Responding to the Interpol notice, the Spanish police said they needed more proof, and in April 2007 asked for a fresh sample of Dixie’s DNA to be sent to Spain. The Metropolitan Police in turn petitioned the Fuengirola court for their officers to be able to reinvestigate the rapes, as part of their case against Dixie.

“Both these requests should have taken a matter of months to process,” Francisco Carrión, a lawyer on van der Dussen’s current legal team, said. “Instead, they became entangled in a hellish administrative web.”

In February 2008 at the Old Bailey, Dixie was found guilty of Sally Anne Bowman’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Newspaper reports of the verdict speculated that Dixie might have committed other sexual crimes, possibly even murders, in Australia during the 1990s. But the Spanish sexual assaults went unnoted, and for good reason: the Metropolitan Police had not sent the sample of Dixie’s DNA to Spain and had never received permission to investigate the crimes. (The Metropolitan Police has declined to comment on this.)

There was one more crucial thing that had not happened. Nobody had informed van der Dussen that the real perpetrator of the Fuengirola attacks had been identified.

***

The Dutchman had been in prison for nearly four-and-a-half years. He concerned himself with staying healthy – scrubbing his cell with bleach to kill the cockroaches until his eyes puffed red – and out of danger. At one point, an inmate had held a knife to his throat and sworn to kill him. With few friends, he spent most of the time alone in the library, immersing himself in the complexities of the Spanish judicial system, reading thrillers – he enjoyed James Patterson novels – and writing his memoirs.

Early in 2009, he learned that his mother, Johanna, had cancer and was dying at the family home in the Netherlands. Van der Dussen asked for special dispensation to visit her. “The prison authorities agreed, but only on the basis that I admit to the crimes,” he told me.

Though he was desperate to see his mother, van der Dussen refused. “Clearing my name became an obsession and one that I couldn’t let go,” he said. He asked the warden if he could speak to his mother via a video call, but his request was denied.

“To be made to hurt the person you love most in the world or to maintain your integrity as a human being: that was the inhumane choice I had to make.”

***

In May 2010, a Dutch diplomat who had recently learned of the evidence implicating Dixie visited van der Dussen in prison and gave him the news. Van der Dussen was incredulous – and furious. “How could two governments from two European countries take so long to process paperwork?” he said. “And why had nobody thought to mention it to me?”

He decided to seek a new lawyer. Though he had no money, he wrote to every legal firm he could find details of and explained his plight. Silverio García Sierra, a Madrid-based lawyer, agreed to take on the case. “At first I was reluctant,” García told me, “but as I read more and more about it, I couldn’t believe some of the irregularities and the number of injustices that Romano had suffered.”

In May 2011, García appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court to reopen van der Dussen’s case on the basis of the DNA evidence implicating Dixie. But by 2013, there had still been no progress, prompting García to accuse the ministry of justice in writing of negligence and malpractice.

In its response, the ministry did not recognise any failings. “They said that what had happened in 2007-08, regarding the processing of the DNA and the UK’s request, had legally expired, and that the problems of recent years did not fall under the responsibility of any magistrate,” García told me.

Every week van der Dussen would ring him from prison, hoping to hear news of his imminent release, and every week García would have to tell him that there had been yet another delay.

***

On 19 August 2015 – nine years after Interpol first informed Spain about the evidence implicating Mark Dixie – the Spanish forensic police finally confirmed a match between Dixie’s DNA and the sample found on the first victim’s body. García’s appeal to the supreme court was accepted and, in early 2016, the case went to trial.

Van der Dussen’s legal team was confident. It had the DNA match. It had the testimony of Marcus Downie, a British citizen who accounted for the Dutchman’s presence at the party on the night of the attacks, and whose testimony had not been heard during the first trial. And, most importantly, it had a written confession from Mark Dixie.

Criminal intent: the convicted killer Mark Dixie. Photo: PA

A Dutch lawyer, Rachel Imamkhan, who had been hired by van der Dussen’s father, Robert, using funds from a Kickstarter campaign, had travelled to HM Prison Frankland in Durham to record Dixie’s testimony. Dixie told the lawyer that he had assaulted and attempted to rape the first victim. However, he said that because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night, he could not remember the other two attacks. (I wrote to Dixie in Frankland requesting an interview, but he did not respond.)

During van der Dussen’s original trial, the judges concluded that the three attacks were the work of a single perpetrator. But when considering the new evidence, the Spanish supreme court said it could only consider a revision of one of the three sentences (that which corresponded to the first victim) because the new physical evidence pertained only to her and not to the other two victims.

On 10 February 2016, it absolved van der Dussen of the crimes committed against the first victim. Since he had already served his time for the other two charges, he was free to leave prison. However, he would do so as a convicted rapist.

***

The next morning, van der Dussen walked out of Palma prison on the island of Mallorca into the pale winter sun. He carried two plastic bags filled with old clothes and €33. He was met by his Spanish girlfriend, a volunteer whom he had met at the prison two years earlier, and Father Jaume Alemany, the prison chaplain.

He looked haggard and thin, and there was no joy on his face as he told the press that his life had been ruined. “The blame doesn’t lie with the victims. The authorities created this hell,” he said.

He had been locked up for 4,542 days. The world had changed. “When Romano first left prison, he needed to make a call and he asked me where the nearest phone box was,” Father Alemany told me.

At first, the freedom was overwhelming. The day after his release, he drank six espressos in a row at a café. He bought a pair of Nike Airs with money lent to him by his family and stopped wearing them when he realised he was not the 30-year-old who entered prison but the 43-year-old who had been released. “In jail, time doesn’t pass like it does in the real world,” van der Dussen told me at a café near his rented flat in Palma. “Things don’t change and you experience nothing that makes you different. It is only when you’re out and you look at yourself in the mirror that you see you’ve grown old.”

He felt nervous in wide-open spaces or crowds. At night, he dreamed that he was back in prison; that his fellow inmates were trying to kill him; that his mother was still waiting to say goodbye. According to his psychiatrist’s report, van der Dussen suffers from severe depression and anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks.

He had a job as a hotel receptionist for several months, but could not handle the stress of dealing with demanding clients. Although his girlfriend is helping him keep his life together, he still spends a lot of time alone, wandering the streets, or watching the Discovery Channel – and waiting. The Spanish government owes him compensation for the 1,231 days he spent wrongly incarcerated for the crimes against the first victim. He asked for €6m and the government has yet to make a counter offer.

When he is paid, he plans to go to England to try to track down more people who attended the party on the night of the attacks. He hopes these additional testimonies will persuade the supreme court to re­open his case and clear his name of the other two convictions. Until then, he says, he won’t permit himself to think of a future. 

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit