Nabil Bakkali, a thirty-year-old member of the Dutch-Moroccan mafia, was smoking hookah and playing pachisi with friends in a lounge in Utrecht in 2017 when a phone call interrupted their game.
It was an associate of Ridouan Taghi, the alleged leader of a brutal cocaine empire and Bakkali’s boss. According to Bakkali’s account, Taghi had ordered him to coordinate a hit on a man he suspected of leaking information to a rival. Bakkali had spent weeks tracking his target and arranging a getaway car for two gunmen outside the target’s high-rise apartment block.
But on the call, Bakkali was told that his shooters had killed the wrong man. Hakim Changachi, a neighbor of their target—an old friend of Bakkali’s and a connected man in the organized-crime world—lay dead. He was a bad man to have killed.
Bakkali was terrified. Soon afterward, he surrendered to police and struck a deal to testify as a witness for the government in the mass prosecution of seventeen alleged members of the Dutch-Moroccan mafia called the Mocro, including Taghi. The case is known, by a randomly generated name, as the Marengo trial.
A week after the deal was publicized, a gunman ambushed Bakkali’s brother at his office in Amsterdam and shot him to death. Derk Wiersum, a criminal defense lawyer, represented Bakkali regardless. “I assist the underdog,” he told an interviewer.
At around 7:30am on the morning of September 18, 2019, a year after Bakkali’s brother had died, Wiersum left his home on a tree-lined street in the outskirts of Amsterdam to go to work. He stepped into his white Mitsubishi Outlander and started the engine. A slim man wearing a dark hoodie walked across the street toward the driver-side window. Wiersum jumped out of his car. After a brief verbal altercation, the gunman fired six shots. Wiersum collapsed. A white van pulled out of a nearby parking space in front of a playground, the gunman got in, and the van peeled away. Wiersum’s wife ran out of the house and found her husband in a pool of blood. The police pronounced him dead at the scene.
Wiersum’s murder shocked the Netherlands and startled Peter R. de Vries, the country’s best-known crime reporter. De Vries, a tall, silver-haired man in his sixties, had chronicled the 1983 kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken, his career-making story and the subject of a best-selling book. He won an international Emmy in 2008 for his television coverage of the disappearance of the American Natalee Holloway in Aruba.
But the killing of a prominent lawyer was on a different level. Now lawyers wanted nothing to do with the case, and journalists were frightened, too. A crime blogger who had first published Taghi’s name was shot dead in 2016. In 2018, a few months after Bakkali’s brother was killed, members of a gang fired an anti-tank rocket at the Amsterdam office building of Panorama, a crime magazine that frequently covered the Mocro. Five nights later, a man crashed a white VW van through the lobby of De Telegraaf, Holland’s largest daily newspaper, then doused the vehicle with gasoline and set it on fire.
Both attacks came at night, so nobody was injured. “I think they just wanted to give a signal,” says Saskia Belleman, a De Telegraaf reporter covering the Marengo trial. “If you keep writing about us, this is what we’ll do.”
Eight in ten Dutch journalists say they have experienced aggression and threats, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the Dutch press safety group PersVeilig. Journalists covering the Mocro are at particular risk. “There are no red lines for them,” Peter ter Velde, PersVeilig’s director, said. “They just do what they want to do, and that means killing.”
De Vries, who tattooed the phrase on bended knee is no way to be free on his calf, was defiant. He began to visit Bakkali in pretrial detention. He knew that several replacements for Wiersum had started to represent Bakkali, only to leave in fear and frustration. So he approached Peter Schouten, a journalist turned lawyer he had known since the eighties, when they ran a crime magazine together. They planned to represent Bakkali themselves.
De Vries had crossed this journalistic line before. He’d raised money to help solve cold cases and acted as an informal adviser to victims’ families. In 2018, he testified as a witness in the trial of Willem Holleeder, one of the Heineken kidnappers accused of subsequent murders, and helped advise Holleeder’s sisters, key prosecution witnesses in the case.
The prospect of getting involved in the Marengo trial was made a little less risky, de Vries and Schouten felt, in 2019. That December, Taghi—who was originally being tried in absentia—was arrested in a mansion in Dubai and deported to the Netherlands. But safety was not guaranteed. Taghi might still find ways to communicate with his underworld deputies.
“Are you willing to do this?” de Vries asked, according to Schouten. “There is danger in this job. Are you afraid?”
“I said, ‘I think it’s more dangerous for you than for me, because you’re a famous journalist. So the chance they shoot you is bigger.’ And then he looked at my belly, and he said, ‘Well, the chance that they hit you is also larger.’”
Schouten and another lawyer at his firm would represent Bakkali, while de Vries would act as a spokesperson. De Vries also envisioned a new role for himself as a “confidential adviser” to Bakkali. He became a paralegal at Schouten’s law firm, and Schouten sued the Dutch government to allow de Vries to speak with Bakkali via an untapped telephone line previously reserved for lawyers.
For de Vries and Schouten, the work was a source of pride. “If you want to live by the rule of law, which is very important for a democracy, you need a dike,” said Schouten, “and the dike should be formed by people standing up, and not by people kneeling down.”
“To tell you the truth, I thought it was madness,” said Peter Elberse, a crime reporter at the Dutch newswire ANP who had known de Vries for more than thirty years. “You’re a dad, you’ve got a partner, you have an ex-wife—you’ve got family.”
Others questioned the ethics and optics of the move. “We all criticized him for doing that,” said Belleman of De Telegraaf. “When are you talking as a crime reporter, and when are you a spokesman of this witness?” But de Vries ignored the criticism. “Peter was the kind of guy that made his own decisions,” Belleman said.
In a TV talk show segment, de Vries had a heated argument with Yelle Tieleman, a younger crime reporter at the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad. “We can no longer call you a crime journalist,” Tieleman told de Vries. The segment was a disaster: “a falling-out on national television,” according to Tieleman. “Lots of journalists warned him, and said, ‘You’re changing the rules, you’re changing the way people look at crime reporters, because suddenly you’re not standing on the sidelines.’”
But while professional colleagues balked, the public largely accepted de Vries’s new role. “He was a larger-than-life figure,” Tieleman said. “Because he was Peter R. de Vries, people sort of accepted it from him.”
By September 2020, Schouten and de Vries had been threatened by Taghi’s gang. Federal counterterrorism experts confirmed the threats were serious. The Public Prosecution Service offered to place them under police protection.
That security can be stifling, said Paul Vugts, a crime reporter for Het Parool, a daily newspaper in Amsterdam. “Up until 2016, nobody thought in Holland journalists would need to live under high protection,” he said. But in 2017, while reporting on the Mocro and other criminals, Vugts learned of credible threats against him. He and his girlfriend fled their home and spent more than six months in a safe house.
“Every day this small army would come to pick me up in armored cars, and then we would go to my appointments,” said Vugts. He needed to share his agenda at least four days in advance, for both professional and personal engagements; he could attend social events, but his security detail would arrive first to perform an inspection. “It was kind of a circus,” he said. After the criminals who had threatened Vugts had been arrested or killed, he asked the police to be released from the protection program. “They had me sign a paper: ‘Okay, if they kill me, it’s my fault.’”
Schouten and his cocounsel accepted the protection, but de Vries refused. According to a documentary about de Vries’s girlfriend, an author and TV news host named Tahmina Akefi, de Vries didn’t want security to take over his life and impede his work. “But that’s different than not wanting security,” Akefi said. De Vries wasn’t given a middle option, she said: it was all or nothing. He chose nothing.
In late June, according to Akefi, she and de Vries were making plans to move in together and get married. He was busy with frequent TV appearances on RTL Boulevard, a popular evening talk show, commenting on crime stories including the Marengo trial as a member of the defense. On July 6, he was scheduled to discuss the murder of a barber, who had been shot in his car while his toddler sat in the back seat. Before he went on air, de Vries texted Akefi: “Snoesje [sweetie] love you.”
At about 7:30pm, according to CCTV footage, de Vries, dressed in a light tan suit, left the studio and walked out onto the narrow commercial street outside, the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat. He walked briskly down the brick-paved road, past diners at outdoor café tables, as he checked his phone. Just outside the parking garage where he had left his car, a man with a dark beard and tattooed neck was waiting. Five short pops filled the air.
A cellphone video taken moments later showed de Vries lying on the ground, bleeding from the side of his face. At first, his arms were crossed loosely on his stomach. They then fell limply to his side. He was rushed to a nearby hospital in critical condition.
News spread across the city. Elberse, the ANP reporter and de Vries’s old friend, raced to the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat by bicycle. “It was chaos,” he said: a blur of crowds, colleagues, and police, who had closed off a section of the street with barriers and tape. “We were all in shock,” he said. “Actually, I still am.”
Within an hour of the shooting, a twenty-one-year-old Dutchman named Delano Geerman, the suspected gunman, and a thirty-five-year-old Polish man named Kamiel Egiert, his suspected accomplice and getaway driver, were arrested about thirty miles outside the city. Later, messages recovered from their phones revealed that an unidentified man had texted them images of de Vries with the message “get this dog.… If you do it right, you may get extra money.” Geerman and Egiert sent back video clips of them testing their weapons, a modified handgun and a machine gun.
According to the Public Prosecution Service, they began shadowing de Vries about two weeks before the attack, tracing his usual route from the RTL studio on the Lange Leidsedwarsstraat and into the parking garage. Immediately after the shooting, the suspects texted the anonymous man.
“Bro that bullet shot right through him twice,” Geerman wrote. “Everything squirted.”
“Nice,” the unidentified man replied.
“That blood make everyone scream.”
While de Vries remained unconscious in the hospital, a bed of flowers appeared on Lange Leidsedwarsstraat where he had fallen. An anonymous group laid four thousand white roses on a lion statue in the city’s central Dam square. Schouten held out hope that de Vries might survive. But de Vries never regained consciousness. On July 15, he died. He was sixty-four.
Royce, Kelly, and Jaqueline de Vries, his adult children and ex-wife, took out a full-page bereavement notice in De Telegraaf, quoting his motto: “On bended knee is no way to be free.” A public memorial service was held a few days later at Amsterdam’s Royal Theater Carré. More than seven thousand people attended.
A trial in the case of the suspected shooters is scheduled for June. Prosecutors have not definitively linked the crime to Taghi. There is also an independent investigation into the Public Prosecution Service and its efforts to protect de Vries.
The Marengo trial is ongoing, held in a maximum-security courthouse referred to as De Bunker. It’s now guarded by military officers as well as police. “It’s really strange to be in this trial and not to meet with [de Vries] anymore,” said Belleman, the De Telegraaf reporter. “Not to see him there with his notebook, his sandwiches he always used to take to the courthouse.”
Reporters covering Taghi in particular are haunted by the crime. Days after de Vries was shot, the RTL Boulevard studio received threats that criminals planned to launch a rocket at the building. The station has broadcast from an undisclosed location outside the city since then. This year, Reporters Without Borders lowered Holland’s place in a yearly press freedom ranking by twenty-two spots—from sixth to twenty-eighth—citing de Vries’s murder, among other factors.
“When they took Peter, that was an accident waiting to happen,” said Vugts, the Het Parool reporter who emerged from police protection. “But it was a big shock for us all, because who is going to be next? Is it going to be a judge? Is it going to be us? We don’t know, but we expect more violence.”
TOP IMAGE: Members of the public pay their respect at a farewell event of Peter R. de Vries in Royal Theater Carre in Amsterdam on 21 July 2021. - Netherlands' crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, who was critically wounded after being shot in broad daylight in Amsterdam last week, died in hospital on July 15. The prominent investigative journalist who had been involved in a court case against one of the country's most wanted drug barons, De Vries, 64, was shot at least five times as he exited a television studio nine days ago. - Netherlands OUT (Photo by Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by SEM VAN DER WAL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)