Mystery ‘forest boy’ identified as Dutch runaway
Suggestions emerge of 20-year-old’s troubled life after stepmother recognizes photo released by German police
A mysterious young man who fooled German authorities into thinking he had spent years living wild in a forest has been identified as Robin van Helsum, 20, a Dutch runaway thought to have been trying to escape a troubled family life.
Van Helsum was waiting to be reunited with his family in Berlin on Friday night after relatives identified a photograph of him circulated by German police earlier in the week.
Dubbed der Waldjunge, or the forest boy, Van Helsum turned up on the steps of Berlin’s town hall last September claiming he had spent five days trekking to the city after burying the corpse of his dead father in a forest. He said his mother had died some years before in a car accident.
He was given refuge at a supervised centre for homeless youths, appointed a legal guardian and given regular health checks while psychologists tried to coax the truth out of the apparently traumatised teenager. But the boy said very little and even his nationality could not be ascertained. DNA tests were carried out to try to establish his identity.
A spokesman for the youth welfare office that took care of him said on Friday that his carers had been shocked to hear that he was an imposter rather than the orphaned boy who appeared to have lost his memory that he had made himself out to be.
“By all accounts he was a really nice, friendly young man who didn’t give anyone any trouble but who, as we now know, was in fact a fraudster,” Ed Koch of the Tempelhof-Schöneberg youth welfare office in southern Berlin told the Guardian. “Of course that comes as a shock to those who have spent time and effort looking after him over the past months.”
Koch said the welfare office was continuing to take care of Van Helsum while he waited for his family to pick him up.
Chantal Westerhoff, spokeswoman for the regional police in Twente, eastern Netherlands, said Van Helsum had been reported missing soon after his departure from his hometown of Hengelo on September 2 last year.
“We are 100 per cent certain that this is the 20-year-old youth whose stepmother has identified him beyond doubt,” Westerhoff said. “We are very happy that he has been found.” She said his stepmother had initially recognised him from the amulet he wore round his neck. But she expressed the frustration of authorities in Germany and the Netherlands.
“This boy has caused many people a lot of trouble, and has a lot to answer for,” she added.
Michael Maass, a spokesman for the Berlin police, told the Guardian that Van Helsum was free to leave Berlin, but may face charges of identity falsification and social security benefit fraud. “Having sponged off a lot of people and taken many of us for a ride he may well find he is presented with the bill for his costs, which amounted to several thousand euros a month.
“We have ensured that we now know where to contact him in case there are moves to prosecute him.”
Van Helsum told police little about his origins. But, identifying himself as Ray, and his parents as Ryan and Doreen, he painted a picture that was elaborate enough to capture the imagination of the German public and led to comparisons with the true 19th-century tale of Kaspar Hauser, a boy who walked out of a forest in southern Germany but could never make himself understood and later killed himself. The story was turned into a film by Werner Herzog.
Van Helsum said he and his father had lived in a forest, sleeping in caves and a tent, and fed off berries and mushrooms. He said his father had died in August last year and given his son instructions to bury him and “walk north until you reach civilisation and then ask for help”.
But on Friday details of Van Helsum’s more prosaic and troubled childhood started to come to light. His parents are believed to have separated when he was two years old, and to have engaged in a protracted battle for his custody which lasted several years. His father, Jan, won custody, but family members told the local paper that the row overshadowed the youth’s life.
When he disappeared last year, his parents issued an appeal on Twitter, saying “Missing Robin … 19 years from Hengelo, urgently contact us, missing since September 2.”
Westerhoff said his parents had registered him as missing, “but there was no official search launched, as he was of legal age and was not in danger of hurting himself or others”.
Because the Berlin police had registered him via Interpol as a minor, no connection was made between “Ray” and Robin.
On Friday his stepmother wept on the telephone to local reporters, saying she would decide whether she went public with her version of events only after she had visited a psychologist.
Van Helsum’s father died in February this year, although it was not known if the youth knew of his death. He reportedly wrote to the family from Berlin telling them he was safe.
On his Facebook page, Van Helsum, who worked in marketing and communication, describes himself as an entrepreneur, and writes that he completed an internship at a telephone company in Hengelo last year which he did not complete. He lists amongst his hobbies reading and video games and cites as his “favourite quotation”: “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine”. His favourite books include The Hobbit and The Little Prince, and among those who have inspired him are John F Kennedy, Erasmus and St Nicholas.
A schoolfriend told the Dutch broadcaster NOS that Van Helsum had had a troubled childhood and he thought he had undertaken the Berlin adventure to escape his problems. “Robin had personal problems and so probably found a way that suited him to begin a new life.”
Frédéric Bourdin was born in 1974. He assumed 39 identities throughout childhood and into adulthood, including impersonating three missing teenagers, adopting the voice and gait of teenage boys and using depilatory creams to look young and smooth-skinned. His last known impersonation was in 2005. In an interview that year Bourdin, who was known as the chameleon, said he had been looking for love and affection having been neglected in childhood.
Andreas Grassl was dubbed the “Piano Man” after he was initially identified as a virtuoso pianist after washing up on a Kent beach in 2005. Grassl (born 1984) triggered worldwide public reaction of sympathy and fascination.He turned out to be a 20-year old Bavarian with unexceptional musical ability. Some said he was a hoaxer while others maintained he had had a blackout or had been trying to escape a repressive Catholic family.
Kasper Hauser was arguably the original “Forest Boy”. He turned up in the southern German city of Nuremberg in 1828 with very little ability to communicate and seemingly no idea as to who he was. It was initially assumed he had been raised in the woods, but he later described being brought up in a dark cell. It is thought he stabbed himself and subsequently died of his injuries, but there are still conspiracy theories around the mystery which spawned a classic film by Werner Herzog and continues to this day to feed the German fascination with primeval forests as typically featured in Grimms’ fairy tales.