A spate of rapes and sexual assaults spread fear in northern France’s Sambre Valley and nearby Belgium for over 30 years. Investigators only found the alleged perpetrator later.

For 30 years, a spate of rapes and sexual assaults in northern France and Belgium terrified investigators.

The verdict against the man who the judiciary accuses of the crimes is expected in Douai today. He faces 20 years in prison. He is said to have attacked or attempted to attack a total of 56 girls and women. He confessed to most of the attacks.

The crimes always followed the same pattern and all happened within a radius of just 30 kilometers in the Sambre valley in the French-Belgian border area. At dawn in autumn or winter, victims were attacked from behind, choked with a rope or the arm, threatened and raped. “They left me lifeless, half undressed, in cold temperatures. I thought I was dying,” threw a woman who was a victim at the age of 15 to the accused in the process.

Targeted in schools and hospitals

The now 61-year-old man is said to have driven to the vicinity of schools and hospitals for his atrocities because women there went to work early. He probably also sought out women who stayed at home alone after their husbands had left for work.

Although the investigators found the same traces of sperm in the series of rapes between 1988 and 2018, they were not able to identify the perpetrator for a long time. Victims who saw their abuser described an ordinary appearance. In the 1990s, French authorities released mug shots, but the search for the “average man” was unsuccessful and the so-called rapist of the Sambre went undetected.

It was not until 2018 that the alleged perpetrator was caught after a sexual attack on a girl in Belgium. CCTV near the crime scene filmed his number plate and French investigators found the car’s operator resembled mug shots. An officer involved with the case said he saw from the man’s look that they were not wrong. This is the average man they were looking for. Investigators found a knife and rope in the car. A DNA sample confirmed that it was the man she had been looking for. He had previously lived a seemingly ordinary life for decades – he had a family, worked for a mechanical engineer and was involved in a football club.

Experts attest low guilt

During the trial, the court in Douai spent three weeks trying to find out how the crimes came about. The defendant spoke of a certain “drive”, hinting that he might have been abused by his father himself, and said that even as a young man he knew that something was wrong with his relationship with women. According to psychologists, the man was concerned with coercion and violence, and he was not a hypersexual perpetrator. He, who felt exploited, had a feeling of omnipotence during his attacks and also felt superior to the authorities, who were unable to track him down for a long time.

According to the experts, the fact that the suspected serial rapist was able to live with his crimes untroubled for so long is due to the fact that he has refused to face reality and only has a slight feeling of guilt. Shortly after his attacks, he suppressed his actions again. It could therefore be that the man really does not remember some of the attacks. The accused admitted to 40 acts. However, he did not commit 16 attacks for which he has to answer in court.

“Regardless of what happens, the maximum penalty that threatens him is too low,” said the prosecution’s closing statement, with a view to the enormously high number of serious assaults. For the victims, the process and the verdict should be a relief after the long time in which the serial offender seemed to be untraceable. One affected woman was convinced that the procedure would not bring her the truth – but the chance to confront the accused and then to be able to start again.