All Things Crime Blog welcomes this third dispatch from our Cambodian correspondent Bob Couttie on the brutal slaying of French holidaymaker Ophelia Begnis in the sleepy Cambodian river town of Kampot, in  what has been termed “the ex-pat murder.”

by Bob Couttie

sunsetKampot, Cambodia: It rained hard from 3am, heralding the approaching monsoon season. At dawn the skies cleared, an Asian orange sunlight glistening off two concrete art-naïf figures of a man and woman gathering salt in the centre of a traffic island. To one side of the Saltworkers Circle is the Kampot Court of First Instance. Down a short dirt road opposite is the town prison, the second most overcrowded in the country, where Belgian Oliver ‘Olly’ Van Den Bogaerts awaits the hearings on June 6 which will determine whether he becomes a free man or is put on trial for the murder of a 25 year-old French tourist, Ophelia Begnis.

Assaults on foreigners are rare in this quiet, sleepy town, let alone brutal murders, so this is a significant case. There is little investigative experience in such things among the local police force. As one former policeman says, “If I want water from the empty glass I beat the glass until it produces water.” In this case beating the glass is not an option.

The authorities would prefer the perpetrator to be a foreigner, of that there can be no doubt. This is a bucolic tourist town, rampaging killers of foreign nationals isn’t good for business. More than that, it runs against the image of the town as a safe place to hang out and relax, it doesn’t jibe with the self-image of what is, after all, a beauty spot, and is in fact a historically safe place for holiday making.

barLittle substantial evidence has been released, something that has caused complaints in expat gatherings in the town: “Nobody knows what’s going on,” says one. They are particular irritated by inaccurate reportage, particularly in the Belgian media, which has suggested that Van Den Bogaerts has admitted knowing the victim. He did not. Other media has reported that he has confessed to the killing. He has not. Others have claimed that he quickly sold his guesthouse business, Olly’s Place, immediately after the the February 9 murder, although it was actually up for sale in October last year and he had announced plans to move to Ecuador long before the killings.

Some of the expat community express certainty that Van Den Bogaerts is innocent – “No reasonable person thinks Olly is guilty,” says a friend who preferred not to be named. Most, however, simply say they don’t know, but the available evidence is weak.

Even so, and characteristic of that community, expats have provided Van Den Bogart with a mattress and sent food to the prison, where amenities are in short supply.

Van Den Bogaerts is said to be treated treated well but outside contact is limited – prison authorities have refused to let him receive a letter from his mother and it is difficult for visitors to gain access to him.

Despite the help of French forensics investigators, little is known about the circumstances of the murder, in particular where it took place. Given Begnis’s violent injuries, there should still be traces of blood at the murder site which has yet to be found despite heavy-handed searches by the local and national police authorities.

opheliaBegnis left her guesthouse, Les Manguiers, on a bicycle at 4:30 on the afternoon of February 9. Her body was found in the Kampong Bay River the next day, severely battered and with signs of rape. A bicycle alleged to have been the one she rented from the guesthouse has been recovered from the river. However, this type of bicycle is common; there are literally thousands of them of the same colour and style on the roads of Kampot. They are of Chinese manufacture and copied from the British Raleign Superb. According to Cambodia Daily, a manager at Les Manguiers was only 75 per cent sure that the bicycle was one of those they rent out.

That piece of evidence is certainly not beyond reasonable doubt.

An eye witness has described seeing a foreigner of Van Den Bogaerts’s size and build, wearing a jacket, disposing of the bicycle. Van Den Bogaerts says that the jacket was given away long before the murder.

oliverCircumstantial evidence comes from Van Den Bogaerts’s increasingly erratic behaviour before the murder. He was undergoing a period of great stress before the murder; his relationship with his Thai girlfriend, with whom he has a daughter, had broken down. He complained that even after three years in Kampot he’d not been able to have a conversation with a local woman. Still, that’s hardly enough to call him a murderer, or to motivate him to commit a murder.

Van Den Bogaerts certainly had an unpleasant, dark side to him. He told a friend he didn’t set out to make friends, and he appears to have made few in this close-knit community. But that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of the crime.

Van Den Bogaerts’s family has been pressing the French to conduct and release DNA findings. Cambodia has no DNA laboratories and this case may be the first in Cambodia to feature DNA evidence. However, there are only three DNA laboratories in France, all with a high workload, and the case is given a low priority because the French authorities do not consider Van Den Bogaerts to be a suspect.

courtAlthough Van Den Bogaerts is in pre-trial detention, local police seem far from satisfied that they have the right man – they say the are still looking for suspects.

For some in Kampot there is a conflict between hoping the police have the right man and knowing that if Van Den Bogaerts is innocent, the real killer may still be out there.

A young female bar manager, admits that the idea is chilling: “I’m worried” she says. Before the murder it’s unlikely anyone had such worries. Now the whole town is worried and that’s unlikely to change until this is settled, one way or the other.

See also:

Dispatch From Cambodia: Murder In A Sleepy Town

Kampot Murder Investigation: The DNA Issue

Cambodia Murder Investigation: Update From Kampot

The Kampot Murder: The Mystery of the Red-Headed Woman

Cambodia Murder Investigation: Update From Kampot

More stories from Bob Couttie

 

 

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16 Responses to The Kampot Murder: The Chilling Price of Innocence

  1. Bob Couttie says:

    Despite the reluctance of the French authorities it is understood that DNA results will be available in a week or so.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      Why this change of heart on the part of the French? Does this mean that the DNA evidence will be introduced at the June 6th hearing?

  2. Michael Sellers says:

    Maybe this is a dumb question, but can somebody tell me why the French would “not consider a suspect” someone who has been locked up by the Cambodians over this? It flies in the face of logic. Their determination of whether he is a suspect or not would surely be a function of what the Cambodians are telling them, since they have not investigated it themselves, and the Cambodians are surely telling them he’s a suspect–why else would he be locked up? Anyway, I have a feeling that this may be something that comes from a statement by the attorney or a family member, not the French authorities. Or maybe there’s an explanation and I’m just missing it.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      It could be that the French authorities have a slightly different definition of what constitutes a “suspect.” Perhaps in their quintessentially logical minds someone cannot go beyond being a “person of interest” until they are bound over for trial. Only then does one become a “suspect.” Of course, that would make “suspect” synonymous with what we here in the States call a “defendant.”

  3. dotty says:

    imo it could mean it all…
    usually, someone gets arrested when there is
    – “solid” evidence, that he commimted the deed, or is involved in it PLUS
    – a danger to the public, he might try to flee the country…

    so, maybe the frenchs think:
    a) the cambodian circumstancial evidence is so strong AND he is arrested already, that we prove first more urgent matters
    b) the cambodian evidence isnt worth much, and we dont mind if he is in prison, as he isnt our citizen…

    a) seems more plausible to me…

  4. Bob Couttie says:

    It is, of course, unsafe to speculate when so little evidence has been made available – I’ve seen some really outrageous stuff in certain forums – and we’ll have to wait until the pre-trail hearings to see how strong that evidence is. The investigating judge may dismiss the case or put it forward for trial.

    The only speculation I would make is that Olivier Van Den Bogaerts presented an identifiable flight risk which would certainly be grounds for his detention. He left Kampot immediately after the murder to go to Thailand to see his former girlfriend and daughter and returned later. He had a certain amount of money after the sale of the guesthouse. He had announced plans to leave Cambodia.

    His arrest and detention could be justified on that basis.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight. I will wait for the hearing and report accordingly as accurately as possible, typos not withstanding.

  5. Bob Couttie says:

    I am currently seeking to confirm reports that Van Den Bogaerts has been moved from the prison in Kampot.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      Very interesting! Why do you think they would move him on the eve of the hearing?

      • Bob Couttie says:

        He’s still in the prison but was taken to a hearing on 30 May, a continuation of the first hearing which was suspended because the translator was not adequate. The departure for the hearing was observed by a local expat – always a gossipy lot wherever you are.

        He has, for the first time, had the opportunity to deposit a list of people he says can testify to his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

        The investigating judge will now question those witnesses.

        There is also an investigation judge in France who is going over trace evidence.

  6. […] The Kampot Murder: The Chilling Price of Innocence […]

  7. Paul Booth says:

    The photos attached to Bob’s in-depth report do not have any captions explaining who the characters pictured are. We are left guessing. Can Bob Couttie not caption the photos so to aid understanding for the reader. Having been a journalist for 40 years that should not be beyond Bob. Apart from that an intriguing murder tale but also shines a light on life in Kampot for foreigners.

    • PatrickHMoore says:

      Sorry, Paul, but since we are a blog and not a newspaper we do not caption the images.

      If you go to the blog carousel and scroll across to the right, you will come to a post entitled: “Cambodian Ex-Pat Murder Suspect Pleads for Bail.” If you click on it, you will see that all the Ex-Pat posts are linked at the bottom. If you read the various posts, you will get a good sense of the history of this case.

      Sorry for any frustration you may feel.

    • Bob Couttie says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. Captioning, or lack of it, is a decision by the editor so it’s not really in my hands. Kampot is a lovely, and very safe town and incidents like this are so rare no-one can remember the last one. While this is a nasty case one hopes that some of the character of the town itself is coming through.

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