The Civil Guard says it has found the remains of a man it believes is Martin Verforndern, a Dutch environmentalist who was reported missing in January 2010 after he left his home in the tiny community of Santaoalla, deep in the mountains of Galicia’s Ourense province.
On June 18, a helicopter patrolling the area as part of a forest fire detail noted an abandoned vehicle in woodland 12 kilometers from Santaolla. A unit was sent to the site the next day, where officers identified Verforndern’s car, a battered Chevrolet Blazer.
The vehicle had been partly burned, and the body left nearby, where it had decomposed. A computer and other belongings were scattered around the area.
Around 60 percent of the skeleton is missing, but the skull is complete, say police. They believe that “at least two people” were involved in what they say is now a murder investigation, and that the killers used another vehicle to leave the scene of the crime. The police add that they will be trying to trace Verforndern’s dental records while at the same time carrying out DNA tests on the remains, a process that could take until September.
Police believe that “at least two people” were involved in what they say is now a murder investigation
The 52-year-old was a German-born, naturalized Dutch citizen who had moved to Santoalla from the Netherlands in the mid-1990s with his wife, Margo Pool. There he set up the Centro Ammehula organic farm, an environmentalist project that attracted a wide range of people from around the world each summer, from backpackers to executives.
Verforndern initially made friends with the only other people living in the community all year round, the Rodríguez family, who run a farm. But over the course of his decade-long stay in Santoalla, it appears that Verfondern gradually fell out with his neighbors, particularly Manuel Rodríguez, who refused to recognize Verfondern’s grazing rights on the huge hillside that overlooks the village, despite a judicial ruling in Verfondern’s favor. Verfondern described the octogenarian Rodríguez as a “fascist” patriarch like Saddam Hussein, who oversaw a vast clan.
Verfondern also fell out with the community’s Socialist Party mayor, Miguel Bautista. Verfondern had repeatedly complained about the lack of amenities in Santoalla, and particularly an open-air refuse site that was polluting the water table and a nearby stream he used to water his goats and sheep. He told the mayor that he would be writing to the regional government and even King Juan Carlos about the failure to provide a paved road or adequate rubbish collection in Santoalla.
Talking to EL PAÍS months before his disappearance, he said that he never left his house without a video camera “on standby.” He reportedly came to blows with Rodríguez on several occasions. The family say that Verfondern once hit Manuel Rodríguez’s wife, and also attacked and injured Rodríguez.
In February 2009, Verfondern decided to contact national media about the issue of the refuse site, adding that he had been insulted and threatened by locals for trying to clean up the village, whose population would rise to around 50 in the summer. It emerged that some locals were unhappy at the numbers of tourists passing through the community, and that Verfondern’s activities, particularly his repeated complaints about the lack of amenities, had alienated him from his neighbours. A member of Amnesty International, Verfondern described the tense relationship he endured with the Rodríguez family and others as “rural terrorism,” saying that he was constantly provoked and threatened.
Verfondern’s wife, who has remained in the village, was in Germany looking after an elderly relative at the time her husband went missing. But guests staying at the Centro Ammehula informed the Civil Guard, who knew about the Dutchman’s problems with his neighbors, and immediately suspected foul play. An extensive search was carried out in the following days and weeks involving helicopters, dogs and search teams, including divers. The family of Manuel Rodríguez was also questioned; all have consistently denied having anything to do with the disappearance.
The case is now being investigated by a local magistrate, who says he is convinced that Verfondern was murdered. The Civil Guard says that despite the murderers’ attempts to cover their tracks by trying to torch Verfondern’s car, “something will turn up, and when it does, somebody is going to fall.”