Who Killed Sally van Hecke? Feds Say Arizona Man Is Key to Belgian Cold Case

The Belgian government is asking the U.S. to help connect them with an Arizona man who may be the key to unraveling a cold case involving a convicted serial killer. Last week, an assistant Arizona U.S. Attorney filed a motion to fulfill the Kingdom of Belgium's requests for assistance.

In the early morning hours of August 10, 1996, someone killed 20-year-old Sally van Hecke. Her mutilated and partially clothed body was found by two children in the reeds along the Scheldt River in Antwerp, Belgium. The last people to see the young mother alive said they saw her get into a large blue Cadillac with an Arizona license plate with a man with a ponytail and jeans.

At the time of her death, Van Hecke was struggling to overcome her addiction to heroin. That evening, she had taken a walk in Antwerp's prostitution district, where she sometimes worked to pay for her habit. Two days after her death, a local newspaper ran a story about the brutal murder under the headline: "Heroin whore beaten to death on the Left Bank."

Police kept the case open for eight years before closing it in 2005 without finding the culprit. It was reopened in 2017 only after an investigative journalist began looking into the case and followed up on leads the police never had.

In 1998, Kurt Wertelaers was working as a crime reporter for De Persgroep when the murder of 29-year-old Yolanda Prinsen brought him to a village on the border between the Netherlands and Belgium called Koewacht, where police were going through the home of Sven Bergunde, a traveling engineer and car enthusiast.

But it wasn't Bergunde police were after. The engineer was often away from home, splitting his time between Koewacht and Arizona, and in his absence he allowed acquaintance Claudy Pierret to look after his home and cars.

Like Van Hecke, Prinsen struggled with drug addiction and was last seen in Antwerp. Her body was found months later; her feet had been cut off. At the time when police were searching Bergunde's home, Pierret was already a suspect in the 1995 death of Marie-José de Nocker, who was found mutilated under a bridge in Vrasene.

While Wertelaers was in Koewacht covering the Prinsen murder in 1999, he asked a neighbor about Pierret. The man said he didn't really know Pierret, but that he was always wearing jeans, kept his hair pulled back in a ponytail, and often drove a blue Cadillac owned by his friend Bergunde.

Wertelaers passed along the tip to police, letting them know Pierret could possibly be connected to the murder of Van Hecke because he matched witnesses' descriptions of the last person Van Hecke was seen with and drove a blue Cadillac.

Ultimately, police found a snuff film at Pierret's home of a woman being murdered. Her feet were cut off as well. It's unclear who the woman in the snuff film was, but it reportedly helped lead to Pierret's 2011 conviction for the murders of Prinsen and de Nocker. Pierret later confessed to killing them both, admitting he tortured de Nocker to death at his home in Koewacht.

Wertalaers, who was going through Van Hecke's case file in 2016, found that police had never followed up on his lead regarding the Cadillac and Pierret, despite the fact that Wertelaers was not the only one who had called police to say they suspected Pierret could be involved in Van Hecke's murder.

Wertelaers showed photographs of the light blue Cadillac and Pierret to the last people to see Van Hecke alive. The witnesses identified the Cadillac as the car they saw Van Hecke get into, and Pierret as the man driving it.

So Wertelaers flew to Phoenix, where he found Sven Bergunde — and the light blue Cadillac. Bergunde confirmed the car was in his garage in Koewacht at the time of Van Hecke's murder and said he allowed Pierret to drive it. But Bergunde was shocked by Wertelaers' questions: He had never before been questioned by investigators.

Now, Belgian authorities have reopened the case. In addition to Wertelaers evidence, advancements in DNA testing allowed investigators to re-examine the boots Van Hecke had been wearing at the time of her murder, which had been preserved in a plastic bag for over 20 years. Investigators say they found DNA evidence linking Pierret to Van Hecke on the boots.

On April 30, U.S. Attorney Brian Kasprzyk filed an ex parte application in Arizona's federal court in an attempt to assist Belgian authorities in the investigation.

Kasprzyk asked the court to allow him "to collect evidence from witnesses and to take such other action as is necessary to execute a request for assistance in a criminal matter from the Government of the Kingdom of Belgium."

"To further the investigation," Kasprzyk wrote, "authorities in Belgium have asked U.S. authorities to arrange for an interview of Bergunde to ask additional questions regarding not only the Cadillac but also his friendship with Pierret."

The request was assigned to Arizona U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow, but there's been no further activity in the docket. If the judge grants Kasprzyk's request, investigators may finally be able to solve the murder of Sally Van Hecke.
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.