On the night of October 5th, Jan Zon van Dorsten walked into his local bar in a rural part of the Netherlands. But the 25-year-old — with a long, shaggy beard and loose-fitting, outdated clothing — arrived as the bar was closing, and was sent home. He tried again eight days later. This time, over five pints of beer, he told the owner of the bar that he had been living in isolation with his family for the past nine years and needed help.
Since the story first broke on Tuesday, October 15th, more bizarre details have emerged. At this point, there have been two arrests for deprivation of liberty and money laundering, potential cult connections and reports that the family was waiting out the end of days. There are still many unanswered questions, but here’s what we know so far.
When Zon van Dorsten ventured out on Sunday, October 13th, it wasn’t only for a few beers: he was looking to escape, and turned to Chris Westerbeek, the owner of Café De Kastelein for assistance, telling him about his isolated living conditions.
“Later he also said that he had a brother and sisters who lived in the farm. He was the oldest and wanted to put an end to the way they lived,” Westerbeek told Dutch broadcaster RTV Drenthe. When Zon van Dorsten asked Westerbeek for help, he called the police. “They came and talked to him in the car for a long time and took him away,” Westerbeek told the Dutch newspaper Trouw. “I heard him say to them: ‘I don’t exist in this world, I don’t exist in your computer.”
And while Zon van Dorsten — who wasn’t born in the area and may not have been registered when he was brought to the town — may not have an entry in the town records, it appears as though he has had a social media presence since June, occasionally posting to Instagram and LinkedIn, though it has not yet been confirmed that he has been operating these accounts himself. This is only one of the many unknowns in the complicated, confusing emerging story of a Dutch family who has lived in a farmhouse bunker for nearly a decade.
When the police arrived at the bar on Sunday, they took Zon van Dorsten with them, and then searched farmhouse in the village of Ruinerwold where he said he had been living with his five siblings and father for the past nine years. Once inside, the police found a hidden staircase leading to the basement, located behind a cupboard in the living room, RTV Drenthe reported. Once in the basement, the police found a 67-year-old man — thought to be the father of the family — and five other people between the ages of 18 and 25. And, as Zon van Dorsten warned, the police were unable to locate any records proving that the members of the family were residents of the municipality, despite them living in the area for at least nine years — contributing to the idea that they may have been relocated and held there against their will. The local mayor, Roger de Groot said in a press conference that the mother of the family died before the family moved into the farmhouse.
In addition to the family, a 58-year-old man was also found on the property. He refused to cooperate with the investigation, and was arrested as a result, the local police said in a statement. He has since been identified in media reports as an Austrian named “Josef B.” and, according to Reuters, paid the rent on the farmhouse.
Josef B. also reportedly ran a carpentry business in a nearby town, where Zon van Dorsten had been employed for the past few months, though it’s not clear how much interaction he had with the public in his role. This further adds to the mystery, as Zon van Dorsten seemingly would have had other opportunities to escape.
Zon van Dorsten did have contact with Jeffrey Scheper, another resident of Ruinerwold, a week and a half before he asked for help in the bar. In a television interview on October 15th, Scheper said that Zon van Dorsten had asked him for work and new clothes, but didn’t initially think he was in danger. Scheper also happened to be in the bar on the day Zon van Dorsten made his escape and, along with Westerbeek, asked questions about his background. “We tried to ask questions, among other things because he said he had not been outside for nine years. Is it a belief? A cult? He said yes, nothing more,” Scheper said in the interview.
On October 17th, a Dutch judge ordered Josef B.’s detention for 14 days on suspicion of illegal deprivation of liberty and money laundering, while the investigation is conducted. In a statement issued last night, Dutch police announced that they have arrested a second suspect: the same older man they discovered in the basement of the farmhouse on Monday, who has been thought to be the father of the family. Though the statement didn’t provide his name, various media reports have identified him as Gerrit Jan van Dorsten. He is suspected of being a “co-perpetrator of unlawful deprivation of liberty and of abuse, in the sense of prejudicing the health of others and money laundering,” according to the police.
“This investigation revolves around a unique situation,” the statement read. “These people may have lived in the house with each other, separated from society, since 2010. The situation discovered requires a careful approach, which is to include the provision of attention to and care of the young adults discovered. Various experts have been engaged. Accommodation has been provided for the six persons involved in a safe place.”
During their time in isolation, the family survived by eating food from a small vegetable garden and a goat, RTV Drenthe reported. At the point when they were discovered, the five siblings thought that they were the only people left on earth, the broadcaster noted.
The Possible Cult Connections
In the days since the raid on the farmhouse, Josef B.’s brother Franz has spoken to the media, telling a local newspaper that “Josef has a very strong persuasiveness,” and described him as “greedy, calculating and unpredictable.” Franz — who had not been in contact with his brother in 10 years — also noted that as soon as he heard that an Austrian man named Josef was arrested in connection with a family being held captive, he immediately suspected his brother.
Franz also shed some light on his brother’s past — including potential ties to a cult. In fact, he suspects that Josef likely met Gerrit Jan van Dorsten in the 1990s, in an Austrian cult he joined after serving in the military. Though Franz did not provide additional details on the supposed cult, RTV Drenthe reported that the family — as well as Josef — all belong to the Unification Church, a group referred to as the “Moonies” after their Korean founder, Sun Myung Moon, known for their mass wedding ceremonies.
According to a statement emailed to Rolling Stone, the Unification Church — now referred to as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — “was deeply alarmed to hear of the family being held in inhumane conditions on a farmhouse in the Netherlands.”
The release confirmed that Gerrit Jan van Dorsten was briefly a member of the movement in the mid-1980s, but adds that “he is known to have suffered from mental health issues and left our organization in 1987.” His estranged brother Derk van Dorsten is a long-time member of the Unification Church, and, according to the statement, has not heard from his brother since 1984. The organization was unable to confirm any records of the alleged captor having ever been associated in any way with the Unification Church.
Though Dutch police have not released any specific information about the family’s involvement in the Unification Church, they said in a statement that they have reason to suspect that the family did not remain in the farmhouse for the past nine years of their own free will. “We are investigating whether a certain religion or philosophy forms the cause of their living situation,” the statement read.
At this point in the investigation, much is still unknown about the family, their suspected captor and the circumstances under which they were able to live outside of society for nine years. It is also unclear what prompted Jan Zon van Dorsten to leave the farm and seek help earlier this month, and why he hadn’t done so sooner while working in a neighboring village, or through social media.
In an email to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for the police in the Netherlands said that moving forward, the prosecutor will be in charge of releasing information about the case. And as of the statement issued last night, there are still many unanswered questions.
“The present criminal investigation concerns an exceptional case. We understand that many questions exist. We are thoroughly investigating the matter in order to be able to answer as many of these questions — held by us, as well — as possible,” the statement read. “Currently, a great deal of new information is received by us every day. It is our duty to verify the veracity of this information, and its relevance for our investigation. The circumstances the suspects and persons involved lived in require that we be extra careful when conducting our investigation.”