By Kim Willsher in Charlerois
Published: 12:01AM GMT 10 Nov 2002
A reclusive pensioner who booby-trapped his home with the intention of killing his estranged family, died himself when he inadvertently triggered one of his own devices, Belgian police revealed last week.
Louis Dethy, a retired engineer, had hidden a number of booby-traps in walls, ceilings and household objects throughout his three-storey home in what appeared to be a final revenge on the children and grandchildren he claimed had abandoned him.
At first Belgian police assumed that the 79-year-old had committed suicide and bled to death from a gunshot wound to the neck after finding him at his home near the town of Charlerois.
It was an assumption which nearly cost one detective his life as he searched the house and opened a booby-trapped wooden chest. A shotgun hidden inside went off, missing the policeman by inches.
The detectives beat a hasty retreat and called in military mine-clearance experts who, after unravelling a series of enigmatic clues left in the engineer's scribbled notes, uncovered a total of 19 death traps, among them an apparently harmless but lethal pile of dinner plates, the television and even an exploding crate of beer.
"We have never come across anything like it before. It was all fiendishly clever. The house was booby-trapped from top to bottom. We've had to take everything apart," said one of the explosives experts.
To his neighbours in the suburb of Pont-de-Loup, in French-speaking Wallonie in the south of Belgium, Dethy appeared a harmless, God-fearing and taciturn character who spent his retirement pottering about in his garage. He had built his chalet-style brick and timber home in the 1960s and installed his family there shortly afterwards.
Here in the heart of conservative, Catholic Belgium, few were surprised that the churchgoing couple produced a total of 14 children - 10 girls and four boys - or that Dethy had hung a crucifix on the wall in each room, including the kitchen.
His strong religious beliefs did not prevent him, however, from committing adultery, and when his wife caught him in bed with another woman 20 years ago she walked out, taking the children with her. Dethy then retreated into a reclusive existence behind the net curtains of his home.
"Good morning and good evening was about all you'd get out of him," said one neighbour. "We only saw him when he left the house to go shopping, went to church on Sundays or was working in the garage."
Relatives say he never forgave his wife for divorcing him, or his 14 children and 37 grandchildren for having little to do with him. His bitterness grew into a desire for revenge when even his mother became estranged from him.
The family house had been built by Dethy on land and with materials paid for by his mother. When she turned against him she bequeathed the property to one of his daughters, Jeanne, 49.
Four years ago he lost a lengthy legal battle to overturn her will and at that point, the detectives believe, he set about installing the traps, most of them using concealed 12-bore shotguns triggered by barely-visible nylon threads or fishing line.
His thinking appeared to be that if he were evicted, he would ensure that the new owner would not live long enough to enjoy the benefits of the house.
The military engineers found that Dethy had numbered and catalogued each device and left coded notes for the whereabouts of each. A pile of booby-trapped dinner plates was revealed by the clue "Cheaper by the Dozen", a reference to the 1950s film by Walter Lang of the same name in which a child throws a plate at someone's head. Whether the notes were aides-memoire for himself, or cryptic clues for his family - or even the police - is not known.
One scrap of paper containing the words "le vin est tiré", a play on the French word tirer (to pull or shoot), led to a hidden trap in the cellar, while another was discovered in a crate of beer, designed to set off a shotgun when a certain number of bottles were removed.
"In the cellar we found a chest containing money. A length of fishing wire almost invisible to the eye connected the clasp to a hidden cavity in the wall," said the local police chief, Gino van Huffel. "Anybody who opened the chest would have had his head blown off from a weapon concealed in the cavity."
Other shotguns were found wired to the television, a water tank and the bathroom door. It took the bomb squad three weeks to crack 19 of the 20 clues, but after taking the house apart experts have been forced to admit defeat on the final one: "The 12 Apostles are ready to work on the pebbles."
"We've looked everywhere. He refers to the 20th device in his notes, but we can only conclude it wasn't yet in place," said Luc Bodard, the head of the military de-mining team.
Investigators believe that Dethy was killed as he tinkered with one of the booby-traps - hidden in a crockery dresser and triggered by moving a soup tureen - which he had either failed, or forgotten, to disarm. The device, number 18, went off spraying lead shot into his face and severing the main arteries supplying blood to the head and neck.
"The position of the body leaves us in no doubt that he made a false move and the trap went off," said Mr Bodard.
Dethy's daughter Jeanne, 49, said members of his family were convinced that they were their father's intended victims. "He hated us," she said. "Father was a strange and cold man, but he was very ingenious and he put his ingenuity to bad use.
"He wanted to kill us all. Instead he was caught out by one of his own traps."