Two of Europe’s most wanted criminals, branded the “Devil’s couple” for their murder of a British businessman, have been extradited to Belgium after 23 years on the run.
Hilde Van Acker, 56, and Jean-Claude Lacote, 53, are facing a life sentence for the shooting of Marcus Mitchell, a businessman whom the couple conned out of £500,000.
The couple, who secretly married in Florida in 1998 while on the run, were convicted in absentia in 2011 by a court in Bruges but now have a right to request a retrial.
Mitchell, a 44-year-old married father-of-three, was shot in the head and neck in 1996 by Lacote after demanding his money back from the couple who had by then duped hundreds of thousands of pounds from people in France, Germany and Belgium.
Children playing on a beach at the Flemish resort of De Haan found Mitchell’s body buried in the sand dunes. The confidence tricksters were arrested only to flee the country after being conditionally released from custody due to a lack of evidence.
The Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir reported in 1996 that Lacote had claimed to police that he was “an informant of the French secret services, the British MI5 and German customs”, as he sought to wriggle out of the charges.
The couple first fled to South Africa where they lived in a £1m seven-bedroom home in Johannesburg and owned a Ferrari. Lacote was jailed, however, after trying to kidnap the son of businessman.
His partner-in-crime managed to secure his release by disguising herself as a police officer before presenting a false letter from an investigating judge demanding that she take in Lacote for questioning. The pair, who had by then been given the “Devil’s couple” nickname by the Flemish press, escaped to Brazil.
Van Acker and Lacote were finally arrested in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, on 21 November last year. They were extradited back to a prison in Brussels on Tuesday evening. Lacote had been managing a small airline in the country.
On arrival at the Belgian capital’s Zaventem airport at 7am on Wednesday morning they were transferred to prison in Bruges.
Van Acker, the first Belgian woman to appear on a most-wanted list of international criminals, is now divorced from Lacote, who is French.
She claims she was manipulated into a life of crime and had sought extradition to her home country as she is suffering from breast cancer.
“I blindly followed someone without knowing what I was doing,” she told the Belgian VTM broadcaster from her prison shortly before extradition. “I didn’t even know I was convicted of the murder at the time. I am happy to finally be able to return but I am afraid of public opinion in Belgium.”
“We have been waiting for this moment for 23 years,” Martin Van Steenbrugge, commissioner of the federal police, said at the time of the couple’s arrest.
The couple had enjoyed a lucrative career conning businessmen with the promise of lucrative investments even while on the run.
A British court heard that Lacote had masterminded a crime in 2003 to trick Irish airline and shipping entrepreneur Noel Hanley into handing over £1m. The money was laundered through gold bullion, works of art and a new Ferrari.
At the time of their arrest, they were living under the names Marlene Lacote and Stéphane Daniel Lacote. Van Acker was working as an accountant for a local beach bar.
When Mitchell’s widow was last interviewed in 2016, she lamented the “life of Riley” lived by the couple. “I Google his name regularly in the hope, one day, that it will come up that he is behind bars”, she said.