Mystery deepens as man who escaped room where family was locked up is identified

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

A quick glance at 25-year-old Jan Zon van Dorsten’s Facebook profile would indicate he was living a relatively normal life.

The handful of selfie photos, pictures of his local town and a Greta Thunberg speech shared by the bearded, long-haired man, who has been identified by Dutch media, don’t immediately raise concerns.

The account paints a far different picture to the shocking claims that he and his family were locked away for nine years in a farmhouse near Ruinerwold, a village in Drenthe, the Netherlands.

Two selfie images of Jan Zon van Dorsten on his Facebook profile. Source: Facebook

Jan seems to have made a return to Facebook on June 6, after a nine year absence. His posts since then have included an image of a Sydney climate change rally.

His most recent post, shared on October 12, was a photo of tree branches taken from below with a blue sky behind.

Several photos he shared were from Ruinerwold at night, including a photo captioned: “Reformed church in the dark”.

Authorities were only alerted to the family, who told police they are a father and five adult children aged between 18 and 25, after Jan walked into a local bar for a second time this month.

“It was immediately apparent to this man that something strange was going on,” owner Chris Westerbeek told Algemeen Dagblad of his first visit 11 days ago.

He said Jan was acting strangely and his rough appearance made Mr Westerbeek curious.

Jan's last Facebook post from October 12. Source: Facebook

“You could see he had no idea where he was or what he was doing,” he said.

He left without note but returned 11 days later. Mr Westerbeek this time approached him to find out more.

“I had a chat with him and he told me he had run away and needed urgently help. Then we called the police.”

Mr Westerbeek says Jan said he was living in isolation with his four younger siblings and he wanted to “end the way they were living”.

While it was initially reported police had found the family locked in a cellar at the secluded farmhouse, authorities later clarified the family were kept "in a small room in the house that was closed off".

Several media reports suggested the family had spent years "waiting for the end of time", although officials would not confirm the claim.

Police have also confirmed none of the family members were included in the official Dutch population registry. While the children call each other family, there is no confirmation they are, De Telegraaf reported.

Austrian man charged

A 58-year-old Austrian man, identified as Josef B, was arrested by authorities on Tuesday and will front court on Thursday charged with unlawful detention and harming others’ health.

The mayor of Ruinerwold, Roger de Groot, said the suspect was not the father of the family and that he was renting the farm property.

"The man is still in custody and is being questioned," said Drenthe police spokeswoman Grietje Hartstra.

"A lot is still unclear and we are investigating exactly what happened there."

The farmhouse where the family was found. Source: Getty

The mayor of Perg district in Upper Austria state said the arrested man had worked as a carpenter and lived alone for 10 years before leaving for the Netherlands in 2010, describing him as "reserved" and "discreet."

The man was reportedly known in Ruinerwold as "Josef, the Austrian".

The mother of the children was believed to have died before the family moved to the Dutch farm in 2010, De Groot told reporters.

None of the family members was registered as a resident with the municipality, the police statement said.

It is believed the family survived on vegetables grown on the property while they consumed animals they also kept.

Farmhouse in remote, secluded location

The farm is located on a secluded plot of land on the outskirts of the village. Residents were surprised that anyone could have been hidden away for so long in their tiny community without being noticed.

"It's possible here ... (it) is such a remote spot, in the middle of fields," said neighbour Roelie van Dijk.

"You see it can happen anywhere. Not only in a big city but also in the countryside. And perhaps even more in the countryside, where you can hide completely."

Van Dijk said she and her husband had seen a man driving in and out of the property for years and doing construction work. He always kept the gates closed and never socialised, she said.

Her husband Sjon said he once asked to see how the renovations were coming along, but the man yelled "no" and sped off.

"We tried to make contact, my husband just last week, with the man in the car...(But) he drove on. He went through the gates and locked them again."

Other residents noted how Josef had installed high fences and camera around the property. -

- with Reuters and AFP

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