He duped Berlin’s authorities into believing he was an abandoned and destitute 17-year-old waif who had roamed the woods of central Europe for five years. He spent the next nine months in a social services hostel costing taxpayers more than €30,000 (£25,000), only to be finally unmasked last year.
Robin van Helsum, a 21-year-old Dutch citizen, better known as Germany’s mystery “Forest Boy”, was ordered to do 150 hours’ community service for carrying out his elaborate hoax which kept police, social services and the media guessing for almost a year. He was also ordered to undergo counselling.
Addressing the public outcry over the cost of van Helsum’s care, Berlin court spokesman Tobias Kaehne said that van Helsum would have cost taxpayers a similar sum if he had not lied about his age to gain a place in a hostel for young people. “It would have cost the same if he had just registered as a homeless person,” he said. “He had personal problems and homelessness was an issue”. Van Helsum turned up at Berlin’s town hall in September 2011 sporting a pageboy haircut and T-shirt, equipped with a rucksack, sleeping bag and two-man tent. His first words to officials were: “I am all alone in the world.”
He said that he had lost his memory and knew only that he was 17 and his first name was Ray. He told officials he had roamed the forests of central Europe with his father, “Ryan”, who had subsequently died. He claimed that he had buried “Ryan” under a pile of stones. Police tried but failed to find the body.
Van Helsum’s real name was finally revealed when officials put his photograph online last year on what they assumed was his 18th birthday. A friend identified him almost instantly as 20-year-old van Helsum from the town of Hengelo in the Netherlands.
Van Helsum later revealed that he had amassed more than €8,000 in rent arrears in Hengelo and that his failure to pay up had landed him in a hostel for the homeless. At the same time, he said, he discovered that his ex-girlfriend had become pregnant. “I decided I had to go,” he said.
Buying a one-way train ticket with the last of his savings, van Helsum travelled to Berlin with a friend. After three days he appeared on the doorstep of Berlin’s town hall and told officials his concocted story.
“I knew that if I didn’t, they would send me back to Hengelo,” van Helsum said.