Mystery of test-drive that ended in death

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The Independent Online
JEAN REENBOOG is the former chancellor of one of Belgium's foremost universities, the kind of upright citizen that the country, which despises its politicians, regards as a moral leader. On St Valentine's Day he took the stand for the murder of his wife. Even in Simenon's Belgium, a country that seems to specialise in colourful trials that range from the downright grisly to the outright bizarre, the case is attracting attention.

In 1991 in the small hours of the morning, Mr Reenboog took a hire car for a test drive. He was planning, he says, to replace his wife's car and wanted to see what she thought of the alternatives. He swerved to avoid a wheelbarrow left on the road from a nearby construction site and in so doing, crashed into a pile of stones. The impact broke the bottles stashed near his wife's feet. They contained flammable liquid which ignited when the cigarette-lighter fell out of its socket and into the pool of liquid. So claimed Mr Reenboog.

Before the trial ever began, the Belgian press gave details of the inconsistencies in his arguments. Why were they out so late? And why, when the road lighting was so powerful, did Mr Reenboog not see the wheelbarrow? A post-mortem examination revealed no traces of soot in Mrs Reenboog's windpipe, suggesting she was dead before the accident. And what of a special recent insurance policy taken out against the death of his wife?

Having maintained his innocence for some 10 months, Mr Reenboog finally admitted that he and his wife had a row earlier in the evening and when she finally relented and agreed to go on the test drive, they argued again and began lashing out at each other. He tried to calm her by putting his jacket over her mouth and then, believing he had accidentally killed her (a charge far less serious than murder), staged the accident.

The trial is likely to go on for weeks. During his first day on the stand it became clear that Mr Reenboog had recently taken to confiding in his psychiatrist and after 300 hours on the couch now talks in baffling psycho-babble.

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