Bruges, Belgium, March 9 (AFP/APP): Jean-Claude Lacote has been a clothing dealer in the United States, was a television producer in South Africa and ran an airline in Ivory Coast.
But do the former fugitive from justice’s many lives also conceal a darker story? Did the 54-year-old Franco-Ivorian and his Belgian wife Hilde Van Acker murder a British businessman in a seaside resort a quarter of a century ago?
Lacote and Van Acker, 57, are on trial in the Belgian city of Bruges accused of shooting dead 44-year-old Marcus Mitchell in De Haan in 1996. They have pleaded not guilty, and the court has begun to hear a complicated story that could lead to them being sentenced to life imprisonment.
On May 28, 1996, aviation executive Mitchell was found dead in De Haan, an upscale North Sea beach resort, with two bullets in his head. Investigators quickly discovered that he had been in regular contact with the two suspects by telephone.
According to prosecutors, Mitchell had loaned Lacote a large sum of money for a false lead on a potential lucrative deal and the pair had fallen out. On Monday, however, Lacote told the court that it was instead Mitchell who had owed him money, after he had given the Briton a loan for an arms deal in Serbia.
He also accused prosecutors of ignoring what he said was a line of inquiry leading to a certain “Ali” with whom Mitchell also had a business relationship. But his explanations were convoluted and the presiding judge adopted a sceptical tone.
The investigation turned up extraordinary details of the couple’s life since the alleged killing. They were arrested on June 2 1996, shortly after the body was found, at Charleroi airport outside Brussels.
Released on bail later the same year they fled to the United States, where they married and founded a clothing business in Miami, Florida. Later, Lacote told the court, his business empire stretched to Argentina: “I had a farm in Bariloche for fans of ecotourism.”
“I’m always looking for new challenges, I sit a lot of exams,” he said, boasting of his knowledge of many languages, including Latin. In 2007, Belgian investigators tracked him to South Africa, but were not able to arrange his arrest. In South Africa, Lacote produced a TV reality show on true crime stories and claimed to have excellent relations with the local police.
The couple moved to Ivory Coast and lived there for a decade, raising a daughter born in 2007, but were eventually arrested in Abidjan in November 2019.
– Agoraphobia and autism –
Lacote had taken charge of an aviation company backed by a Lebanese businessman and gained access to high-level Ivorian political circles. But he said he had refused a post as a government minister because he wanted to raise his daughter in a better environment than the one he had known.
Lacote had been born in Abidjan in 1966 to a French father and an Ivorian mother. He was later abandoned by his parents and placed with priests in France, but refused to discuss the emotion of this difficult period in court.
Under probing from the judge, he revealed a troubled personality, which he described as like a mild form of autism combined with agoraphobia. He keeps a strict routine, eating the same food and wearing clothes of the same colour every day, and sleeping in a single bed even when with his wife.
Van Acker announced she planned to leave Lacote in 2014, plunging him into despair. More than 50 witnesses are expected to be called during the trial, which is scheduled to last two weeks.
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