April 2004. Jonathan Coulom is ten years old, turning eleven in six months. During the class trip to Saint-Brévin-les-Pins in the west of France, he sees the sea for the very first time in his life.
The boy was born and raised in the municipality of Orval – a small village in the middle of the country with just under 2,000 people.
Now he sees the sparkling sea far from home. Waves and sandy beach. An open sea.
Mother Virginie and stepfather Stéphane call him “Titi” and “Cowboy”, but he doesn’t behave quite like in the Wild West. According to Le Parisien, the ten-year-old is quite shy and a bit anxious, although the gold ring in his left earlobe matches his keen interest in motorcycles.
Fosvant in the dark of night
On April 6, everyone goes to bed around eleven o’clock in the evening. There are 24 students in Jonathan’s class. He shares a room with five of them.
The rain splashes against the roof through the cool April night. The seaside resort is sleepy, doesn’t come to life until the weather gets warmer.
Around midnight, the class teacher goes round to make sure everyone is in their beds. But when morning dawns, there is one less person in the room.
Jonathan is gone. Nevertheless, the slippers are by the bedside, and the belongings are in their proper place.
Nobody can believe that the ten-year-old should have walked barefoot in his pyjamas down to the sea in the middle of the night.
The disappearance is registered at seven in the morning. A search is being launched for the boy, led by the French paramilitary gendarmerie, reports the newspaper L’Express.
Several helicopters, police dogs, hundreds of volunteers and some clairvoyants. The area is thoroughly combed and all mobile activity in the area is examined to the last detail.
For several weeks, they search with lights and lanterns for the ten-year-old who disappeared in his pyjamas, but Jonathan seems to have sunk into the ground.
Françoise lives in the town of Guérande, about 50 kilometers from the coastal town where the search operation is in full swing.
For two weeks he has seen something lying and floating in the three-metre-deep pond at the old monastery. A beaver, or perhaps a carcass, he thinks.
The pond is surrounded by high walls and trees, so it is not easy to determine what has come into view.
Finally, a curious neighbor takes action. With a long branch, the person tries to drag the mysterious object to the water’s edge.
A small, naked body in the fetal position. On Wednesday 19 May, six weeks after his disappearance, Jonathan is found dead – tied to a concrete block.
– We cannot determine the cause of death at this time. All we can say is that he did not die by drowning, said Pierre-Marie Block, public prosecutor in Saint-Nazaire, to newspaper Libération.
They suspect that Jonathan has been abused, but the remains are too decomposed for that to be established.
The pond is emptied of water. The bottom is seamed with a magnifying glass for the smallest fragments.
“A disturbing coincidence. This pond is only a few hundred meters from the home of Aurore Pinçon, a 14-year-old girl who disappeared without a trace in 1995,” writes Libération.
– He didn’t want to go
Jonathan Coulom has nylon rope tied around his neck, wrists and ankles – tied with a perfect boat knot.
– A part of me died on 19 May, when we got the phone call. Since then I’ve just been trying to survive. I felt so guilty sending him on this school trip. He didn’t really want to go, because he knew we were struggling financially, says his mother Virginie Coulom to Le Parisien.
She remembers her son’s last words on the day he was to go on a trip:
“Thank you mom, I love you!”
Then he disappeared out the door, ready to experience the great, sparkling sea for the first time in his life.
After the autopsy, the coroner concludes that the ten-year-old probably suffocated to death. The findings also suggest that he was kept alive for some time before he was killed.
Germans in the spotlight
Ten years pass. Mother Virginie has slowly begun to take her life back, even if some days she is unable to go out the door. She has developed a stronger bond with her three daughters – probably to fill the void left by their older brother, she believes.
– My daily struggle is to maintain the hope that the police will find my son’s killer. I have every confidence in the investigators, they have done a remarkable job. They put themselves in my place as a grieving mother. I felt they were available, they became friends, she says to Le Parisien in 2014.
In 2011, three years earlier, a German educator and teacher named Martin Ney was arrested in Hamburg. He confessed to the murders of three German boys – aged 8, 11 and 13 – back in 1992, 1995 and 2001. Ney also admitted to over 40 sexual assaults.
The following year he was sentenced to life in Germany.
The police believed the abductions and murders had many similarities with the unsolved mystery in France. But Ney denied having anything to do with the Jonathan case, although a witness is said to have seen a German-registered car at the coastal town around the time of Jonathan’s disappearance.
– The trail of the German killer who killed young boys … I believed it for a moment. It was a false hope, says Virginie.
Four years later, the cover story in French newspapers will again be about her son.
Revealed by fellow prisoner
In April 2018, in a high-security prison in Germany, an inmate has just confided in a fellow inmate.
Admitted, almost boasted, of how he kidnapped and killed Frenchman Jonathan Coulom.
In the media, the life sentence from Bremen is referred to as “the masked man”, but his name is Martin Ney – the German who seven years earlier denied having killed the ten-year-old.
After the confession in the prison cell, the investigation into the old, unsolved murder “accelerates”.
– Similarities were found between the methods used, says lawyer Catherine Salsac, who represents Coulom’s family, to the French media in 2021.
Want the truth
Ney is ordered to be extradited to the city of Nantes in France, where he is currently serving a life sentence from Germany, at the same time as he is waiting to be tried for the murder of Jonathan Coulom.
– If you saw – or think you saw – this man between 1990 and 2011, and you are able to locate the place or period, please get in touch, French police ask in a public statement.
At the same time, they state that Martin Ney is 196 centimeters tall.
– I only ask for the truth. What he did, why and under what conditions. To move forward, I need him to tell me. Him, no one else. I want to hear it from his mouth. I want him to look at me and tell me what he did, says Jonathan’s mother Virginie to the French television station BMF TV.