updated 3/1/2004 2:05:23 PM ET 2004-03-01T19:05:23

Belgium’ s public enemy No. 1 and three co-defendants went on trial Monday on charges of kidnapping, abusing and killing young girls in a mid-1990s crime spree that shocked the country — as much for the inept police work as for the depravity of the acts.

Marc Dutroux, 47, his ex-wife and two other defendants sat silently during selection of a 12-member jury and 12 alternates.

At one point Dutroux seemed to nod off. “Your client is going to fall asleep,” Judge Stefane Goux told Xavier Magnee, one of Dutroux’ three lawyers.

The case deepened on the eve of the trial, when Dutroux said in a letter to VTM television network that he was part of a criminal network with tentacles in Belgian law enforcement. He said co-defendant Michel Nihoul, a 62-year-old Brussels lawyer, played a key role in the wider organization.

Dutroux is charged with kidnapping six girls and killing four of them. The girls, two of them just 8 years old, were abused in the cellar of a house owned by Dutroux.

At the time the former electrician was free on parole for abducting and raping young women, including one minor.

Dutroux is also charged with killing an accomplice, Bernard Weinstein, whose body was found in a yard next to one of Dutroux’s seven homes.

Law enforcement under fire
A parliamentary probe found that rival police units hindered the search for Dutroux, who was finally arrested Aug. 13, 1996.

Investigating magistrates have bickered over whether he was a loner or part of a pedophilia network. One magistrate was even removed for showing bias when he attended a benefit event for the victims’ families.

Criticism of law enforcement officials increased after Dutroux grabbed a police guard’s gun and escaped on April 23, 1998. He was arrested three hours later.

Security was clearly a concern Monday. Hundreds of police were on hand for the start of the trial in Arlon, a sleepy southern Belgian town with a new courthouse equipped with a bulletproof defendants’ box.

The trial will likely run through most of May. In all, some 500 witnesses will be heard. The case file stretches across 450,000 pages.

Paul Marchal, the father of one of the slain girls, 17-year-old An Marchal, has long been unhappy with police work. “I hope that the trial will bring out more of the truth,” he said outside the courthouse.

Horrifying end for girls
As details of the kidnappings, rapes and murders became known in 1996 — as well as details of the poor police work — 300,000 people demonstrated in Brussels to demand government action.

Particularly wrenching were the deaths of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, the 8-year-olds who were taken June 24, 1995.

Police believe they starved to death in Dutroux’s dungeon when he went to jail for four months in December, 1995, for stealing a car. He told police he asked his wife to feed the girls but that she had not done so.

Since divorced, Michelle Martin, 44, is accused of conspiracy in the kidnappings. Nihoul, 62, faces charges of kidnapping. A fourth defendant, Michel Lelievre, 32, faces kidnapping, rape and drugs possession charges.

On Tuesday, the prosecution will read out the charges and on Wednesday the defendants will likely enter their pleas.

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