‘Kill me now’: the acid attack that led Mark van Dongen to euthanasia

After the assault by his ex, Van Dongen suffered pain that no one can imagine, his father said

When Mark van Dongen’s father was shown to the ward at Southmead hospital in Bristol where his son had been taken after suffering acid burns to his face, body and limbs at the hands of Berlinah Wallace, he guessed there had been an error.

” We entered the ward ,” Kees van Dongen told the Guardian.” There were six rooms, one next to another. We looked in every room and we looked at every person in bed. At first I said there’s been a mistake, Mark is not here .”

A doctor arrived and told him his son was in room one.” The first room I had seemed in. I failed to recognise my own son. His injuries were unbelievable .”

Staff had never seen such traumata. Burns covered 25% of Van Dongen’s body and much of the damaged skin “mustve been” surgically removed. His face was massively scarred. He lost the sight in his left eye and most in his right.

When he arrived in hospital, Van Dongen, 29, could see enough of his injuries to call and pray:” Kill me now, if my face is going to be left looking like this, I don’t want to live .”

Kees van Dongen( the father of Mark van Dongen ). Photograph: Adrian Sherratt for the Guardian

After the attack by Wallace, Van Dongen expended four months in a coma in intensive care, fed through a tube and only able to breathe via a ventilator. His lower left leg had to be amputated.

When he woke he only had movement in his mouth and tongue and communicated by sticking out his tongue when his father pointed to a letter on an alphabet board.

Eventually he regained the power of speech- through a speaking valve- but was paralysed from the neck down.” I bided by his bedside all the time ,” said Kees van Dongen.” It went the worst. At one point he no longer responded to anything. He seemed to be falling into a hole. I stood by his ear and wailed really loudly, he seemed to come back .”

He described his son as a loving person.” He was a gentle man, everyone’s friend ,” he told.” I often told him:’ Mark, think about yourself .’ He was actually too good for this world, too kind. When he was a child he used to play marbles. When he won, four, five marbles and his opponent was crying he would hand them back. That was Mark all over .”

Quick guide

Why euthanasia was treated as murder

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Why was Berlinah Wallace charged with murder ?

The case is unique. The prosecution argued there was a direct causal link between Wallace’s act in hurling acid at Mark van Dongen and his decision to end their own lives by euthanasia. It claimed that when she threw the acid she intended to cause him serious damage. The physical and psychological agony he sustained drove him to euthanasia.

What did Wallace’s defence argue ?

Wallace’s team claimed she did not kill Van Dongen, but that doctors in Belgium did at the request of the victim. The defense accepted that if Van Dongen had died after refusing therapy or had taken his own life the” chain of causation” between Wallace’s attack and his death would have been intact. However, it said in this case, his option to die- combined with the actions of the Belgian physicians- amounted to an intervene cause violating the chain of causation. Richard Smith QC, representing Wallace, told the jury:” What happened in Belgium is illegal in this country .” The doctor’s act in inserting a catheter into Van Dongen’s heart” intervened and violate her responsibility”, he said.

This was a retrial. Why was the first trial halted ?

At the halfway stage of the first trial, the judge, Mrs Justice May, ruled that the murder charge should be dismissed. She was troubled by the fact that had the euthanasia happened in the UK, it would have been slaying- which in her position would have transgressed the “causal link”. The prosecution appealed and the retrial was granted.

What are the laws around the purchase of acids ?

The sale of certain types of acid and other dangerous chemicals is governed by the Poisons Act 1972, as amended by the Deregulation Act 2015. There is a distinction between ” governed” substances and” reportable substances “. A Home Office licence is needed to buy regulated substances but sulphuric acid is not one of these. Sulphuric acid is “reportable”. Retailers can sell it but are required to report suspicious transactions and significant loss and steals. Wallace’s purchase did not seem suspicious.

Photograph: REX/ Shutterstock/ Rex Features

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Van Dongen did well at university in the Netherlands, his home country, and moved to the UK, studying at Bristol University and then working as an engineer.

In around 2010 Van Dongen met and began a relationship with Wallace, a fashion student nearly 20 years his senior.” I had the impression she was using him ,” said his father, a 56 -year-old supervisor who lives in Belgium.” I wasn’t sure about it, but he was in love with her. I think Mark was more in love with her than the other way round .”

He said he worked hard on his own relationship with Wallace.” I always treated her as my own daughter. She called me Papa Kees in tribunal. I’ve always been very good with her .”

As Van Dongen lay in a coma, police began piecing together what had happened. It was a difficult and upsetting investigation for all concerned. His injuries were so severe that the senior investigating policeman, DI Paul Catton, kept the images under lock and key.

Detectives established that in August 2015 the relationship broke down and Van Dongen began ensure another woman. In September 2015 Wallace bought a one-litre bottle of sulphuric acid online through Amazon. She removed the label and researched acid attacks. She told a counsellor she felt” she could destroy everything around her” when someone spoke out of turn.

Police records is proved that on the day she bought the acid, Van Dongen dialled 999 and told police that Wallace had been harassing him and his new girlfriend. A constable phoned Wallace and alerted her for the purposes of the Protection from Harassment Act.

It was not until 10 months after the attack- in July 2016- that Van Dongen was able to fill in the blanks to police. On the evening of 22 September he had gone to her flat and stayed the night. In the early hours of the morning, he woke to find her giggling:” If I can’t have you , no one else will”- then throwing the acid.

Slowly, van Dongen’s condition improved somewhat. He regained his speech but not any movement below the neck. He was diagnosed with depression. He would get agitated, abusive and angry with faculty. He was unable to feed or washing himself or use a toilet. Sometimes he said that he wanted to live, at other times that he would prefer to die.

By November 2016, 29 specialists had been involved in his care at Southmead. It was clear that van Dongen would need a lifetime of constant and dedicated care and a care home in Gloucester was discovered for him. He moved there on 22 November 2016.

His father told:” I asked Mark,’ Would you like me to help you with the transfer ?’ Mark said,’ Dad, I would like to do it myself, so at least I have got that bit of freedom .'” Kees van Dongen returned to Belgium.

Kees Van Dongen with his son Mark. Photo: PA

The next day, the phone rang.” It was Mark. He was altogether distressed. He told:’ Dad, please come .’ I drove straight to Gloucester. I arrived at five in the morning .” When he got out of the van, he heard screaming.” It was Mark. It didn’t stop. I was banging on the door. It opened. A woman came to the door. Mark was in the very first room at the entryway. What I find there was horrific .”

He said his son was covered in his own faeces and distraught.” I soothed him down. I told:’ I’m here .’ I went back to the van and fetched towels and cloths and I washed Mark. He said:’ Dad, I’m coming with you to Belgium .’ He was scared. I told we’d work it out .”

Relatives and friends teamed up to find a way of getting Van Dongen out of the UK. They hired a private ambulance in Belgium and left for St Maria hospital in Overpelt without informing police.

” The doctors and nurses didn’t know what had made them ,” his father said.” They didn’t have a suitable ward because of the route he appeared. That caused problems but he was admitted. They analyzed him, cleaned him and we ran straight-out to the palliative care division. He was given excellent care. I had a beautiful home at the time. I said to Mark:’ Come with me .’ He said:’ Dad, that would just be another ceiling to look at .'”

Van Dongen developed a chest infection and doctors told him a tube needed to be inserted into his throat to remove liquid, which would almost certainly have entailed him “losing ones” voice. Unable to bear the idea of not even being able to talk to his father, he applied for euthanasia.

He was examined by three consultants who confirmed that this was, in their terms, a occurrence of” unbearable physical and psychological agony” and they agreed he met the criteria for euthanasia under Belgian statute.

” No one wants to live like that ,” his father said.” I no longer left his bedside. He was constantly itching, I had to support his arm, try to relieve the nerve ache. There is membrane around the bones- it was full of holes, the sulphuric acid continues to burn. It was unbearable ache .”

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