BRUSSELS — As Belgians gathered in the thousands to mourn the victims of Friday's frenzied knife attack on children and staff at a small-town day care center, the nation strugged to comprehend the motives of the young killer. He reportedly painted his face like the Joker from "Batman" before the bloodbath that took the lives of two babies and one of their caretakers.
Front pages across the kingdom were dominated this weekend by a smiling portrait of Kim De Gelder, the chief suspect who was arrested shortly after Friday's assault on the Fairy Tale Land day care center in Dendermonde. Police say De Gelder has refused to talk since his detention, adding to the mystery surrounding the unremarkable 20-year-old who had recently quit his job in a garden supply store.
The killer who walked into the day care center on Friday morning had smeared his face with white makeup and drawn black circles around the eyes. Local media have said the young assailant also had long red hair, creating a striking resemblance to the Joker as played by the late Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight."
The attack came a year after the announcement of Ledger's death in New York from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and a day after the Australian actor was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the deranged killer who seeks to provoke chaos through a series of shocking crimes.
Belgian media also have pointed out that De Gelder's last name is an anagram of Ledger, suggesting the suspect may have developed an obsession with the actor. Some reports said De Gelder laughed at police interrogators in an echo of scenes from the movie.
Although the authorities have not confirmed any link to the movie, Belgian authorities are facing questions about the influence of violent movies, television and computer games on young people.
"There are kids who spend the whole night in front of computer screens where they are killing people all the time," childcare specialist Maryse Tonon told the RTBF television network Sunday. "We have to ask if they are starting to confuse the virtual world with the real world."
Horror struck Dendermonde at 10 a.m. on Friday. Prosecutors say a young man entered the building, walked into the room holding the youngest children and began stabbing at the babies and their caretakers with a large kitchen knife. After about 15 minutes, the killer walked out and calmly rode away on a bicycle. Police and paramedics arrived to find a scene of carnage.
Among screaming children and dazed adults were the bodies of six-month old Leon Garcia-Mannaert, nine-month-old Korneel Vermeir and 54-year old Marita Blindeman, who was stabbed as she struggled to defend the babies. Two other adults and 10 children were seriously injured. Although none remain in critical condition, doctors say some youngers will need plastic surgery to hide their scars.
Dendermonde's chief prosecutor Christian Du Four said De Gelder was armed with two knifes, an axe and a fake pistol when he was arrested a few miles from the scene. He was wearing a bullet proof vest. Two other knifes were found at the scene. De Gelder, who has been charged with three counts of murder, has no previous police record, no record of psychological problems and was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Although this seemingly random attack has profoundly shocked the nation of 10 million, is not the only killing to have rocked Belgium in recent years.
Last month, Genevieve Lhermitte was given a life sentence for cutting the throats of her five children aged between 2 and 14; 18-year-old Hans Van Themsche killed a two-year-old girl and her African nanny during a racially motivated shooting spree in the city of Antwerp in 2006; and the country is still haunted by the crimes of pedophile Marc Dutroux who kidnapped, abused and murdered four girls between the ages of 8 and 19 in the 1990s. Public outcry over mismanagement of the Dutroux investigation led to high-level resignations and a major overhaul of the police.
More than 6,000 people marched through Dendermonde in silent tribute to victims on Sunday, adding to the pile of flowers and toys left outside the kindergarten. Many compared the attack to mass killings at schools and colleges in the United States and expressed disbelief that such a thing could happen in their town.
Callers to TV discussion shows demanded the restoration of the death penalty, which was last carried out in Belgium in 1950. The idea was immediately rejected by the government. "That is not something for our times," said Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck. "It's not by killing somebody that we solve society's problems, just look at the United States."