The New Year’s Murder of Marja Nijholt – a brief overview
On January 1st, 2013, a passerby walking his dog in the morning finds a dreadful sight: a dead body, right next to one of the houses on the Berghemseweg in the Dutch town of Oss. It rapidly becomes obvious that she has become the victim of a crime. Nobody in the region seems to know who the dead woman is, and it takes a few days before she is recognized as Marja Nijholt, a 48-year-old woman from the Dutch city of Enschede, who only entered in Oss a day earlier. But why did she end up in Oss, over 100km (or a 2-hour train ride) away from her house? As the police examine the timeline of this killing, they find an intricate and curious case…
New Year Murder
The murder of Marja Nijholt also called the “New Year’s Murder”, baffled law enforcement and civilians alike. After 18 months, the investigation was dialed way back in 2014, until a civilian initiative formed in 2020 pooled their actions to assist the police to solve the case. The civilian collective, called Bureau Dupin after Edgar Allan Poe’s detective character, has since been working jointly with law enforcement to discover a breakthrough in the case.
The Bureau, fronted by former cop and data science professor Peter de Kock, has since investigated thousands of phone calls, text messages and has generated a 6-part podcast discussing the mysterious killing of Marja Nijholt. Their work, most notably said podcast, has been a big help in creating this write-up.
There already was a write-up on this case a few years ago, but noticing all the work Bureau Dupin has done, as well as the fact this is an interesting case, I think another discussion about it is very much in place.
Knowing Marja Nijholt
Note: Taken nearly in full from Bureau Dupin podcast
Marja grew up with a brother and a sister, but at a young age, her parents divorced. The role of her biological mother Kristel was filled by her new stepmom, Gemma. Shortly, another sister was born. Kristel characterizes young Marja as a “very calm, adorable child. She needed a lot of love.” Kristel ultimately came out as lesbian, nonetheless, this only caused a gap between her and her former husband, causing her to have less connection with Marja and her siblings. Marja’s sister Ellen:
“My dad made sure [Kristel] would not see her kids anymore. Soon enough, he found love in my new mum, but Marja saw her as an intruder of sorts”.
Stepmother Gemma talks about the first time she met little Marja: “The first time I met Marja, she looked a bit frightened. She cared a lot about making the atmosphere, but she had to do it her way”. Ultimately, Marja’s father lost his job, and Marja, who looked for a lot of love and attention, began to struggle. Ellen: “She always tried so hard to be seen in an optimistic light. Studying, buying gifts, practicing her talents. But she never quite achieved what she wanted.”.
Marja is delightful, caring, and talented, but another side of her develops as she grows up. She feels things other people don’t, and that makes her furious, lonely, and frightened. Ellen: “Eventually, you could see that Marja no longer knew what was and wasn’t ordinary in terms of interacting with other people. For example, she called 100 times a day, and when we blocked the phone, she’d just keep showing up at the door”.
She became manic-depressive and scared and developed schizophrenia. According to her biological mum, Marja wasn’t the first in the family to have psychiatric problems. Marja would wind up being admitted to a psychiatric ward numerous times. The attitude she would later exhibit in her final hours could very well fit her psychiatric problems.
As the years went on, Marja expended less time with her family, but more time with her partner, Steef. “We met in Tilburg when I was 26 and Marja was 20. At the time, I rode a motorbike, we met each other through a motorcycle club. Marja ended up getting into an art academy, which is how we ended up [in Enschede]. We both required a lot of space, so we agreed to each get our place, in the same neighborhood”. Steef talks about how he and Marja would usually expend the final days of the year:
“Usually, I had friends coming over to celebrate the end of the year with pyrotechnics. That’s a bit too noisy and too busy for Marja. The past few years, she had expended New Year’s Eve with her family, and that’s what she was going to do [in 2012] as well”.
Marja used to be on advantage, and according to Steef, could have trouble managing her money. He talks about a good man from Marja’s church, who would help her out, with money or advice. Nonetheless, like with numerous other people, Marja could handily get mad at this man, despite having good intentions. Sometimes she even paints him as the devil. Bureau Dupin found this man, named Hennie.
He says: “I gave her the affection she sought for. No, I wasn’t her father, or her lover, just someone who wanted to help.” He even makes sure she can take a vacation to France. “But usually, she came back with difficulties. She couldn’t adjust”. Nonetheless, as said, Marja doesn’t always appreciate him, and sometimes sends furious letters or e-mails. Despite this, Hennie does not hold it against her: “This was not feigned. In spirit, she really was a good woman.”
Religion and spirituality also played a huge part in Marja’s life. According to Steef, she was always on a quest to find what fit her, which involved quite some alterations in religion and beliefs. Ultimately, she ended up at a Pentecostal Church. “I didn’t completely approve, but I supported her”. This church and its members appear to have played a large part in Marja’s final months.
Marja’s final days: what do we know and why did she end up in Oss?
The brief history overseeing directly to Marja’s demise begins on the morning of December 29th, 2012. It is this morning that she decides to leave behind her hometown Enschede and crosses the border to stay in a hotel in the German town of Gronau. While this might appear like quite a move, it should be noted that both Enschede and Gronau are very close to the border, mere kilometers apart – both cities are within biking distance of one another. She stays in the hotel for two nights. The owner would finally tell Bureau Dupin that Marja did not look like to make a panicked impression at first, he noticed “not everything was right” as her stay went on. He says Marja had said she fled and mentioned “God, and priests, and the devil – I don’t quite know”.
On the morning of December 31st of 2012, an unknown man calls the hotel Marja is staying at and asks for her. The owner of the hotel notifies the caller that he can’t share this data, nonetheless, he does notify Marja of this phone call. She panics and leaves the hotel right away. Around 11 AM that morning, she is noticed back at the train station of Enschede, along with her bike, a grey suitcase, a backpack, and a small purse. Instead of going back home, nonetheless, she buys a one-way ticket to the city of Oss.
But why would she end up in Oss, of all places? Obviously, for people not from the Netherlands, city names barely mean anything. People know of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, if at all. It might be nice to know a bit more about Oss and other cities in the Netherlands. For instance, Oss is not at all a large or well-known city. The “big four” cities in the Netherlands are Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague (Den Haag), and Utrecht. Nonetheless, none of them are in the same province as Oss. But even in that province – North Brabant – there are other, bigger cities such as Eindhoven, Breda, Den Bosch, and even Tilburg, where Marja and her partner had met. In addition to this, the train ride from Enschede to Oss takes about two hours and involves at least one difference of trains. If Marja was attempting to outright flee the country, would she take it this way, only to end up in the not-very-significant city of Oss?
In one of the podcasts produced by Bureau Dupin, Marja’s partner at the time of her disappearance implied a possible motive to visit Oss: according to him, Marja would visit her dad for New Year’s Eve, who lives in the town of Udenhout, which is about half an hour away from Oss. Nonetheless, this does not explain why she would visit the hotel in Gronau first. Other information from Bureau Dupin’s investigation appears to contradict this: they claim that on December 30th, while staying in Gronau, Marja sent a text to her church:
“I have become a refugee. I can’t live in Europe any longer. Warn Rob, he prays for me”
This does not suggest that Marja ever planned to spend the final day of 2012 with her dad, and did not tell her partner what she was going to do. And Bureau Dupin has even more fascinating tidbits to share. According to their investigation into telecom data, the man that phoned the Gronau hotel to inquire about Marja had called the hotel with a phone number that belonged to Marja Nijholt herself. But then who certainly called? The only thing the hotel owner can say is that the caller sounded like a man. More on that later.
In Marja’s last days, particularly during her time in Oss which we will talk about shortly, she made a stressed and anxious impression on those who saw her. She thought she was being followed or even stalked, and whether that’s valid or not, it was the truth she lived in. Her partner Steef comments: “Wherever we went, someone was there to watch her. She also said someone was watching me, but I never quite found any motive to believe as much. Usually, she couldn’t tell me who was following her, though”.
In an interview with Bureau Dupin, Marja’s “good Samaritan” Hennie mentions someone who hadn’t been part of the inquiry before the leader of the Pentecostal Church that Marja had become a part of. Hennie: “He resided in Oss. Marja went there to get help and chat to him. I don’t understand why they didn’t assist her out”. Steef supports the theory: “The leader did indeed live in Oss. Marja told me she would visit her dad, but it looks like that wasn’t her genuine plan”. Bureau Dupin spoke to some other members of the Pentecostal Church, who say they were notified of Marja’s plans to leave for Oss and perhaps even sleep in the jungle. Instead, they convinced her to not do that, and instead, she went to Gronau. A man and a woman both mention they had received calls and messages from Marja on December 31st, but they don’t like to mention the names she had mentioned. In the end, they agree to share this information with Bureau Dupin, as long as it is kept personal from the general public. They also disclose they are the recipients of the text message Marja sent on December 30th, as mentioned above. One of them reveals: “Halfway through December 2012, Marja asked me to ask X to call her, and pray for her dad. She said God had other intentions for her father”. He rejects to share X’s name, out of privacy.
An obvious timeline develops. While she didn’t go to her dad as she had told Steef, Marja appears to have left Enschede for Gronau on December 29th to flee the chaos of New Year’s Eve. A day later, she texts her fellow church member to warn X of her situation. Ultimately, Bureau Dupin discovers X is named Rob who was mentioned earlier in Marja’s text. Could he be the intention Marja traveled to Oss?
Marja’s day in Oss: a timeline
As we now know, Marja leaves the hotel in Gronau on the morning of December 31st and heads directly from Enschede to Oss. While the precise reason is a secret Marja has taken to her grave, we now know she might’ve selected Oss, in particular, to attempt and meet Rob. The fact is that she ends up at the Oss train station around 2 PM on that last day of the year. Below is a timeline of Marja’s last day, based on the “official” timeline as it was shown in Opsporing Verzocht, a Dutch television show which every week showcases police cases, wishing to engage the audience in discovering the culprits. Additional data came from Bureau Dupin’s podcast.
2 PM: Marja arrives at the station in Oss.
4 PM: Marja reaches café Libre in the Molenstraat in Oss. Despite this just being a 4-minute walk from the station, Marja takes about two hours. In the meantime, several witnesses report Marja approaching them, asking to use their phones – she says she can’t use her own as she was being spied on – as well as begging for cheap places to spend the night. It later turns out that at least one of these calls was made to Rob. In Café Libre she proceeds and mentions she wants to travel to Belgium, as it would be inexpensive to stay there.
6 PM: Marja leaves the café Libre and does as she did before: she reaches people asking for a place to stay and to use their phone. Pouring rain starts, and continues throughout the night.
8.30 PM: Marja reaches cafeteria Oostwal where the owner permits her to make a phone call. He characterizes her as confused (a Dutch euphemism for “out of her mind”, really) and slightly scared. Efforts in 2021 to track the number she called, fall flat, as the data is kept for only 7 years.
9 PM: Marja leaves the cafeteria Oostwal with her bicycle. There is an apparent sighting of her at the station of Oss just after 9 PM. As it was New Year’s Eve and trains don’t run after 8 PM that night, it’s reasonable Marja waited at the station for a bit – as it would be calm.
After this Marja isn’t noticed until hours later, well into 2013. Her bicycle is never seen after she left cafeteria Oostwal with it. Rob, the man Marja might have been looking for, does recall being called by Marja on December 31st: “Yes, I got a call from someone saying me, hey, I have someone named Marie here who’s asking for you. But I rejected to take the call or elaborate. It just didn’t feel right”. He says he did not get a call around the time Marja tried to call from cafeteria Oostwal.
2.45 AM, January 1st, 2013: Marja is seen walking on a big road, the Graafsebaan, in the pouring rain and against traffic. She is walking in the way of the Berghemseweg, which is where her corpse would finally be found. As said, her bicycle has vanished, but she still carries her suitcase and backpack.
3.10 AM: A petrol pump’s CCTV (on the Singel 1940-1945) catches Marja walking. She has continued from the Berghemseweg onto the Osseweg, which leads out of Oss into the neighboring town of Berghem (confusing, I know).
4.30 AM to 6.15 AM: Marja is seen numerous times in the town of Berghem. She is exhausted and now asks people how to get to the train station. The closest train station nonetheless is the station back in Oss, where she reached the previous day. It means she has to turn around and follow the Osseweg again, this time back to Oss.
6.30 AM: This marks the last time Marja is caught on camera, walking on the Oswego.
6.55 AM: Marja’s last sighting by a witness, still on the Oswego.
Just after 7 AM: A local man and woman discover an opened suitcase in a park near the Berghemseweg. Later, it turns out this is Marja’s suitcase.
10.30 AM: A passerby discovers Marja’s body next to a car parked by a house on the Berghemseweg.
Developments after Marja’s death – the suitcase, the pictures, the phone calls
The investigation starts. While it goes on for about 18 months, the trial appears to die out in 2014, and the case becomes one of several cold cases until Bureau Dupin began its investigations. Even recognizing the victim already proves a challenge, as it takes many days until Marja’s family can recognize her. The crime scene, of course, also poses numerous questions. Multiple scenarios, including an accident and (attempted) suicide, are investigated. The crime scene is relatively free of blood, despite numerous stab wounds on Marja’s corpse. While Marja’s partner Steef suggests she might have been murdered elsewhere just to be disposed of by the Berghemseweg, it should also be noted that due to the heavy rain, blood might have been washed away. The exact is said about the murder weapon: it could be any sharp object, even an object without traces of blood, as they might have been washed away.
A few months after Marja’s casualty, the aforementioned TV show Opsporing Verzocht shows a timeline of Marja’s last days and asks for a few particular people, possible witnesses, to be recognized. They mention an individual wearing an Angerfist (i.e. Jason Voorhees) mask, seen on the Berghemseweg around 4.30 AM. They also mention a man and a woman in a car, seen (probably) battling around the crossing of the Berghemseweg and the Goudplevier at 6.30 AM. Finally, they ask for a man noticed at the station of Oss around 8.15 AM: the man, taking a train headed towards the city of Nijmegen, seemed wounded and might be a victim of violence. UPDATE: The wounded man seems to have been imprisoned in 2014, he is, nonetheless, no longer a suspect.
Another point of discussion is Marja’s suitcase. It was discovered just after 7 AM in a park near the Berghemseweg, opened, with items scattered around. The observers described it as if “it had been thrown around”. Despite the heavy rainfall of that night, the items were hardly wet, which could suggest the suitcase hadn’t been there and opened for a long while, as the rain had mostly ceased by this time. One of the observers, Lia, also walked by the spot Marja would ultimately be found – nonetheless, she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. While it could just mean she did not see Marja’s corpse, it begs the issue of whether or not Marja’s corpse was already in its place at this point, just after 7 AM.
During Bureau Dupin’s investigation, the police released a few images taken at the crime scene as Marja was discovered. A fascinating discovery was a laptop, which means that a robbery might not be as likely. Some of the Dupin investigators theorized that Marja’s position was not “natural”, ie that her corpse could have very well been put in its place instead of ending up there without being moved.
A picture of where the corpse was found (rightmost) and where Marja’s suitcase was discovered (leftmost) can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KbC7eM_ecurXaEx0wC1U0hlB3urFow9I/view
Eventually, Bureau Dupin investigated a few tens of thousands of phone calls. Since they are not actual police officers, law enforcement had to “pseudo-anonymize” all the data, providing each phone a number on its own. Soon enough, numerous phones were marked as interesting or atypical. Two phones were marked as belonging to Marja, while an observer from her church contended that she had at least 4. While the police could not ascertain whether those phones belonged to Marja or not, they did call it a “very reasonable assumption”.
The goal, of course, was to get an insight into the famous phone call that caused Marja to leave the hotel in Gronau. While the police again could not substantiate, the Bureau Dupin team found intention to think that a phone labeled “9104” belonged to the hotel in Gronau. Three phone calls were made to this hotel in Marja’s last days. The first of these came from a phone labeled “147” in the southeast part of Amsterdam, a call made on the morning of December 29th. Another call lasting only 10 seconds was made on December 30th, coming from phone “11028”, located in the town of Losser, near Gronau in the Netherlands. The last call was made from phone “5735” just before 1 PM on December 31st.
The last phone call was rapidly dismissed, as Marja had already checked out of her hotel at that time, and was on her way to Oss. The first phone call made by phone 147 became a point of interest, particularly as the phone had no single other appearance in the web of telecom data that was investigated. Nonetheless, the phone call was made at 8.35 AM on the 29th of December. Not only was this two days before Marja left – Marja hadn’t even checked into the hotel that early on the 29th! That just leaves the call made on the 30th, coming from phone 11028. This call, too, was not made on the 31st (i.e. the day Marja got frightened and left her hotel). Another intriguing detail is, that… phone 11028 was said to belong to Marja Nijholt herself!
So why did Marja’s phone make a call to the hotel on the 30th, during her stay there? And what occurred to the phone call on the morning of the 31st that supposedly frightened Marja away, as this is nowhere to be discovered in the Dupin investigation? The phone call may remain the biggest dilemma in this case.
As the Bureau Dupin podcast released its episodes, a listener called in with a very fascinating perspective. He referenced a Dutch crime thriller book, released in 2011, with eerie resemblances to Marja’s case. For instance, the main character was characterized as creative, a piano player, and had a common history of schizophrenia – all of which apply to Marja. Another character lived in suspicion of being killed. The story is also set in the same region that Marja lived in, around Enschede. Now, this is where it gets real weird: one of the chapters of the book indicates the character escaping to Germany, more particularly Gronau, where she stays in the EXACT SAME HOTEL Marja would end up staying at, mere days before her death.
Questions by the police, by Bureau Dupin, and by us
The questions the official police “cold case” webpage asks are as follows;
- Who has been an observer to the killing of Marja Nijholt on January 1st, 2013 between 6.55 AM and 10.20 AM?
- Who knows where Marja was between December 31st, 9 PM and January 1st, 3 AM?
- Who has seen Marja at any other times this night?
- Who knows where Marja was between 6.55 AM and 10.20 AM on January 1st, 2013?
- Who knows what occurred in the little park adjacent to the Berghemseweg between these times?
- Who has seen Marja on the Berghemseweg, probably in the company of other people?
- Who has discovered the item used to murder Marja? (NOTE: due to heavy rain, it could be free of blood stains)
- Who knows where Marja’s bicycle is?
- Who has data about this case that they haven’t shared with law enforcement yet?
Other things to think about include:
- Who was behind the call that frightened Marja away from her hotel? Do we know the entire truth about this call?
- Was Marja’s suspicion for her life grounded, and was she chased? Or was this merely a product of her psychiatric problems, and was she a victim of circumstance?
- Where did Marja spend the hours between 9 AM and 2.45 AM the night of her death? She might have waited at the station, but she might have also found a roof to stay under for a few hours. In either case, why did she re-appear in the middle of the night?