The mystery “forest boy” who duped Berlin police and social workers into believing that he was an abandoned child who had roamed the woods of central Europe for five years has revealed that rent arrears and a pregnant ex-girlfriend drove him to launch his elaborate hoax.
Robin van Helsum, a Dutch citizen who is now 21, turned up at Berlin’s town hall in September 2011 sporting a pageboy haircut and T-shirt and equipped with a rucksack, sleeping bag and a two-man tent. Speaking in English, his first words to officials were: “I am all alone in the world.”
Claiming that he was 17, had lost his memory and knew only that his first name was “Ray”, Mr Van Helsum spent the next nine months being cared for as a minor in a Berlin social services hostel until he was finally unmasked in June last year. His stay cost taxpayers €30,000 (£25,000).
His real name was finally revealed when police put his photograph online last year on what was supposedly his 18th birthday. A friend identified him as 20-year-old Robin van Helsum from the town of Hengelo in the Netherlands.
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, Mr Van Helsum spoke for the first time about his motives. He told the newspaper that he had amassed more than €8,000 in rent arrears in Hengelo and that his failure to pay up had landed him in a hostel for the homeless. At the same time, he said, he discovered that his ex-girlfriend had become pregnant. “I decided I had to go,” he said.
Buying a one-way train ticket with the last of his savings, Mr Van Helsum travelled to Berlin with a friend. “The plan was to stay for some time, that’s why we took a tent,” he told his interviewer.
But after a few days partying at a friend’s flat in Berlin, their money ran out and Mr Van Helsum’s travelling companion went home. Mr Van Helsum stayed on and slept rough. After three days he appeared on the doorstep of Berlin town hall and told officials his concocted story: “I knew that if I didn’t they would send me back to Hengelo,” he said.
Apart from lying about his age, Mr Van Helsum claimed he had roamed the forests of central Europe with his father, “Ryan”. He said that his father had died in the woods and that before his death he had told him “walk north until you reach civilisation and then ask for help”. “Ray” claimed that he had buried “Ryan” under a pile of stones. Police even made an abortive attempt to find his body.
Mr Van Helsum said he liked living in Berlin where he shares a flat with friends in the city’s alternative Neukölln district. He said he had just swapped work in a fast-food restaurant for another unspecified job. “ I weigh 76 kilos [12st], that’s 20 more than I did when I was living in Hengelo and I have a roof over my head and some money,” he said.
The Berlin authorities are still completing their investigations and plan to prosecute Mr Van Helsum on charges of fraud. “I thought about running away, but in the end I decided to stay and solve my problems with the authorities,” he told the newspaper.