Robert Vandamm, a Dutch national resident on the Costa del Sol, has recently lived through the most difficult period of his life. Not a day goes by without devastating flashbacks, feelings of severe guilt, anxiety attacks and even suicidal thoughts.
In October 2018, Robert was convicted of assisting suicide, a crime that could carry a prison sentence according to the Spanish criminal code.
He decided to tell his story to SUR in English after learning about the case of Ángel Hernández, who was arrested for aiding his wife’s suicide in Madrid last month. Hernández, who admitted the charges, was released on unconditional bail pending police inquiries.
Robert escaped a custodial sentence. He was given a six-month suspended sentence and a two-year probation order. However, even though Robert had his liberty, he would never be totally free from the guilt he feels for the part he played in the death of his long-time girlfriend in 2014.
Born into a Jehovah’s Witness family in Antwerp in 1961, Charlee d’Anvers was 33 when she first met Robert. For most of her adult life she had suffered from fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome, both illnesses that limit a person’s ability to carry out ordinary daily activities.
She also lived with a dark secret that caused severe mental problems. From the age of four, Charlee had been sexually abused by her father and other family members and this continued throughout her childhood, until she managed to escape at the age of 17. A string of abusive relationships followed, before she finally met the man who would dedicate his life to her.
The couple, who shared the same birthday, met in Amsterdam during the mid-1990s. Charlee - who had changed her birth name in order to erase her past - and Robert set up home in Antwerp, but after just two years, Charlee’s health began to fade and she suffered severe physical and mental pain. She began seeking psychiatric help, but nothing seemed to help, so the couple decided to move to Portugal. After two months, though, they relocated to the south of Spain. They lived in several locations, before settling in Benalmádena.
At first it seemed as though the change of scenery and the warm temperatures were helping Charlee’s health, but after a few years it became apparent to Robert that all was not well.
“Moving to Spain had a positive effect on Charlee at first. For the first few years she seemed to be doing quite OK. She tried to get better, but the harder she tried to get to the bottom of her problems the harder it got. She tried to get to the dark thing that was inside her, but she never managed to overcome this,” Robert, 65, explains.
Charlee’s condition deteriorated and she would spend long periods in the home, not wanting to go out, especially to the beach, because she feared she would just “walk into the sea and vanish”, adds Robert.
“Her decline began in 2010 and she was in constant physical and mental pain. She didn’t leave the house and she had a very poor way of life. She needed medication to go to sleep and she needed medication during the day, and it became quite unbearable, life became unbearable. Every day when I came home I was scared that she might have taken her own life because she was very suicidal at that point,” says the Dutchman, who worked as a computer technician.
A week before her 53rd birthday, in 2014, Charlee went for a fortnightly medical check-up to see how she had progressed, but the doctors told her there was nothing more they could do, continues Robert. They explained that her organs were beginning to fail and suggested palliative care, which Charlee refused.
Charlee did not want to return to Antwerp and she did not want any contact with her family, so she decided to stay in Spain. It was around this time, says Robert, that she expressed a desire to end her own life. The subject had come up before, but this time it was different; Robert knew that she was sure that the time had come, so he agreed to let her die.
“The suicide plan was discussed on 27 May, our birthday. We compared the two medical reports over dinner and realised that she was not going to get better. She basically just asked me the question. ‘Can I please go? I can’t stand the pain anymore. I can’t do this anymore’,” Robert explains, fighting back tears.
Charlee decided that she would take her own life on 3 June and began making preparations. She instructed Robert not to tell anyone what had happened to her as she did not want anyone to look for her. She did not want to be found. She told Robert to tell friends and neighbours that she had returned to Belgium (where euthanasia is legal) to die.
“We spent a lot of time talking that week, but I never tried to dissuade her because I knew that she had made up her mind. I just tried to support her as much as I could, which was difficult knowing what she wanted to do.
“She wrote every day: love letters, thank you notes and instructions on how I should conduct my life after her death,” Robert says.
Charlee had no faith in religion and she did not want to be buried or cremated. She simply wanted to return to nature and she could not do this “hooked up to a machine that was simply keeping her alive”.
She used the internet to research the best ways to die, explains Robert, and she ruled out anything that would involve anyone else. She also ruled out anything that she could possibly survive and so she decided that the best way to go would be to drown.
Charlee was determined not to implicate Robert in the suicide, so she instructed him to purchase a small inflatable kayak in which she planned to row out to sea from the beach near their home in Torremuelle and simply disappear.
Two days before the planned date, Charlee decided that she could wait no longer and informed Robert that the time was right. “She said, ‘It’s time’, and we dragged the boat down to the shore. She was so brave, but it was very windy and the sea was rough. I put her in the boat, but she just didn’t have the strength to row out to sea, so we decided to return to the house. It was a total fucking disaster,” Robert says, as tears fill his eyes once again.
However, Charlee still planned to go ahead, although now she needed the help of her soul mate. This would obviously implicate Robert, but he agreed to assist her.
“We talked it through and I said, ‘Ok, if that’s what you really want to do, then I’ll help you all the way.’ It was very surreal. The next day we began to plan it again. It was never a spur of the moment decision: we discussed every detail.”
In the early hours of Tuesday 3 June 2014, Robert filled two backpacks with rocks and dragged the kayak back down to the shore, where he waited for Charlee to join him.
Calm and composed
“What I remember most of that night was that it was a calm sea, no wind, no waves. I took everything down to the beach. Charlee was still in the house. She was so calm, so composed. I watched her walking towards me and she looked so at ease. She sat in the boat and we rowed out to sea: we sat talking for a while before she turned to me and said, ‘Honey, it’s time.’ She hugged and kissed me, I helped her put the packs on, and then she just slipped away,” Robert recalls.
Robert went home and was completely alone. He knew he would never see, touch or be able to talk to Charlee again, but he felt he had offered her the best solution, “the ultimate sacrifice of love”.
However, he says he was not prepared for the terrible feelings of guilt that he would suffer over the coming months. He began drinking heavily in order to blot out the pain and even contemplated his own suicide, but he knew that Charlee would not have wanted him to do this.
He lived alone with the secret for six months before he found the courage to speak with a trusted friend. The friend advised him to go to the police, but Robert wanted to keep the promise he had made to Charlee.
Waiting for the police
“I thought I would be able to handle it, but I couldn’t. I was drinking one litre of vodka every day, but even this did not ease the anguish,” he explains. “I knew this would eventually catch up with me and I spent the next few years just waiting for the police to knock at the door.”
It was when Charlee’s mother died in 2017 that the truth would finally come out. After trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with her, the family contacted the Belgian consulate in Spain, who in turn contacted the police.
Robert had moved to La Carihuela in Torremolinos and was well known among the local Spanish community. The police eventually tracked him down and Robert told them exactly what had happened. He also showed them the letters Charlee had written in the weeks prior to her death. He was arrested and taken to Malaga police station.
He appeared at the court in Torremolinos the next morning and was released on bail pending a police inquiry.
“I have nothing but respect for the police and the courts, because they were extremely considerate and sympathetic. I was never made to feel like a criminal,” says Robert.
The case took 12 months to go to trial and he was warned that he could face a prison sentence of between two and five years. He prepared for the worst, although, as he points out, he would have been quite happy to serve a custodial sentence.
“My lawyer told me that there was a possibility of a prison sentence, although he explained that this was highly unlikely. I was not scared, because I did this out of my unconditional love for Charlee,” Robert says.
In the end Robert did not have to go to jail, but today, he is still trying to make some sense out of his life, although he feels that he made the correct decision to let Charlee die.
“She was an incredibly brave woman and I am responsible for her death, but I know I have given her the ultimate gift. I killed the one I loved out of love. I gave her what she wanted. Never a day goes past without me seeing the vision of her drowning and this is something that will stay with me forever,” he concludes.