January 22, 2023 | Natalie Everts
Bonairean Vernon Rombley may have been innocently imprisoned for eight years. Researchers at Knoop’s Innocence Project are convinced it’s not fatal.
December 20, 2014: What seems like an ordinary day turns into years of grief for the family and friends of a businessman in Curaçao. The owner of the supermarket is brutally killed in a robbery. They were looking for money.
It is a period when Chinese supermarkets are mainly targeted. The pressure on the police is great. Even the Chinese Consul General calls on the judiciary to do all it can to confront the thieves.
Vernon Rombley was arrested shortly after the robbery. Subsequently, he was also sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder. But Knoops’s Innocence Project is convinced it couldn’t be the culprit. The Foundation is committed to persons wrongly convicted in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Question marks over the police investigation
In 2017, researcher Jan Rooijakker opened Rombley’s file. After studying it, he said he was convinced that the judiciary had made a huge mistake. Had the police conducted a more thorough investigation, the outcome could have been different.”
Rooijakker is the former Chief of Police of Bonaire. He had previously played a pivotal role in another case in which two people were wrongly convicted of murder; Spellonak case.
‘I am innocent’
During the trial, Rombley said he was innocent. But the appeals judges also found that it had been legally and convincingly proven to have committed the murder.
“The police should have done a better search,” says Roijacker.
“It’s about a Ponyri boy who pretended to be a gangster. He acted tough and that cost him dearly. Every cop or detective wants to solve a case. If you don’t maintain objectivity, you get tunnel vision. He’s dangerous.”
Rombley posts a message on social media saying he committed the robbery. His ex-girlfriend says she also recognized him in a video. These are the two pieces of evidence that the judiciary also provides.
“The thief went to great lengths not to be identified,” says Roegker. “You can only see his eyes on the video. Are you going to tell six girls on Facebook one day later that you are the culprit? Some girls you barely know.”
During the session, the judiciary also displays Whatsapp chats. But according to Rooijakker, no further investigation has taken place regarding the phone. According to him, this is also wrong.
Thousands of conversations have been translated. This showed that Rombley often lied to the girls in order to impress them.”
“He told me he was a big drug dealer. That he bought his own house in Bonaire with drug money and that he was in jail for arms trafficking. Not only did he not have a house of his own, but he had never dealt with the law before.”
The ex-girlfriend went to the police through a Whatsapp conversation. “There was no chemistry between the two of them. I recognized Rumbly on the photos. But the robber is a taller man.”
Another thing, according to Roegker. “Throughout the entire robbery, he held the gun in his left hand and shot it, too. Rumbly is a right-hander.”
“After hearing the case, I went to the prison to look Rumbley in the eyes and ask him directly. He was always in denial. The robber was a cold-blooded killer. Rumbley is a decent young man who wanted to act firmly.”
Rombley’s mother is sad because her son is imprisoned. “I’m still confident it will work,” she says. “And I won’t talk about it at length so that I can celebrate it freely with my son.”
Knoop’s Innocence Project expects to reopen the case. Judges will see in June whether there are sufficient grounds to reopen the criminal case. This means that it must be done again.
Rooijakker asserts that “police work is people’s work”. “Mistakes are made and this should be a learning opportunity. It is important for the truth to come out.”
One way to prevent mistakes during police investigations, he says, is for the islands to ask colleagues outside the investigation team to watch. “By letting other people look into the case, you make it waterproof.”