May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

“She hurled her reproaches at me for the umpteenth time: everything had been destroyed by me, gambled away, lost. She did not want to live any longer with a man who was drinking himself to death…. She tried to hit me. Maybe I laughed—she hated that when she was mad at me. Suddenly the wrench that had been lying on the washer was in her hand.”

So writes Dutch author Richard Klinkhamer, 63, of a couple in the throes of a marriage gone terribly wrong. But the description doesn’t come from one of his four dark novels. Instead it is Klinkhamer’s own chronicle, written from his jail cell in Utrecht, Holland, of the events of Jan. 31, 1991—the day he now admits he killed his wife, Hannie, whose death marked the beginning of the most talked-about crime story ever in the Netherlands. After he reported her missing to police in 1991, Klinkhamer broadly hinted on Dutch TV that he had murdered her. In fact, over the years, he used his notoriety to achieve a perverse sort of celebrity that furthered his publishing career. But in February, after police turned up new evidence, he confessed he had indeed killed his wife—and several weeks later, he gave PEOPLE the first written account of that crime.

Like so many mysteries, the Klinkhamer saga began as a love story. When pediatric nurse Hannelore (“Hannie”) Godfrinon met Klinkhamer, an unhappily married father of three working as a hotel clerk in Amsterdam in the mid-’70s, they appeared to be two bruised souls who just might be meant for each other. When the petite, lively Hannie was just 10 years old her father had bludgeoned her mother to death. As for Klinkhamer, the gothic horror of his upbringing could—and’ would—inspire several books. At age 5, he witnessed the gang rape of his aunt and the murder of his uncle. Subsequently, he was placed in a series of foster homes through which he was shunted while his Austrian-born mother—who eventually committed suicide—worked as a prostitute. In his teens, Klinkhamer turned to a life of petty crime, then joined the French Foreign Legion at 19. “I think Hannie was more in love with him than Richard was in love with her,” says Harry Weites, 57, best man at their small 1978 wedding. “But he was very happy with her.”

It was a visit to Weites and his wife, Marieke, 52, that prompted the couple to move that year to the. northern Dutch town of Finsterwolde, where the Weiteses made their home. Though the area is windswept and gloomy, initially the newlyweds flourished. Hannie found a nursing job at a nearby children’s hospital. Richard tended the garden and house, started writing and made considerable money playing the stock market. The pair traveled frequently and socialized with neighbors, including Stephan Berkhemer, the artist who designed the jacket of Klinkhamer’s successful 1983 novel Obedient as a Dog, based on his often grim Foreign Legion experiences. “We had parties, drank lots of beer,” remembers Berkhemer, 54. “We had some very good times.”

But slowly things began to go bad. Klinkhamer lost the couple’s savings when stock markets around the world crashed in 1987. He started drinking heavily and fighting with Hannie, who would show up at the Berkhemers’ with bruises on her face. “When Hannie had problems, she would come over here; she wouldn’t speak about it, but she was afraid to leave Richard,” says Janny Berkhemer, 49, Stephan’s wife, who worked at the same hospital as Hannie.

Then, on Feb. 6, 1991, Klinkhamer reported his 43-year-old wife missing. Police found her red bicycle in front of the nearest train station, but no other traces. Many of the couple’s neighbors immediately suspected Klinkhamer. “He did not look for her,” remembers Janny Berkhemer. Says Harry Weites: “I could imagine that Hannie would leave—but she would have been the type of person to leave a note or to call. When I went to the police to tell them about my suspicions, I must say that they were not very welcoming to me—they let me understand that it was none of my business.”

That April, Klinkhamer was detained on “suspicion of guilt” for four days. Police searched his tidy brick home and garden with the help of dogs, and a military aircraft with infrared capability flew over the property to scan for traces of human remains. But nothing turned up, and Klinkhamer was released. “In Holland, the law is that as long as there is no proof that a crime has been committed, you cannot arrest someone,” explains Reinder Klei, a police spokesman. “[We] worked to the limit of the law.”

The case might have gradually faded away—were it not for Klinkhamer himself. About two years after Hannie vanished, he began shopping a manuscript called Mince Wednesday. It was, he told Rotterdam publisher Willem Donker, “autobiographical” in the sense that it described “seven theories the police had of how I could have killed my wife—if I had.”

Although the thinly fictionalized account was never published—some houses rejected it as too gruesome, others as poorly written—it was widely discussed, bringing Klinkhamer invitations to appear on numerous TV shows, where he flirted with confession. Toward the end of a 1994 profile on the popular Dutch series Paradise Birds, the interviewer bluntly asked Klinkhamer, “Did you kill your wife?” His reply: “It could be…. The villagers say I cut her into pieces or put her in the pond…”

In 1996, as early as possible under Dutch law, Klinkhamer hired an attorney to have Hannie declared legally dead. Afterward he was able to sell the Finsterwolde house, which had been in her name, and to start collecting a widower’s pension. Returning to Amsterdam, he moved into a small ground-floor apartment in a working-class section of town. Then, in 1997, he began a relationship with theology student Margreet de Heer, now 27, who had written him after reading a review of Heads or Tails, his 1996 novel of two young men in Nazi Germany. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very interesting guy,’ ” de Heer recalls. ” ‘I have to meet him.’ ”

The man de Heer fell in love with was “just so gentle and caring,” she says. “It was difficult for me to understand what might have happened with Hannie.” Over the course of the next few years, during which Klinkhamer gave her a copy of Mince Wednesday to read, “I drew my conclusions that he was involved,” de Heer says. “But I decided to put it aside.” Even so, “sometimes I did get mad at him and would say, ‘Lie to me. Tell me that you didn’t do it,’ ” she remembers. “But now, in retrospect, I see that he couldn’t tell me the truth.”

The past finally caught up with Klinkhamer last Feb. 3. Just after he finished dinner at home, police came to arrest him for Hannie’s murder. New owners of the Finsterwolde house had decided to redo the yard to give their children more play space. While knocking down the garden tool shed and digging up its concrete floor, workers discovered a jawbone, which was matched to Hannie’s dental records.

Shortly after his arrest, Klinkhamer admitted to killing his wife but provided no details. Then, weeks later, he gave PEOPLE this somewhat vague account of what took place after he claims Hannie picked up the wrench: “From that moment on, I don’t remember much. She hit my hand, we wrestled and came to the back door. That’s where it happened. She was yelling, screaming—never stopped screaming…. It’s haunting me still.”

Despite Klinkhamer’s confession, Dutch law requires a trial. It could take place as early as June, after he completes a seven-week psychiatric examination to determine whether he is sane enough to be held responsible for his actions and, if so, whether he should be tried for manslaughter or murder. (On the manslaughter charge—which legal observers consider far more likely since there is no evidence of premeditation—he would face a maximum sentence of 15 years.) De Heer and her mother, a Protestant minister, have visited him several times, and de Heer reports that he is busily rewriting Mince Wednesday “as a way of honoring” his late wife.

“Although a lot of people are very shocked, all of his friends here in Amsterdam know what he is like, and so this doesn’t change anything for us,” says de Heer. “Only my father has said to me, ‘Now that all of this has happened, you should be glad that he didn’t kill you.’ ”

Pam Lambert

Dietlind Lerner in Finsterwolde, Abby Dafuvalu in Amsterdam and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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