THE LAST THING CARINE RUSSO gave her 8-year-old daughter, Mélissa, was a watch. It was 5 p.m. on June 24, 1995, a balmy summer afternoon in the Belgian village of Grâce-Hollogne. As Mélissa headed out for a walk with best friend Julie Lejeune, also 8, Carine strapped the timepiece on her daughter's wrist and told her to be back in half an hour. Five-thirty came and went. No sign of the girls. Concerned, Carine, 33, set out on her bicycle and rode around the neighborhood for hours, growing increasingly frantic. The next day, police dogs were called in and tracked the girls' carefree path from the Russo house down a trail, past a field and to a nearby overpass. Beyond that, no trace.

As the hours became days, then weeks and months, the two little girls became national icons, their petite, cheery faces plastered on thousands of posters in bus stations, car windshields, shop windows and on lampposts across the country. Despite a dearth of clues and their frustrations with the minimal help lent by police, their parents still held out hope. That ended last Aug. 15, when an unemployed electrician named Marc Dutroux—under arrest for another kidnapping—led police to the girls' bodies, buried in blue plastic bags in the garden of his home in Sars-la-Buissiére, some 60 miles away. The girls had endured a hellish fate, locked for nine months in a compact, subterranean cell where police say Dutroux, now 40, repeatedly raped them—and at least four other girls he abducted between June 1995 and August 1996—and finally left them to die of starvation. "It's the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent," says Mélissa's father, steelworker Gino Russo, 36.

That it is. What makes it even worse for the Russos is that police appear to have ignored tips that might have saved their daughter. As early as September 1995, Dutroux's own mother, aware that young girls were missing, had urged police to investigate her son. "If the authorities had listened, we might have been able to save our children," says Gino Russo. Says Julie's father, auto mechanic Jean-Denis Lejeune, 36: "The police behaved as though we had lost a bicycle."

More maddening still for the families, and for millions of Belgians, was the news that Dutroux, convicted in 1989 of kidnapping and raping five young girls, had been released from prison in 1992 after serving only half his sentence. The case continues to outrage Belgians, who live in a country where violent crime is rare. Last month, more than 300,000 people—some 3 percent of the nation's population—marched through Brussels, irate at charges that police officials or politicians may have covertly protected Dutroux. "They became everyone's kids," says Marie-France Botte, Belgium's leading anti-pedophilia advocate. "And everyone is weeping for them and demanding justice."

Julie and Mélissa, whose fate has inspired such an outpouring, were, after all, ordinary children, inseparable pals who learned to plié in the same ballet class, frolicked in the same Girl Scout troop and always sat together at each other's birthday parties. "Julie was more confident, more extroverted, more explosive," Gino Russo says of his daughter's friend, who left a 7-year-old brother, Maxime. Russo, whose own son Gregory is 12, says Mélissa was almost maternal toward her peers. She "was sweet, quiet, shy and wary of adults," he says.

If ever she had reason to suspect her elders, it was on that June afternoon when the girls apparently went to wave at passing cars. Dutroux later told police he had offered two accomplices—Bernard Weinstein and Michel Lelièvre—more than $1,600 to abduct a young girl. "But I was amazed when they brought me two," he said. "I was even embarrassed." For Dutroux, the scheme was part of a pattern dating back to at least 1983, when he was charged in the rape of a 50-year-old. Three years later he was arrested for abducting and raping five girls between 12 and 19 years old. Each time, with then girlfriend Michéle Martin videotaping, he would rape and torture the girls, then free them 24 hours later. Convicted of multiple rape in 1989, he was released for "good behavior" in April 1992. A cryptic handwritten note in his file warned, "Follow closely."

The words might better have been tattooed on his forehead. "He is not a normal person," says his 60-year-old mother, who is divorced and uses her maiden name, Jeannine Lauwens. "Perhaps he was born with something." Though Marc's childhood was no different from that of her four other children, he went on as a young man to harass even his elderly grandmother, once kidnapping her from her nursing home and duping her out of her pension money.

He left home at 18 to work as a handyman and at 20 married a woman with whom he had two sons, now 19 and 17, but, says Lauwens, he beat his wife and they divorced in 1985. By then he was involved with Martin, a former teacher later convicted as an accomplice in the rapes.

They married in 1988, and when Dutroux was released from prison in 1992, they quickly acquired at least six houses—all inexpensive, all unremarkable and all in disrepair—in Charleroi and surrounding towns in southwestern Belgium. All the while, police say, Dutroux maintained several healthy bank accounts. How could an ex-con living on $1,300 a month in unemployment benefits afford such expenses? Again, the answer may lie with the police, who apparently suspected Dutroux's involvement in a wide range of lucrative crimes, from selling pornography to trafficking in guns and prostitution, but never did more than confiscate stolen goods from him. "The police came several times to take away stolen goods but never arrested him," says a bartender who works next door to one of Dutroux's homes. "When we realized what he was doing, we all had alarms put in our homes."

In 1993, police, who were investigating a series of petty crimes, did notice that Dutroux had been doing construction in the basement of his Marcinelle home. He told them he was merely making repairs and upgrading the drainage system. They believed him. That oversight allowed him to construct a tiny cavelike pen, hidden behind bookshelves, where he would later hold Julie and Mélissa captive.

Their abduction in the summer of 1995 was only the first of several violent episodes on Dutroux's part. On Aug. 22, 1995, An Marchal, 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, 19, from the eastern Belgium town of Hasselt, were vacationing on the Belgian coast with some of their high school theater group when they disappeared late at night after taking in a hypnotist's show. An was an avid animal lover whose mother knew she hadn't run away because she left with her belongings the stuffed dog she had taken everywhere since she was 2.

An's parents, Pol and Betty Marchal, spent two months searching the region, but, lacking follow-up from police, had no success. "The investigators laughed in my face when I first reported the disappearance of my daughter," says Pol, a primary school teacher for mentally challenged children. "They said she would be back one day." That was wishful thinking. Dutroux later told police he and Lelièvre had snatched the two teenagers off the street that summer evening, subdued them with chloro-form and pushed them into a van.

Police initially caught up with Dutroux last Dec. 7, when he was arrested for car theft. Just before his arrest, while searching his house, police heard children's voices—now thought to be those of Mélissa and Julie—but Dutroux said his three young children were making the noise, and police never found the cell. Dutroux later told police that during his three-month auto-theft imprisonment he had left money for Weinstein and Lelièvre to feed the two children. But when he was released last March, he found one of the girls dead of starvation, and the other, near death, died soon after. Dutroux says he was so angry at Weinstein's neglect that he drugged his accomplice and buried him alive in the garden, where he also buried the girls. "I saw him digging holes in the garden at night on several occasions and often heard strange, machine-generated noises throughout the night," says neighbor Oscar Duterne. "I thought something strange was happening, but I had no idea what it involved."

Earlier this year, two more girls disappeared. Sabine Dardenne, then 12, was abducted while bicycling to school May 28 in the village of Kain. And on Aug. 9, Laetitia Delhez, 14, was kidnapped while walking home from a swimming pool in Bertrix. Police found a young man in the pool's neighborhood who had a hobby of memorizing license plates. He recalled the tag on a particular white van and its suspicious-looking driver. It turned out to belong to Dutroux, who was arrested, along with his wife, on Aug. 13. Though police searched Dutroux's homes, it was only after he broke down during an interrogation that they found Sabine and Laetitia—both had been raped several times and drugged—locked in the basement cell. Four days later, Dutroux led police to the bodies of Julie, Mélissa and Weinstein. Police also turned up a wide array of pornography—including hundreds of videotapes—as well as guns and drugs.

Later, in the garden of Weinstein's home, police found the bodies of An and Eefje, who, An's parents say, were killed by an overdose of a drug that Dutroux had used to sedate them. "The reason Dutroux had to kill them is he had no room for them," says Betty Marchal. "Julie and Mélissa were already occupying the cell. It was so small, you couldn't even stand up in it." Dutroux, now being held behind a Plexiglas door in an Arlon prison—where not even family members have visited—has been charged with murder and aggravated kidnapping. His wife was charged as an accomplice.

It has been wrenching for Betty Marchal to accept her daughter An's fate. "For me it's always difficult now when the weather is bad," she says. "I worry about her lying in the rain." In their grief, the Marchals have formed a close relationship with Gino and Carine Russo. Both families are establishing nonprofit groups to help protect children, promote laws to crack down on pedophiles and support other families of kidnapping victims.

As their stories have spread, the families have received more than 100,000 condolence letters and faxes from around the world. "I will grieve later," says Gino Russo, "when we've done all we can to make sure this doesn't happen again." What grieving he has allowed himself has been done largely in public. Mélissa and Julie's Aug. 22 funeral was broadcast live on national television. And now a steady stream of visitors pay their respects at the small Liége cemetery where they are buried side by side. "We were only 8 years old, and we had so many dreams," reads a plaque left by members of the local community. "You adults must make it a better world."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
NINA A. BIDDLE in Grâce-Hollogne and JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Brussels

  • Contributors:
  • Nina A. Biddle,
  • Joel Stratte-McClure.