The small French town of Château-Chinon, located in the rolling hills of the Nièvre district, was once best known for its medieval ruins and its former mayor, François Mitterrand, who went on to become France's longest-serving president after his election in 1981.
But this town of 2,100 residents has attracted a different sort of attention ever since the local dentist was accused in 2012 of mutilating and swindling more than 120 patients over the previous four years.
Finally, after several months on the lam and two separate extraditions, the Dutch dentist known as Mark Van Nierop (but whose real name is Jacobus Marinus Van Nierop) will finally face a jury. His trial opens Tuesday at the criminal court in Nevers, located 45 miles west of Château-Chinon.
Van Nierop was brought to the town in 2008 by a Dutch headhunter who was employed by the Bourgogne regional council. For four years, he was the only practicing dentist serving Château-Chinon and the surrounding area.
According to witness statements published by French daily La Dépêche, the new dentist was initially considered "friendly" by locals. "Nice copper plaque, modern practice," described the daily, adding that Van Nierop was "built like a rugby player."
But residents were unaware of Van Nierop's checkered record back in the Netherlands, where his poor dentistry skills resulted in him being stripped of his license.
After the complaints from patients and unpaid suppliers started coming in, Van Nierop was placed under court supervision and banned from leaving France in 2013. Despite the ban, he traveled to Canada in December 2013, but authorities caught up with him three months later. He was first extradited to the Netherlands in September 2014, and then from the Netherlands to France the following January.
The Morvan Dental Collective, which represents 120 of Van Nierop's former patients, is a plaintiff in the trial that opens Tuesday in Nevers. The patients are asking for acknowledgement of the harm they suffered at the hands of Van Nierop, and are also seeking compensation. Many of the patients have said that compensation will help reverse some of the damages inflicted by the man locals nicknamed "the butcher."
The allegations against Van Nierop, which include the scheduling of unnecessary appointments and procedures, attending to more than one patient at a time, the use of improper equipment, and a worrying reliance on heavy anesthetics, paint a disturbing picture of systematic malpractice.
"Each time, he would give us what he called 'a little shot,' and we were put to sleep," Nicole Martin a former patient who is president of the collective against Van Nierop, told La Dépêche. "[We were] out of it, half of our faces would be asleep for five to six hours."
The regional daily Le Journal du Centre has published several testimonies of former victims who described experiencing a violently sadistic scraping of plaque from their teeth, the inexplicable removal of healthy teeth, and the agonizing aftermath of various procedures at the hands of Van Nierop.
"When I arrived, he gave me seven or eight shots in my gums. And he pulled out eight teeth in one go!" recalled former patient Sylviane Boulesteix. "After that, I bled for three days!"
Thérèse Zbinden, another former patient, said that she had spent 32,000 euros (more than $35,000) on dental care between 2009 and 2012. Others echoed her testimony, describing exorbitant invoices from Van Nierop for dental work — some of which never even took place.
Despite expert confirmations of the damages inflicted by the dentist, none of the victims have yet been compensated for their harrowing experiences. Van Nierop was declared insolvent and was dropped by his insurance company in 2015 for making "false statements."
Prior to Van Nierop's arrival in Château-Chinon, the town and its surrounding area had gone two years without a resident dentist. The area is one of the country's 192 so-called "medical deserts" — areas where the authorities have failed to find successors for retiring doctors. The estimated 2.5 million people who live in these areas are finding it more and more difficult to access adequate health care.
To remedy the problem, France's Health Ministry has been pursuing a Health Territory Pact, an initiative launched in 2012 that encourages young doctors to relocate to rural areas and fill posts in the 700 health centers that have been opened to cater to underserved communities. According to the government, 300 new establishments are slated to open their doors by 2017.
Such medical deserts have also seen local authorities attempt to make up the shortfall by calling on headhunters, many of whom charge up to 20,000 euros ($22,000) to recruit health professionals.
As well as seeking compensation, the victims' collective bringing the case against Van Nierop is also advocating for stricter controls around the recruitment of foreign health professionals, including dentists and doctors.
Speaking to Le Journal du Centre in September 2014, former patient Nicole Martin urged the government to "quickly put in place some proper national guidelines."
The collective has also requested that the authorities systematically check the qualifications of all candidates and assess their past experience before allowing them to practice in France.
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