AACHEN, Germany — A German court on Tuesday convicted an 88-year-old of murdering three Dutch civilians as part of a Nazi hit squad during World War II, capping six decades of efforts to bring the former Waffen SS man to justice.
Heinrich Boere, number six on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazis, was given the maximum sentence of life in prison for the 1944 killings.
"These were murders that could hardly be outdone in terms of baseness and cowardice – beyond the respectability of any soldier," presiding judge Gerd Nohl said.
Boere sat in his wheelchair, staring at the floor and showing no visible reaction as the verdict was announced.
For Dolf Bicknese, it was the first time he had seen in person the man who killed his father in 1944 – but he said he felt little emotion staring Boere in the face.
"The person hardly interests me any more," the 73-year-old told The Associated Press. "My interest is justice."
During the trial, which began in October, Boere admitted killing a bicycle-shop owner; Bicknese's father, a pharmacist; and another civilian as a member of the "Silbertanne" hit squad – a unit of largely Dutch SS volunteers responsible for reprisal killings of countrymen who were considered anti-German.
He said he had no choice but to follow orders to carry out the killings.
"As a simple soldier, I learned to carry out orders," Boere testified in December.
"And I knew that if I didn't carry out my orders I would be breaking my oath and would be shot myself."
But the prosecution argued that Boere was a willing member of the fanatical Waffen SS, which he joined shortly after the Nazis overran his hometown of Maastricht and the rest of the Netherlands in 1940.
Judge Nohl noted that there was no evidence Boere ever even tried to question his orders.
He characterized the murders as hit-style slayings, with Boere and his accomplices dressed in civilian clothes and surprising their victims at their homes or places of work late at night or early in the morning.
"The victims had no real chance," Nohl said.
Though sentenced to death in absentia in the Netherlands in 1949, later commuted to life imprisonment, Boere has managed to avoid jail until now.
One German court refused to extradite him because it ruled he might have German nationality as well as Dutch. Another would not force him to serve his Dutch sentence in a German prison because he was absent from his trial, having fled to Germany.
"We welcome the conviction, we welcome the sentence and this is again another proof that even at this point it is possible to bring Nazi war criminals to justice," Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said by telephone from Jerusalem.
"It also underscores the significance of the renewed activity on the part of the German prosecution," he said.
Defense lawyer Gordon Christiansen said he would appeal to a German federal court. Boere will remain free until the appeals process is complete – and that could take two to three years if it goes to the European Court of Human Rights, Christiansen said.
Teun de Groot, whose father of the same name was the bicycle-shop owner killed by Boere, said it was "a shame" Boere would not be imprisoned immediately but was happy nonetheless.
"The verdict here is good," the 77-year-old said.
Boere was born in Eschweiler, Germany – on the outskirts of Aachen, where he lives today. The son of a Dutch man and a German woman, he moved to the Netherlands when he was an infant.
Boere has testified that he decided to join the SS as an 18-year-old after the Germans had overrun the Netherlands and he saw a recruiting poster signed by Heinrich Himmler that inspired him.
After fighting on the Russian front, Boere ended up back in the Netherlands as part of "Silbertanne" – a death squad believed to be responsible for 54 killings in Holland.
According to statements Boere made to Dutch authorities after the war, he and a fellow SS man were given a list of names slated for "retaliatory measures."
Their first target was the pharmacist, Fritz Hubert Ernst Bicknese.
The two walked into the pharmacy and asked the man there if he was Bicknese. When he answered "yes," Boere pulled his pistol from his right coat pocket and fired two or three shots into Bicknese's upper body.
The next victim followed a similar pattern: Boere and an accomplice shot the bicycle-shop owner, Teun de Groot, when he answered the doorbell at his home in the town of Voorschoten.
They then continued to the apartment of the third victim, Franz Wilhelm Kusters, and forced him into their car. They drove him to another town, stopped on the pretense of having a flat tire and shot him.
"Kusters fell against the garden door ... and sank to the ground," Boere told investigators. "Blood shot out of Kusters' neck."