If the Succession writers pitched it as the season finale, you’d think they’d jumped the shark. A moneyed baroness, beloved by her ailing (second) husband and adored worldwide thanks to her philanthropic ventures, is murdered in cold blood by the jealous stepson who learned to shoot as a secret-service operative. There’s a palatial European property; a gilded international art collection; links to the British royals—and, at the end, a broad-daylight execution by a disgraced former spy that calls to mind the grisly shootings of Gianni Versace and Maurizio Gucci. Often life imitates art—but sometimes it doesn’t need to.
This can be said of 70 year-old Myriam Ullens de Schooten, better known in society circles as “Mimi,” who was murdered last Wednesday in the wealthy Belgian municipality of Lasne as she attempted to flee her home. The ambush, orchestrated by her stepson, was the bloody dénouement of a decades-long dispute over (what else) inheritance: who was getting it, and who was squandering it.
Finally, last week, after an allegedly “heated discussion” on the matter at the family pile, Nicolas Ullens, 57, son of billionaire Baron Guy Ullens de Schooten (from a previous marriage), snapped. Nicolas confronted his father and stepmother at 10 a.m., driving his car into their VW Golf, as they sought to escape the sprawling estate, before firing six shots at Baroness Ullens, four of which hit her in the head.
The baroness died instantly, while her elderly husband took a stray bullet to the leg. “I heard several loud bangs,” said a neighbor, who reported that the shooting took place by the estate gatehouse, where Baron Ullens was found slumped over his wife in a state of shock. Baron Ullens was quickly admitted to hospital but later discharged. “He is well aware of what has happened,” says Brigitte, Nicolas’s sister. “It’s very difficult for him. We want to be there for him as a family, if he wants to.”
An hour after committing the crime, Nicolas turned himself in at a nearby police station, along with the weapon itself. “The suspect offered no resistance and explained that he had killed his stepmother,” a statement from the Walloon police said. “He was carrying a handgun, which was seized. He was deprived of his freedom.”
And that, one would assume, should be that. An open-and-shut case: no third-act twist; no hidden motive or unmasked impersonator. Money, the root of all evil, a “shoot the rich” parable for our times. But a tinkle of moral ambiguity remains, courtesy of Brigitte, who almost immediately declared unwavering support for her brother, framing the murder as simply a crime passionnel performed by an otherwise “very sweet man.” Someone who had simply snapped at the indignities foisted on him by a wicked, multi-husbanded gold digger.
The ambush, orchestrated by her stepson, was the bloody dénouement of a decades-long dispute.
“My brother … certainly didn’t do this on purpose,” Brigitte told Nieuwsblad, a Flemish national newspaper, shortly after the murder, with an almost impressive misunderstanding of both legal intent and free will. “He had just become a grandfather three months ago, and next week he would be leaving on holiday with his family.”
“But it exploded on Wednesday,” Brigitte continued. “Our family has been ravaged for years. Only one thing mattered to Mimi: she wanted the family’s fortune for herself and we didn’t count. She even forbade dad to keep in touch with us. In recent years, dad’s mental state has deteriorated and she benefited from that.”
At the heart of it all lies the family’s grand villa—sprawled across the handsome village of Ohain, near Brussels—which had reportedly just been put up for sale by Baroness Ullens, to the distress of her stepchildren. “What was she going to do with that money [from the sale]?,” Brigitte said. “I don’t know, but I guess she would keep it to herself.”
Such greed does not necessarily chime with Baroness Ullens’s wider reputation. A serial philanthropist, she appears to have largely used her husband’s vast fortune (accrued from running the family’s food conglomerate and then from Weight Watchers International, in a neat demonstration of circular economics) for good. In 1996, three years before her marriage to Baron Ullens, the former pastry chef and restaurateur set up an orphanage in Nepal designed to help children affected by the violent revolution in the country. (Today, the same institution cares for around 10,000 children every year.)
In 2004, after recovering from breast cancer, she set up the Mimi Foundation to provide support and therapy to tens of thousands of cancer sufferers, a charity she hoped to fund with the profits from her chichi fashion brand, Maison Ullens. (Fun-ish fact: when Donald and Melania Trump visited Belgium in 2017, the First Lady wore an Ullens dress.) Elsewhere, the couple—renowned as international collectors—would often leverage their haul of art and antiquities for philanthropic pursuits. In 2013, they partnered with King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, to auction off an official portrait for charity. “You can own fortunes,” Baroness Ullens once said in an interview. “But if you are dead six months later, it is of no use to you.”
Nicolas Ullens de Schooten, 58, her stepson, cuts a decidedly less sympathetic figure. A self-employed “strategic adviser” for something called Spartan, Nicolas worked from 2007 to 2018 as a Belgian spy, specializing in Russian counter-intelligence. Former colleagues told Nieuwsblad that he was often “lofty” and would frequently boast about his wealth: “In State Security you have to be discreet and diplomatic,” they said. “But he wasn’t like that. He was a loudmouth.”
In 2019, after leaving the department, Nicolas accused then deputy prime minister Didier Reynders of official corruption. It was a move that backfired spectacularly when Reynders was cleared of all charges, and Nicolas, it turned out, had based his shaky case on stolen classified documents. Disgraced and discredited, Nicolas rebranded as a YouTube “whistleblower” and conspiracy theorist, a role that mainly consisted of posting erratic and largely unnoticed videos with titles like “The government, the masks and the mobsters,” based on apparent knowledge gleaned from his intelligence career.
But it was another career detail entirely that made national headlines last week, in a calm volley of midmorning bullets. As a former military colleague remembers, “It is with us that he also learned to shoot.”
As for the most recent fallout, on Wednesday of this week, Baron Ullens announced that he was filing a civil suit against his son for the murder. “Considering the circumstances,” the baron’s lawyer said, “he’s holding up very well.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London