Tony van Renterghem, with his white mustache, looks more like a Santa Claus figure than the man sent by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies to stalk Josef Mengele.
But that is how he spent several days on a tiny island off the coast of West Africa early this year. Last month in Indiana, he talked about the trip during a meeting of some survivors of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp and others who do not believe that the remains discovered in Brazil earlier this year were Mengele's.
Renterghem, 66, returned from his mission convinced that the Mengele discovery was a hoax, but officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said they believe that the Nazi is dead and have called off the investigation.
Malibu resident Renterghem, a World War II Dutch resistance fighter, and his model-actress wife, Susanne Severeid, 29, were selected for the project and financed by the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center, whose namesake, Simon Wiesenthal, is the world's best-known Nazi hunter.
As planned by the center and Renterghem, the operation had a distinct Hollywood flavor: His cover on the island of Porto Santo was that of a commercial photographer taking publicity bathing suit pictures of his blonde wife, known in real life for her best-selling "yellow towel" bikini poster and television commercials.
The ruddy-faced, burly Renterghem, a semi-retired film consultant and researcher, and his wife returned from their mission earlier this year and were debriefed at the Wiesenthal Center.
Attending the sessions at one time or another, according to Renterghem's diary of the events, were the center's director, Gerald Margolis; its dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier; an associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper; former Israeli defense minister and current trade minister Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Even.
"What we brought back was purely circumstantial, but there was a lot of circumstantial," said Renterghem in a recent interview in his small, book-lined office next to a cottage the couple rents on the western tip of Zuma Beach. "I am sure there was a top Nazi there. And I feel there was a very good chance that that man was Mengele."
But relations between Renterghem and the Wiesenthal organization cooled with the discovery in Brazil of remains identified by forensic experts as those of Mengele.
The Wiesenthal Center officially supported the conclusion of international forensic experts who declared that the skeleton unearthed came "within a reasonable scientific certainty" of being Mengele's.
Renterghem, however, believes that the discovery was an elaborately planned hoax.
His contention that he may have seen Mengele was discounted by Margolis in a recent telephone interview. He said the Mengele case is closed.
"You can be sure if we thought Mengele was on that island we would have had the Marines out there, and that's the bottom line," Margolis said. "It was close but no cigar. . . . He (Renterghem) is construing his whole Mengele embroilment as a ticket to fame."
For his part, Rabbi Hier said that Renterghem has, in effect, been caught up in the drama of the mission, which amounted to "a new life style" for the Malibu couple.
"Israel checked out the whole story and the man was not Mengele," Hier said. (Renterghem) intended to write a book on this expedition and must have contacted 20 to 30 people (to sell) a motion picture."
To which Renterghem replied, "I've lived such a low profile. I've never tried to capitalize on my World War II experiences (for which he was belatedly decorated by the Dutch government two years ago).
He admitted, however, that he had wanted the first rights to a Mengele interview if, indeed, his information had led to the Nazi's capture.
Renterghem first came to the attention of the Wiesenthal Center last March when he offered to provide for its archives prints from his collection of photos taken by the Dutch underground of the brutal Nazi treatment of Jews in the Netherlands.
As he was soon to learn, it was a propitious time to introduce himself to Margolis, Hier and Cooper.
Propelled by worldwide publicity last February, after dramatic ceremonies in Poland marking the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where Mengele performed his grisly experiments, an intensive international search for the Nazi doctor gained momentum. Rewards for Mengele's capture soon mounted into the millions.
Among those leading the effort to find the war criminal were renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna and officials of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Then, on March 22, according to Renterghem's diary, Margolis telephoned and asked him to attend a hush-hush meeting at the center. The subject: Mengele.