By Alex Eliseev and Kevin Ritchie
When Eric Calitz got the chance to train as a game ranger and earn R5 000 a month he grabbed it. A week later he was dead, murdered on what police now suspect to be a right-wing paramilitary camp.
On Tuesday, Alex de Koker, the alleged head of the training camp, which police sources believe was established to recruit and train right-wing soldiers, was released on R10 000 bail. He and two of his alleged "lieutenants" will now go on trial for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Calitz on January 31.
After Calitz died, while training with 14 others in Swartruggens, in North West, his family received an SMS telling them he had died of a heart attack. They were later told he was the victim of a seizure and was in a coma. Then the story changed again, and the cause of death was given as dehydration.
Eventually the truth surfaced and Calitz's sister, Mathilda Groenewald, was informed he had died as a result of bleeding on the brain.
A devastated Groenewald and her husband Henno spoke to The Star on Tuesday night, saying that Calitz was very impressionable, slightly brain damaged and struggled to keep down a job.
"He was hit, burnt and wounded," Groenewald said. "It's beyond sick - it's psychopathic."
Another youth, 19-year-old Nicolaas van der Walt, also died at the camp. Groenewald claims he was beaten and had a car seatbelt tied around his neck before being dragged "from the lake to the camp".
Calitz's murder, Groenewald said, was sparked by his asking De Koker if he could quit the camp.
"Alex (de Koker) told him (Calitz) that he wasn't a moffie (gay) and he would make a man out of him."
Groenewald said her brother was a "miracle baby" who was born three months premature, died in the incubator and was brought back to life. This, unfortunately, had left him brain damaged and he never finished school.
She recalled that the only jobs her brother could keep were basic security guard ones where he would earn about R1 500 a month.
According to Groenewald, Van der Walt could afford the camp entrance fee of R10 000, but her brother could not. He arranged to work off the debt and signed a two-year contract. He had been lured in by their brother Brian, 31, who was working as an instructor in the camp. Brian is now co-operating with the police.
"When they went to the camp, their cellphones were confiscated. He just disappeared," Groenewald said.
Calitz's mother, according to Groenewald, is shattered and is undergoing counselling.
She said the family suspected the camp was a recruitment centre for the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging's Ystergarde (Iron Guard).
"It is suspected that the paramilitary-style training presented on this course was not normal ranger training and this forms a key part of the investigation," said police spokesperson Director Sally de Beer.
De Koker, 43, is the chief executive officer of a rangers training camp, and had been advertising the training camps since the middle of last year, police said. The business was operating from a Vereeniging farm.
Although they won't confirm it, police will now have to investigate how it came to be that the deaths were declared natural. "Every aspect of the deaths will be thoroughly investigated," was all De Beer was willing to say.
It is understood that about 13 people were involved in running the training camp, including Bianca Pronk and Jacques Mans, who were arrested with De Koker. The trainees were taught various military skills, such as leopard crawling, and were conditioned to walk and run long distances. Part of their training was apparently a two-day vasbyt (endurance march).
A reliable police source said the training was related to right-wing activity.
Police detectives from the national Violent Organised Crimes Unit swooped in on their suspects the weekend before last. De Koker and Pronk were arrested in East London on Friday night while Mans was apprehended on a farm near Henderson, in the Eastern Cape.
"He (De Koker) was very surprised," the source said. None of the suspects resisted arrest and no weapons were found in their possession.
Pronk and Mans were released on R5 000 bail the following Monday while De Koker remained behind bars. On Tuesday, despite the state objecting, he was released on bail. He has been ordered not to leave Gauteng and not to apply for a passport.
The three will make their next court appearance on April 18.
"What did Eric do to deserve this?" Groenewald asked. "I'm very, very angry. I feel nothing about these people. I want to prevent other youngsters from suffering the same fate."