'He feared God but loved young girls'

By Christina Gallagher

Convicted paedophile Cornelius Gerhardus (Gert) van Rooyen was described as "flamboyant and a sexual braggart" by some people and a "God-fearing man", who claimed to be a preacher, by others.

Van Rooyen, 52, often told guests at his Capital Park, Pretoria, home about his sexual exploits with young women and with girls as young as 5.

Before being linked to the six girls' disappearance, Van Rooyen was convicted of several offences, including molestation.

He was sentenced to "corrective training" in 1954 for stealing a car, but was back in reform school a year later for stealing cars and a rifle. In 1960 he was again imprisoned for stealing motor spares and clothing.

His prison record was clean until 1979 when he was jailed for sexually molesting two girls. He served three years of a four-year sentence.

Van Rooyen, a father of six children, operated a construction business with his brothers from his home. Authorities later said the business appeared to be in trouble, but Van Rooyen was always seen with lots of cash.

However, domestic workers and a handyman at the house claimed he often did not pay them for their services. One domestic worker said Van Rooyen threatened to withhold her pay unless she brought him "young girls from the township".

Neighbours claimed Van Rooyen lived in a virtual fortress.

"Nobody could get in there. They unlocked the security gate for visitors and locked it as soon as you were inside," one neighbour said.

Another said: "What I found strange was that he never parked in front of the house. He always drove into the enclosed car park and closed the gates like a prison warder."

Girls in the area said Van Rooyen "leered, whistled at them and told them they were sexy. He was always hanging over the gate to chat."

Van Rooyen began dating Francina Johanna (Joey) Hermina Haarhoff in 1988. Haarhoff was a light-brown-haired and fair-skinned woman whom a friend described as "very attractive and could have had any man she wanted".

Many thought it was odd for her to choose a short, balding and pot-bellied older man.

Friends and family said Haar-hoff was a hard-working woman who raised her three boys alone after her husband's death in the mid-1980s by working as an accounts clerk and later as a debtor's clerk.

Haarhoff's sons said that after she began dating Van Rooyen, her personality changed drastically.

"When she met this man she became as meek as a lamb. She was very much in love with him. I think he bewitched her," one son said.

The couple liked to spend weekends away in Warmbaths and at a resort in Umdloti, KwaZulu Natal.

Haarhoff was thought to be the bait to lure girls into the couple's lair. Children's homes in the area said she often phoned requesting to bring girls home for the holidays and weekends.

In 1989, one 14-year-old girl from a Free State orphanage spent the Christmas holidays with the couple, despite Van Rooyen's previous paedophilia conviction. That year they applied to foster children, but the application was denied.

It was later claimed that Haarhoff abducted all the missing girls and wore a blonde wig as a disguise.

The girls all had a number of aspects in common: colouring; normal family backgrounds that did not point to signs of their being runaways; and they disappeared in daylight from busy shopping areas close to their home.

Before Van Rooyen and Haarhoff committed suicide, they spent a night at the Umdloti resort.

The resort owner described Haarhoff the day they checked in: "She said she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and had been ordered by her doctor to take a break."

They left the resort the Sunday before they committed suicide - without paying their bill.