At first glance, Chane van Heerden had the demeanour of a shy, sweet, “girl next door”.
But the “Welkom killer” is a 20-year-old woman who acted on her twisted fantasies and had a rare diagnosis called “shared psychotic disorder”.
If she hadn’t been caught, experts believe she could have become a serial killer –perhaps the sickest and cruellest South Africa had ever seen.
Yesterday, Judge Albert Kruger had no doubt about the danger she posed to society, declaring her a dangerous criminal who would only be allowed to to apply for freedom in 20 years’ time – if she could convince a court that she was fit to be released back into society.
This week the Virginia circuit court in the Free State convicted Van Heerden of the gruesome murder of Michael van Eck, after she pleaded guilty on Tuesday. The court ordered that her case be separated from her lover and co-accused Maarten van der Merwe.
Van der Merwe is to undergo further psychiatric evaluation before his trial resumes in February. He has not yet entered a plea.
What makes Van Heerden’s crime unique is that she meticulously “skinned” Van Eck’s face, which experts said was a very “rare” criminal act – after drawing exactly what she would do in her sketch book.
“Cases such as these are very rarely heard of,” said University of the Free State forensic psychologist Professor Dap Louw, a state witness.
“It’s not the first case where a victim has been skinned… however, there has not been a single case whereby a victim was so precisely skinned,” Louw told the Saturday Star.
It prompted Louw to contact his counterparts in the US, Norway and Israel.
“I wasn’t surprised when they told me that they had never come across a case as unique as this one,” said Louw.
Van Eck was killed and dismembered in April. He had been beheaded, his right arm cut off, and both his legs amputated at the knees. And some of his body parts had been buried in a shallow grave.
Police discovered Van Eck’s shirt at the cemetery, and sniffer dogs found some of his remains in a shallow grave.
Other body parts were found in a cupboard and in the garden at Van Heerden’s home. Van Eck’s facial skin, eyes and ears were found in the fridge.
His employer raised the alarm when Van Eck failed to arrive for work. The police found his abandoned car at a Welkom taxi rank.
His employer told the police that Van Eck was to have met his date, Van Heerden, at the Welkom cemetery. He had met her on the social networking site To Go.
Van Heerden then lured him there as the first victim of her sick fantasy.
“She should be managed as a serial murderer,” Brigadier Gérard Labuschagne, the head of the SAPS Investigative Psychology Section, told the court this week.
In his report, he said various aspects such as “trial runs” on animals, “bodily trophies” which were removed and taken home, and fantasies were “often noted in psychologically motivated crimes”. Fantasies, he said, were often seen as the “blueprint” for the crime.
These same fantasies were reflected in Van Heerden’s “art-works and writings”.
He said that inside her art portfolio were “sketches representing a face which has had the mouth stitched closed, similar to the manner in which the deceased’s mouth was stitched closed.”
Her writings too, reflected these fantasies. Labuschagne said that she stated in the poem The Seven Deadly Sins the following: “I will tear their faces off to see the truth…” In this case, he pointed out, the deceased’s face was removed and kept in the freezer.
Labuschagne further explained that the presence of a fantasy also meant that the crime was “pre-planned”.
“SMS text messages were recovered indicating pre-planning prior to the murder. The accused stated to Detective Warrant Officer Steyn that since she was a child it had been her dream to kill someone and remove their skin,” said Labuschagne.
In another writing by Van Heerden, it states: “Well when I woke up this morning I realised that I had nothing to wear, so I thought for a while and come up with an idea that would change the world forever.
“I remembered I had some old material in the back of my cupboard. I think its called skin.
“So since I had some time to spare, I stitched some skin together forming a suit – it was quite a tight fit so I had to stitch it to my flesh otherwise it would slip off and that could get quite messy…”
In this example of her writing, said Labuschagne, “reality imitated art (fantasy)”.
He added in his report that they discovered “collateral evidence” at the accused’s home.
There were books about well-known US serial killer Richard Ramirez and works on other serial killers.
Asked whether she would be capable of killing again, Louw said it was difficult to predict human behaviour.
“It’s very possible that she could go out and kill again in the brutal manner that she did now, but like I said, I am very unsure,” said Louw.
“I wouldn’t want her as my neighbour and I’m sure nobody else would want that too.”