What kind of criminal would do this?
Just after dusk on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, the peace and quiet of the small Northern Cape town of Griekwastad was disrupted when a teenage boy sped into town in his father’s Isuzu bakkie and screeched to a halt in front of the town’s nearly deserted police station. It was shortly before 7pm when Don Steenkamp ran into the station’s charge office, covered in blood, to announce that his parents and sister had been brutally shot and killed on the family farm, Naauwhoek. Although the killings were initially thought to be just another farm attack, months later a 16-year-old youth was arrested for the murders. This is an extract from The Griekwastad Murders by Jacques Steenkamp.
A few hours later, De Waal, Vermeulen, Don and Andries set off for the scene of the crime. Don’s tent-pegging coach, Bennie Heckroodt, followed them in another vehicle. During the drive, the boy, seated in the back, asked a surprised De Waal what he should do in order to inherit “everything”. In fact, he asked a lot of questions, and at one point even boasted about how fast he had driven his father’s bakkie the night before. From what De Waal had gathered thus far, Deon Steenkamp owned several farms and many livestock, and the estate was worth millions.
At the farm, De Waal asked Don to show him where he had been when the murders took place. He also wanted Don to show him where he had found the bodies and, later, the guns. But all proceedings came to an abrupt halt when the boy’s advocates, Willem Coetzee and Sharon Erasmus, started phoning both De Waal and their client repeatedly, objecting to a minor assisting the police with their inquiry. It took a while for De Waal to explain to Don, Andries and Heckroodt how important it was for them to proceed. Fortunately, the three of them agreed that they should continue, and Don then showed those present where he had been in the barn when he’d heard the gunshots. He also pointed out where he had discovered the bodies and where he had found the firearms.
Don quite confidently related his version of events, and was even willing to pose for photographs at certain “hot spots”. The media had not yet caught up with events at Naauwhoek, and Don’s version was all that was available at the time.
All he told De Waal and his colleagues was that he had been busy in the barn, heard shots and hid, and had then come across the bodies. Shortly afterwards, Marthella had died in his arms. Back at the farmhouse, De Waal retrieved and confiscated another four firearms from Deon Steenkamp’s safe.
Another bloodied T-shirt, navy with some printing on it, was collected from a bedroom. De Waal had noticed the shirt the previous evening. It was sticking out from beneath a discarded towel lying on the floor between the bed and the cupboard. Someone from his team had forgotten to collect it and De Waal ordered that it be entered into evidence now. The bloodied T-shirt was torn and damaged around both sides of the neck. It was clear from the state of the shirt that its wearer had been involved in a struggle.
Once all the evidence had been collected, it was processed and sent to the forensic laboratories for testing. The guns were sent away for ballistic testing to determine if they had been fired and used in the murders. Don was handed over to Andries, who was waiting outside the house. Andries agreed to take care of Don on his farm, Lynput, west of Griekwastad, until Paul Botha, a retired school principal and Deon Steenkamp’s neighbour, who was named in Christel and Deon’s will as Don’s guardian in the event of their deaths, could assume his responsibilities.
Around midday, De Waal returned to the Griekwastad Police Station, where a number of local and national print and radio journalists had by now gathered. Besides this group, there were also some locals, coloured and white, keeping a close eye on the comings and goings at the police station.
By this time, the provincial police spokesperson, Colonel Hendrik Swart from Kimberley, had issued a brief statement to the press, saying that they weren’t searching for any suspects “at present”.
“We are looking at the available witnesses’s statements and the evidence that was found at the scene,” Swart informed Volksblad.
His words caused a media frenzy. All of a sudden, the supposed farm murders had turned into something even more sinister. However, without the police confirming on the record that they did indeed have a suspect or suspects, all anyone could do was speculate. And speculate they did. Rumours started circulating that Deon Steenkamp had killed his family and spared his son; others alleged that Satanism was involved and that Marthella had done the killing.
One rumour that many people found perfectly plausible was that Don Steenkamp was adopted and had only found out on the day of the murders. Whatever the case, the fact remained that the police weren’t looking for any suspects. The nation would have to hold its collective breath until the investigation was concluded and the police had acted on their findings.
Meanwhile, the journalists who had gathered in the sleepy town of Griekwastad waited in great anticipation to catch a glimpse of the sole survivor of this family tragedy. Although they tried their best to obtain information from De Waal and his colleagues, none was forthcoming. The police’s lack of co-operation infuriated and frustrated the media – usually they were kept in the loop with high-profile cases. But this time it would be different; this case was unusual.
Don finally arrived at the police station later that afternoon, accompanied by Bennie Heckroodt who, in addition to being Don’s national tent-pegging coach, was also Deon’s long-time friend. Heckroodt is a tall, proud and handsome man in his 50s with short greyish hair and a moustache. Don, wearing navy-blue shorts and a jacket in a similar colour, his hands firmly in his pockets and his head down, marched straight into the build-ing, Heckroodt right beside him.
I was covering the story from Rapport’s offices in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.
Having closely followed the events via the radio station OFM and Twitter, I had quickly come to the conclusion that something very sinister had occurred at Naauwhoek the previous evening.
De Lange asked me whether I thought there was something different or weird about this case. We didn’t report on every murder on a national level, but there was something about this case that intrigued us. I immediately started researching the town and its people.
Pretty soon I had several of the locals contact numbers, and I started dialling.
It was Easter weekend, which was usually a quiet time in the news world, but this story was about to change that.
By now, I was aware of some of the details of the case, and after covering more than a 100 murder cases over the years, I had a fairly accurate idea of what a farm murderer’s modus operandi normally was. This type of criminal wanted guns, cash, jewellery and electronic goods, and occasionally a vehicle. They would more often than not poison any dogs on the property and, once access had been gained to the farmstead, would ransack it for valuables.
In the Griekwastad murders, none of the above applied. What kind of criminal would leave thousands of rands behind in a safe, I wondered?
There was also the matter of the rifles Don had picked up at the farm gate. Some criminals are most certainly stupid, but I had never heard of any who would commit three murders and then leave the weapons near the scene of the crime for the police to find.
Satisfied that there might be more to this case than a straightforward triple farm murder, I went looking for De Lange, who was having a smoke outside the building. I told her what I had discovered.
Although she appeared to be surprised and somewhat excited about the information, it was our editor, Bokkie Gerber, we needed to convince. We found Gerber in a hallway inside the building, and I had to push for the story to become front page news. I trusted my gut instinct, and am glad that I did.
That afternoon, with Heckroodt present, De Waal took Don’s statement inside the station commander’s office. perhaps understandably, Don was very nervous. De Waal listened intently as Don again recalled his version of the events leading up to the discovery of the bodies and how he had subsequently fled the scene to seek help.
When asked about finding the two guns beside the gate at twilight, Don explained that he had seen the weapons as he was driving away from the house.
He’d stopped, opened the door, leaned over from the driver’s seat and picked them up.
After nearly two hours of interrogation, Don left the police station with red, puffy eyes. He was immediately comforted and hugged by several relatives and friends, who were patiently waiting outside for him. It was clear to them that the investigative officers had not gone easy on young Don.
In the meantime, the police investigation was gaining momentum. For the media, who were left more or less in the dark, the hunt for the truth only really started at this point.
We knew that the police were withholding a lot of information about their investigation from us and, amid all the rumours and speculation, we had to know whether they had a suspect and whether an arrest was imminent.
And, if so, what had been the motive behind the killings?
* The Griekwastad Murders by Jacques Steenkamp is published by Zebra Press at a recommended retail price of R190.