FOUR violent murders in which gay men were bound and strangled to death have police and forensic specialists investigating the possibility that a serial killer, or homophobic group, is stalking Joburg’s gay community.
All of the victims, discovered in the past 10 months, were found tied up and strangled inside private homes within the greater Joburg area – with police recording no signs of forced entry.
Police working on all four cases believe the minimal theft means robbery was not a motive. It is believed the lack of break-ins may mean the victims knew their would-be killers and could actually have invited them in.
The most recent victim, Barney van Heerden, 39, was found bound and strangled in his Orange Grove home on September 19. The murder was discovered by security guards, after they noticed his car gate was open and his front door unlocked.
Police believe Van Heerden may have known his attacker or attackers, as half-full glasses of wine were found on the kitchen table. Since the incident was reported, distraught relatives, friends and other members of the gay community have come forward, describing other recent violent crimes that seemed similar.
Three of these reported murders bear striking similarities to Van Heerden’s case.
In the first attack in December 2010, Jim Cathels was found at his home in Berea. He had been strangled and bound, and there were no signs of forced entry.
Four months ago, Oscar O’Hara, 33, had been house-sitting in Kensington for friend and author Ivan Vladislavic. He was bound and strangled by an unknown assailant or assailants. His body was discovered a few days later, when the author returned home from the UK.
Siphiwe Selby Nhlapo, 36, was killed in a similar manner at his flat in Kliptown, Soweto, on September 11, a week before Van Heerden’s death. One element set his murder apart: his killer(s) poured acid on the body after his death from asphyxiation.
Forensic specialist Dr Mark Welman said two facets of a group of killings can help to identify a serial killer: repetitive patterns in modus operandi and similarities in victims. A serial killer may leave “signatures” that multiple investigating officers might miss if the dockets are not centralised and investigated together.
“It would be remiss of investigating authorities to not consider possible links, and they should certainly be drawing on their specialised behavioural science unit on these cases,” said Welman, when given details of the four murders.
Yet, more than 10 months after the first victim was discovered, police have yet to bring in a task team.
Welman acknowledged that the acid poured on Nhlapo was a major difference in modus operandi, but the killer may have been attempting to destroy DNA evidence that he or she may have left on the victim.
“What I find noteworthy is that all of the victims were strangled. Apart from the fact that this represents a thematic connection between the cases, let’s also note that to strangle a victim, the killer either has to be considerably stronger, or have the victim at some disadvantage. If they are bound, they obviously cannot fight back.
“But a perpetrator operating alone might find it hard to tie a victim up. So one also would not want to rule out the possibility that the perpetrator had one or more accomplices,” he added.
All four of the victims were said to have internet savvy, and The Star confirmed that at least two of them had profiles registered on gay dating websites that they used to meet other men.
Welman has warned that those who fit the victim’s profile should remain cautious of inviting strangers into their homes.