‘Kirsty used all her energy to save me’
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Johannesburg - As four church-going youths answered for their roles in a sensational “satanic” murder case rife with Biblically inspired rituals, petrol attacks and drugs, the portrait of their victim watched on from the bench.
Kirsty Theologo, 18, was lured by her friends to the Linmeyer koppies one October night in 2011. She was bound, hit on the head with a rock several times before she lost consciousness, doused with petrol and set alight as a human sacrifice to the devil. She died in hospital a week later from multiple-organ failure. Her best friend, 16-year-old Bronwyn Grammar*, was similarly burnt, though she survived.
Despite the fixation on these grisly details during the year-long trial of Lindon Wagner, Courtney Daniels, Robin Harwood and Harvey Isha at Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court, evidence has nevertheless provided fleeting glances into the victim’s real character.
According to witnesses, Kirsty fought her assailants when they tried to tie her hands. She fought so hard it required three men to subdue her. And although she later died in hospital due to the severity of her injuries, she somehow found the strength to trek home after the attack carrying Bronwyn on her back.
To Kirsty’s family and friends, however, she was lovingly mocked as “Cleopatra” due to her obsessive preening, and “Thirsty Kirsty” for her love of a party. For her notoriety as gang leader of her siblings in all trouble-making affairs, Kirsty also earned the term of endearment “Bitch”.
To the four youths, she was “Braaivleis” – the term they allegedly used as code for Kirsty when they conspired to murder her.
Kirsty was the second eldest of Sylvia Theologo’s seven children, who grew up with a balanced regimen of maternal coddling and tough love. One picture Sylvia keeps in her bedside table shows Kirsty beaming at the camera, flanked by her siblings, and the centre of attention. Others are cropped out in a collage hanging on the wall.
These days, Sylvia’s room is a creative explosion of piecemeal knick-knacks decorated with Mardi Gras beads and plastic feathers, children’s toys, bowls of sweets for her five-year-old son, who sleeps next to her bed in a nest of Teletubbies blankets, and ashtrays for her. She flits in and out speaking at the speed of light because silence, like stillness, makes her think.
These days, what hurts Sylvia most is the memory of how Kirsty ate her chicken with intense concentration, right down to the bone. It’s how sometimes the voice of Kirsty’s younger sister sounds indistinguishable on the phone.
“When people die, things start to go. I go and find her voice every day but I don’t smell her any more,” she said, rubbing her wrists together like she’s thinking of Kirsty’s favourite perfume, Revlon’s Pink Happiness.
Two of Sylvia’s children live with her, including 17-year-old Alex Noble, who was closest to Kirsty. Two years ago, Noble searched for his sister when she didn’t return from the koppies. He was the one who saw Kirsty break into the house after she had been burnt, her face smashed in.
Now, Alex comes home after school to make his mother sandwiches for lunch, and holds her when it gets tough.
Recalling Kirsty, the first thing that came to Alex’s mind was her vanity.
“She always had to have make-up on before she left the house,” he said with a shrug, like Kirsty’s obsession with her looks had always been fodder for mockery. “Couldn’t have a hair out of place”.
It’s one of several reasons why those who knew Kirsty won’t buy for a second that she had wanted the accused to “drink her blood, eat her flesh, strip her naked and burn her”, as they claim.
Bronwyn, for one, rolls her eyes at the thought.
As Kirsty’s best friend, Bronwyn said they first bonded because she was likewise a “freaky wild chick”.
As children, the two would play Barbies in Sylvia’s house, occasionally making a break for the shops across the road to buy ice cream. As they got older, they planned to stay friends forever. Kirsty would matriculate first and get a flat with money she earned as an actress, air hostess, teacher or secretary, and Bronwyn would stay with her. Naturally, they would date twin brothers and swap when they felt like it.
In court, Bronwyn would sit directly behind the accused, hugging a teddy bear to her chest. She took time off school to attend because she had been drugged the night she was attacked, and for a long time the trial was the “most important thing” in her life.
“I really need to go start my life over because I can’t keep thinking that my best friend’s gone and I’m the girl that got burnt also. I want that to be completely cut out of my life. I’m going to live my – and her – dream,” Bronwyn said.
Sylvia also thinks of herself as tough. She’s lived a hard life, working piece jobs as a waitress to support her family. When men came and went, protecting and providing a home for her children became her mission.
Home in the early years of the Theologo family meant broken windows, doors secured with wooden spoons stuck through the lock and an oversized mattress where Sylvia and the children would hibernate through cold winters. Poverty strengthened the family in certain ways, but tension flared when Sylvia’s temper alienated her from her children.
When they were young and naughty, Sylvia ordered them to serve sit-downs that would last for hours. They’d perch on the floor in a row with their backs to the TV. Any sound or movement and the ordeal would be prolonged. Other times, Sylvia would march them to the bathroom and spank them one by one. They would fight over the line-up because they knew her arm would get sore by the time she swung at the last bum.
Kirsty, in particular, rebelled. When Sylvia went for her, she would scream bloody murder and threaten to retaliate when she got bigger.
Over the years, the relationship between mother and daughter deteriorated. Kirsty refused to do a thing around the house. Sylvia occasionally kicked her out – she and the kids would vote on the motion democratically: “Hands up. Kirsty stay or Kirsty go?”
A couple years before the incident, Sylvia found out Kirsty was smoking dagga. Unsure how to handle it, she took her daughter to court and introduced her to a social worker based at La Rochelle’s Upper Room Christian Centre, where Kirsty met the people who would later admit to murdering her.
“My kids know it and so did my neighbours within a six-mile radius that she got as good as what she gave,” Sylvia said in reminiscence of her early attempts to discipline Kirsty. “But I wish I never. I wish I never shouted at her even one time. I understand it was their hands, but I was supposed to protect her.”
Despite her initial hatred for the accused, Bronwyn said she has learnt to forgive them for the sake of her own peace of mind. But sometimes she thinks about the year leading up to the murder, when she and Kirsty decided they would rather hang out with the accused than go to school.
In the mornings, Bronwyn would pull her school uniform over her casual clothes and climb up on Kirsty’s roof to wait for her. After Sylvia left for work, the girls would stash their bags and go over to the boys next door – accused No 4 Lindon, his brother Conlin and their friends. They would drink, watch movies and play video games. It went on for a long time.
According to Bronwyn, she and Kirsty were the boys’ “teddy bears”, pampered and played with and loved. It was common knowledge that Kirsty had a soft spot for coloured boys and although she had a thing for Lindon, she dated Conlin. Another ex-boyfriend was State witness Lester Moody, who made a plea bargain to serve 12 years in prison in return for testifying against the accused.
It’s because of the relationship drama that Bronwyn believes Kirsty’s murder was motivated by lover’s jealousy rather than satanism. As it is, they all belonged to a Christian youth group. They enjoyed dagga and idolised American rapper Jay-Z.
In the months after the attack, one thing continues to haunt Bronwyn: how did Kirsty find the strength to carry her home when she was dying of her own injuries?
Bronwyn confessed to Kirsty’s cousin, Liesha du Toit, one night that she didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Kirsty expended so much energy to save her. Du Toit asked her to consider Kirsty as her guardian angel.
“Honestly, I think if I wasn’t there that night, Kirsty wasn’t going to survive,” Bronwyn said. “She wasn’t just thinking about herself. If she hadn’t needed to get me home, no one would have found out about (the accused) and it would have been a mystery.”
Instead, Kirsty’s case is now one of the most recognisable in the country. To the public, she will always be remembered as the victim of a “satanic” murder. But to those who knew her, she was “tough as nails”, the girl who couldn’t leave her best friend behind even if it killed her.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Sylvia complained while trying to summarise her daughter. “She was Kirsty. She laughed. She laughed from her soul, from inside her gut.”
* Named because she and her mother gave consent.