The Lost Boys of Bird Island: Fear, suspicion and unanswered questions
It is the late 1980s. Serious allegations surface against three prominent National Party Cabinet ministers, one of them the second-most powerful man in the land. They are, it is said, regularly abusing young boys on an island just off the coast of Port Elizabeth. From opposite ends of South Africa, a brave cop and a driven journalist investigate. Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn independently uncover evidence of a dark secret. But the case only surfaces briefly before it disappears completely. Thirty years later, the two finally connect the dots to expose this shocking story of criminality, cover ups and official complicity in the rape and possible murder of children, most of them vulnerable and black.
When Mark Minnie and I met up again in 2017 to talk about writing this book together, he startled me with the claim that he almost had me killed that day our paths crossed so briefly in Port Elizabeth 30 years earlier.
According to him, he had two trained marksmen giving him back-up, and had given them instructions to shoot me on sight should anything untoward happen to him. He said, “I told them that if I just as much as fall asleep while sitting talking to you, they should shoot to kill”
I must say I found that hard to believe - even from a South African cop in the ’80s. But Minnie was adamant that he felt in need of protection - from me. As he put it, “I feared for my life. I did not know who you were really working for. You could have been Security Branch, which had showed such interest in my case to the point that the docket was stolen out of my office.”
He told me there were rumours that Dave Allen had been taken out by the branch, and then I had turned up expecting him to confirm that one of the most powerful and dangerous men in South Africa was part of a paedophile ring abusing boys on Bird Island. The former detective added: “But even if I knew you were on the right side, I would never have confirmed anything in view of the fact that you were a member of the liberal press who would possibly twist my words, and then they would have come after me.”
For my part, the meeting with Minnie was so useless from a journalistic point of view that I had actually completely forgotten about it. It was only while working on this book that I was reminded of the frustratingly fruitless exchange between the detective and me in that hotel foyer three decades ago.
In retrospect, Minnie’s attitude towards me at that time did make some sense. In those years, members of the so-called left-wing press and the “Boere” (police) were usually on opposing sides.
In an email to me in 2017, Minnie revealed just how much he had distrusted me: “Nice meeting up with you once again. This time it’s under different circumstances, though. We’re on the same side, now. I apologise profusely for the ‘cold shoulder’ treatment which I meted out to you so many years ago in Port Elizabeth. I was unaware as to your true agenda on that specific day that we spoke to each other in the lobby of the Elizabeth Hotel Those days, for some or other reason, I felt more comfortable in the presence of journalists working for the Afrikaans press.”
In 2017, after the long, long silence between us, I finally got to read Minnie’s version of his own investigation. I learned for the first time that he had suspected right from the start that Allen’s death had not been a suicide. I also learned that he had shared my own suspicions that Wiley’s death, too, was not suicide.
The fact that the key to the minister’s locked bedroom had gone missing - according to a source close to the family - was certainly suspicious. At first it had been presumed that Wiley had locked himself in his room before lying down on the bed and taking his life. But when his son, Mark, gained access to the bedroom through an outside window, he couldn’t find the key. Sources close to the Wileys told me at the time that the family had searched everywhere for the key and were completely baffled by its disappearance.
Adding to my suspicion that there was something odd about Wiley’s death was confirmation by the police that he had not left a suicide note - despite his well-known penchant for constantly writing notes. And, during the writing of this book, I learned that many of Wiley’s notes were found burnt in the driveway of his home a couple of days after his death. Whoever had set fire to the notes was in such a hurry that the scorched ring binders had been left behind.
I also found out that Wiley’s bedroom window looked out over an open veranda from where one could walk on to the lawn and straight across it into a quarry. “Anyone could have gotten in,” I was told. Moreover, I learned that the police officer on night guard duty had left at 6 am that morning. Furthermore, although Wiley’s wife seldom rose early, I was told that she had also gone out by 6 am.
There is more. The crime scene investigation that followed the discovery of Wiley’s body was “non-existent”, and the scene was “contaminated” on the assumption that it was a suicide. In addition, I was told that - despite there supposedly not being a spare key to his safe - some of Wiley’s personal effects had been removed sometime after his death.
In another development, during the writing of this book, a source forwarded me a message with this claim: According to my info, the first person allowed into Wiley’s house was Magnus Malan.
He left the house with two boxes. ONLY after he left, the police was allowed to enter the house.
Why??!! He swept/cleaned the house personally. Must have been some info for a prominent person to stoop so low (as to) to sweep a house.
This information was passed on to me from a former member of Military Intelligence’s Counter Intelligence and Counter Espionage Division. I subsequently asked someone else who had been at the house that morning whether Malan had indeed been there, but he could not remember.
* This is an extract from The Lost Boys of Bird Island by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn published by Tafelberg at a recommended retail price of R280
* Mark Minnie is a former policeman who worked as a Narcotics Bureau detective for the South African Police (SAP) during the 1980s. Upon leaving South Africa in 2007, he started working as an English examiner for Cambridge University and the British Council in China. He is currently employed as an English teacher at a university in Guangzhou in China.
* Chris Steyn is an investigative writer and journalist. Over the years, she has worked for the Rand Daily Mail, The Star and the Cape Times. She was editor of the investigative unit of 16 newspapers in the Independent Newspapers group. Today she owns a bookshop in Hermanus, the seaside village which is now her home.
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