Cape Town - Sentencing proceedings for convicted axe murderer Henri Van Breda are currently underway in the Western Cape High Court. The 23-year-old was found guilty on all five counts related to the murders of his parents, Martin and Teresa, and his older brother Rudi, as well as the attempted murder of his then-16-year-old sister, Marli.
The gruesome attack on the family at the home in the luxurious De Zalze Estate outside Stellenbosch on 27 January 2015 sent shockwaves through South Africa. Pictures of police forensic investigators on the scene of the attack dominated the front page of local newspapers for days. Nobody could comprehend the depravity of the attackers who left three members of a family dead in their home and another fighting for her life after her aorta was damaged by an axe blow.
For three weeks investigators virtually camped out at the golf estate, combing the crime scene for clues. During this time, Henri was cared for by his uncle, Cornelius 'André' van Breda, who reported that the young man was "heartbroken". The family went to great lengths to ensure that Henri was shielded from the media during the funeral service for Martin, Teresa and Rudi.
Shock turned to horror as the one member of the Van Breda family who survived the attack virtually unscathed became the focus of investigators' attention. Henri claimed that a laughing, axe-wielding, balaclava-clad intruder, also armed with a knife, was behind the attacks. He further claimed that he wrestled with the attacker, sustaining only superficial slash wounds. During the judgment, Judge Desai pointed out that his wounds were different than those inflicted on the rest of his family and had not been potentially fatal.
Media speculation about Henri's guilt abounded, and there were even some who theorised that he must have had an accomplice, although this theory was never really tested in court.
Van Breda was eventually arrested and charged with the murders as well as the attempted murder of Marli, who still suffers from retrograde amnesia as a result of the attack. When the case went to trial Henri maintained his innocence and stuck with his version of events. The judge, however, found the laughing intruder defence "nonsensical".
Neither the uncle nor Precious Munyongani - the Van Breda's domestic worker - could corroborate the State’s contention that Henri’s relationship with his family had been unravelling due to his alleged drug use.
In the early stages of the trial, the call Van Breda made to the police emergency number on the night of the fatal attack became a crucial piece of evidence. The erratic conversation, in which at one point it sounded like Henri was giggling, was a hot topic for weeks. Emergency Communication Centre operator Janine Philander, who took the call at 07.12 am, testified that she initially thought it was a prank call because he sounded "cool and calm".
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In fact, one of the only times Henri was ever seen displaying any emotion in public was when the audio recording of the call was replayed in court when he broke down and cried. The other time was when his uncle was in court to testify. Henri van Breda wiped away a few tears as his uncle described how proud he was of his family.
During the trial, Henri's girlfriend Daniellé Janse van Rensburg was frequently seen seated in the gallery offering him support. In 2016 the couple were arrested in Tableview on a drug possession charge, but the case was subsequently dropped.
Two years after the gruesome attack on the Van Breda family and a year after the trial began, Henri was convicted and the judge revoked the bail he had been granted shortly after his arrest. Henri spent his first night behind bars in the hospital wing at Pollsmoor Prison.
When court convened for sentencing proceedings the judge virtually pleaded with the defence team to offer some sort of argument in mitigation of sentence that would paint Henri’s crime in a less heinous light. A National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) report submitted by the defence painted the Van Bredas as a close-knit family with no financial problems. It found that he was emotionally closer to his mother and had an intellectual connection with his father and that he had a loving relationship with his siblings.
Last weekend Henri was reportedly attacked by inmates despite Pollsmoor Prison's hospital wing being considered relatively safe as it is off limits to the general prison population. This could be a foretaste of what awaits the young man whose parents reportedly left a R200 million estate.
While Henri's fate is set to be sealed in court this week, many questions about the De Zalze murders remain unanswered and if Henri does not break his silence eventually we may never know what really happened on that fateful night.