Dredging up the lake serial killers
Bruma Lake. “This is how you turn a f***-up into a feature,” Piet Byleveld says, and he tells me that he still smiles about that every time he drives past this man-made lake in the east of Joburg.
The once stinking sewage catchment area was given a serious face-lift some years ago and changed into a waterfront development with restaurants, shops and offices on its banks.
At the time it was one of the first of its kind in the country. A flea market developed on its banks and grew into the largest in South Africa, with more than 600 vendors – with drug trafficking, hijacking and black marketeering as shady side-effects.
Over the years, however, the lake gradually silted up, so that by 2010 there was only about 4cm of water sitting on a layer of sludge and sewage almost 2m deep. Only after numerous businesses had closed their doors and a chorus of protest had gone up from the residents in the area, did the Joburg municipality start to think of ways to rehabilitate the lake.
For years the lake had been used as a clandestine dumping site. Anything from garden refuse and false teeth to old washing machines found its way to the lake’s filthy water. From sewage back to sewage, one might say.
Then, in 2000, a new ingredient was added to the soupy mix. Bodies.
Early in January 2001, when a third bloated body floated to the surface in the hot summer sun, Commissioner Perimal Naidoo had had enough. Why were his men not making progress? Two restaurants and a hair salon had closed since the first body surfaced on the turbid water nine months earlier. Imagine this: you’re sitting in an open-air restaurant, enjoying your steak, when suddenly a body floats by.
Everything pointed to another serial killer on the loose.
The cry went up: get the serial killer boffin. Naidoo phoned Piet Byleveld. Take over the case, and solve it – and quickly. That was Piet’s brief.
Superintendent Petrus Erasmus Johannes van Staden Byleveld is the name that is laboriously written on the cover of his Bruma Lake statement.
“Come to attention when you say those names,” he teases me. Today he is wearing new khaki trousers his girlfriend chose for him, and a fashionable checked shirt. His 1970s slip-on sandals have been replaced by designer sneakers in a seventies retro style.
He looks like a different man. Not so cop-like any more. He even drinks red wine nowadays. Always Four Cousins. He rattles off the name: Forcousins. Love has bowled the Byl over. Truly.
On the lawn a “chicken-in-beer” perches in the Weber, sizzling. Seuntjie sniffs around the flowerbeds. The doves peck at the crumbs Piet has thrown out.
Girlfriend Elize is doing some serious shopping. Christmas is just around the corner. Her shopping list looks like a store inventory, Piet jokes.
Last night the two of them sat outside on the stoep, chatting. The next thing they knew, it was past two in the morning. They never run out of things to say, Piet says, almost surprised, as if he can hardly believe it himself, this happiness that has crept up on him so unexpectedly.
For the first time in decades Piet Byleveld is happy. Truly happy.
When the Bruma case landed in his lap Piet Byl had not lost a case in his whole career. His reputation as a super-sleuth was firmly estab- lished. His name was engraved on the Suiker Britz floating trophy. He was one of the “Ysters” (Irons) – Commissioner Britz’s name for the crème de la crème of his specialist detectives – “old-school” alumni who would leave no stone unturned to solve a case. “24/7 detectives”, prosecuting advocate Gerrit Roberts calls them.
Among these detectives the competition has always been as thick as the smoke-filled air in their offices. Whereas his colleagues might have been somewhat indifferent to him in earlier days, some of them now started maintaining a distance. Envy might have played a role, Piet reckons.
“At the Brixton reunion braais the conversation would peter out when I joined them at the fire. Some of them weren’t exactly rude, but neither were they friendly.”
Piet was therefore not altogether surprised when he ran into a stubborn investigator who refused to hand over the Bruma case dockets. Eventually, and with great difficulty, he managed to get hold of three.
“The victims were black men, all clad in shorts. Their feet were tied together; some had rocks tied to the ropes to drag the body down. It was clearly murder. Serial killings.”
The question on everyone’s lips was: how many bodies are still at the bottom of the lake? Piet decided the lake had to be drained. Roberts agreed. “Empty the lake,” he told Piet.
It was a contentious decision. An empty, stinking lake could affect the entire environment as well as cause the already struggling business centre on the banks to lose even more tenants. But Piet stuck to his guns.
It took two days for all the water to be drained. The high-ranking officials at Anglo American, who owned the complex, were furious. The municipality was equally irate. The entire area stank to high heaven and Piet’s professional credibility was at stake.
“The only ones who weren’t angry were the birds. They had a ball among the dead fish,” Piet remarks.
Rubber-booted policemen and dogs were sent into the filthy mire to look for bodies. There was furniture, supermarket trolleys, clothes, bottles and beer cans.
And piles of dead fish. But not a single body.
It still peeves Piet that the lake wasn’t cleaned before it was refilled. “They just filled it with water, right over all that mud and slush and rubbish. It bothered me terribly.”
More businesses at Bruma closed after the water had been drained. Some even predicted that the entire development would shut down.
Then advocate André de Vries, Director of Public Prosecutions of the Witwatersrand, marched into Piet’s office and told him he wanted an arrest before the end of April.
“That was a mere three months away,” Piet sighs, shaking his head.
At the Johannesburg High Court, De Vries had a special office set up as a permanent working space for Piet.
That office was a concession that no other detective had ever been given. The fact that Piet had almost full-time involvement with various court cases that were often simultaneously under way clinched the “reward”.
That, and his reputation as a detective who never dropped the ball during a trial.
The walls of his office at the court were lined with photos of bodies, maps, notes – it was the ops room of a serial-killer specialist.
On 8 February 2001, Piet received a call from the Germiston police station.
Two men had been arrested at Rhodes Park in Kensington, not far from Bruma, for the illegal possession of two firearms. They were Themba Nkosi, 22, and Simon Majola, 35, both from Hillbrow.
Something about the profiles of the two aroused Piet’s suspicion. “Keep the suspects there,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
“When I arrived, the two men were pretty cocky. The younger one, Nkosi, was dressed according to the latest fashion. He seemed to find his arrest a big joke. Majola was much quieter though; I think he realised he was in serious trouble. ‘I’m taking you through to Brixton,’ I told them. ‘And if I were you I would use the time to think.’ “
The two knew very well who Byleveld was. And what they were supposed to think about.
They were taken to Brixton in separate vehicles. Even before they arrived, Piet noticed that the muscular Nkosi’s lips had begun to tremble. The trusted formula was working: the Byleveld plus Brixton fear equation.
Piet made them sit in separate offices. First Nkosi cried, then he talked. And he didn’t talk only about the three murders at Bruma, but also about incidents in Rhodes Park, where they had robbed people, about the murder of a Baptist pastor on May 15, 2000, and about a housebreaking, during which they had killed their friend.
The two later pointed out the crime scenes, as well as others in Rhodes Park of which Piet hadn’t been aware.
It turned out to be a ridiculously easy case to crack, but, as Piet knew only too well, no investigation is over before the judge has delivered his verdict. Things can still go wrong in court. The two could easily have been acquitted; there were no eyewitnesses, only the confessions they had made.
“Remember, they were arrested for the illegal possession of a firearm, and not on any other charges.”
Majola and Nkosi had met each other while partying in Hillbrow, had become friends and then later upgraded the friendship to a partnership in crime.
Between April 2000 and February 2001 the two conducted a reign of terror, not only at Bruma but also at three parks in the east of Joburg: Rhodes Park, Bezuidenhout Park and Observatory Rift Park. They would ambush unsuspecting lovers at party and picnic spots in the late afternoon and evening.
Their modus operandi was simple. They would overpower their victims with a firearm or knife and demand: give us your car, cellphones, bank cards, clothes, money and jewellery, or we’ll throw you into the lake alive. Once they even stole a set of building plans.
Many incidents were never reported. Some of the couples they had targeted were gay and reluctant to come forward.
Whenever one of their friends discovered what they were up to and they felt that there was a possibility that he might speak out, Nkosi and Majola would unceremoniously tie bricks or rocks to his feet and drown him in Bruma Lake.
Two of the three bodies that the police found in Bruma Lake were so badly decomposed that they were never identified.
They were recorded as “adult male”, presumably from somewhere in Africa. Four bodies were also found in the Rhodes Park area. Identikits were compiled and published in the media, but there was no response from the public as to who the victims might be.
The only evidence the police had was a pair of red checked boxer shorts and a green windbreaker jacket that had been found on the bodies of two of the unidentified victims.
The last body, found in January, still had a gold ring on his right hand which the murderers had not even bothered to remove.
The Star reported that the man was dressed in a Daily Express T-shirt with a Rugby World Cup picture of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar printed on the front.
Piet smiles at me. “The faces of celebrities show up in the weirdest places, don’t they? Imagine the image of Madiba and Francois on a T-shirt on a body at the bottom of a muddy lake.”
l Extracted from Byleveld: Dossier of a Serial Sleuth by Hanlie Retief, published by Umuzi at a recommended retail price of R220