Alleged killers who murdered and fed the bodies of a British couple to crocodiles had suspected ISIS links

Adventure-seeking botanist couple Rod Saunders, 74, and Rachel Saunders, 63, were reported missing on February 10, 2018, after heading into the Ngoye Forest Reserve near Durban. Picture: The Daily Mail.

Adventure-seeking botanist couple Rod Saunders, 74, and Rachel Saunders, 63, were reported missing on February 10, 2018, after heading into the Ngoye Forest Reserve near Durban. Picture: The Daily Mail.

Published Oct 8, 2022


Johannesburg - The alleged killers of an elderly British couple who were brutally murdered before their bodies were fed to crocodiles over four years ago, had suspected links to ISIS.

According to The Daily Mail, respected botanists Rod Saunders, 74, and wife Rachel, 63, were in KwaZulu-Natal when they were targeted, kidnapped, beaten to death and then put in their sleeping bags and thrown into a river infested with the aquatic reptiles.

The UK publication reported that Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, are all currently standing trial at the Durban High Court. The trio have since denied charges of kidnapping, murder, robbery and theft.

During the court proceedings, it was revealed that detectives found pamphlets relating to the Islamic State terrorist group. Meanwhile,another UK publication The Times reported that an ISIS flag was also found at the defendant's home when they were arrested.

Saunders was born in South Africa and received dual citizenship after marrying British born Rod, and the pair travelled the globe giving lectures on their passion and expertise on the Gladioli of South Africa.

The British couple were allegedly targeting, kidnapped, murdered - their remains thrown to crocodiles - by a married couple and their lodger who lived in the area. Picture: Daily Mail.

In 1995, they set up Silverhill Seeds named after their home in Silverhill Crescent, and built a successful business working from home employing staff to sell their seeds around the world.

Meanwhile, Del Vecchio, who converted to Islam, and Patel, whose father is a Muslim cleric, have both been included on South African security force's watchlists.

The 39-year-old had been caught on a quadbike watching planes at Durban's King Shaka airport more than two years before the murders.

In addition, messages on WhatsApp and Telegram found on their phone showed that the suspects discussed plans to 'kill the kuffar [non-believer] and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and put fear in the heart of the kuffar'. They also described the Saunders as 'prey' who were ripe for a 'hunt'.

The charge that the suspects had links to Islamic State had not been submitted to the court, according to The Times.

According to The Daily Mail, the British couple spent six months a year scouring wild mountains and forests for sought-after-stock for their thriving worldwide mail-order business.

And it was during their travels to South Africa that their lives were gruesomely ended.

The couple’s badly decomposed bodies, which had been devoured by the crocodiles when they were pulled out of the water by fishermen days later, were unrecognisable and taken to mortuaries.

It was only months later - when police could find no trace of the British couple - that they ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be DNA tested. It was then that they were identified.

The full-scale hunt for the seed hunters had already resulted in four arrests - three of them have been charged with the murder, kidnap, robbery and theft of the married couple.

Meanwhile, the fourth suspect, who was found to have bought cell phones belonging to Saunders but was not involved in the kidnap and killing, was given a suspended sentence in return for vital evidence.

During court proceedings, it was revealed that they left their home in Cape Town in their Toyota Land Cruiser on February 5, 2018, to keep a rendezvous in the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal about 1448 kilometres away with a BBC TV documentary film crew.

Murdered British botanists Rod (left) and Rachel Saunders (centre) on a hike with the Pacific Bulb Society. The Daily Mail.

The internationally renowned botanists were interviewed by TV presenter Nick Bailey for an episode of Gardeners World as they searched the Drakensberg Mountain region for rare Gladioli flower seeds.

At the time, Bailey posted a selfie from their adventures to his Twitter account and a photo taken by producer Robin Matthews during filming are believed to be the last pictures taken of them alive.

After filming, expert horticulturist Rod and microbiologist wife Rachel, who had been married for over 30 years, parted ways with the TV presenter and headed off to camp at a dam in a remote forest.

They were last in contact with an employee at their workplace Silverhill Seeds which they ran from their home in Cape Town on February 8, just three days after they had set off to meet the BBC.

The Saunders then said they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve about 144 kilometres north of Durban but were never heard from again. And on February 10, the alarm was raised.

The court was told: 'Around February 10 the investigating officer received information that Rodney Saunders and his wife Dr Rachel Saunders from Cape Town had been kidnapped in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region.

'It was established on February 13 that the defendants were drawing money from various ATM's which amounted to theft of R734,000 (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment.

'It is alleged that between February 10 and 15 at the Ngoye Forest the accused did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rachel Saunders, and between the same dates did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rodney Saunders' it was said.

On February 15 of the same year, Vecchio and his wife were both arrested at their home in Endlovini, about 48 kilometres from the Ngoye forest from where the Saunders had vanished.

Their arrests came after the Hawks, an organised police crime fighting unit, found a link between the cell phones belonging to the Saunders and the cell phones of the suspects, and applied for a search warrant.

The Daily Mail added that a number of items which had been bought on Dr Saunders’ bank card were recovered, including receipts in the handbag of Patel which corresponded with the date and time of its use.

The court heard: 'On March 23, the third accused Mussa Ahmad Jackson was arrested and he made a statement to the effect (that) he was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road.

“Del Vecchio in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove sleeping bags from the back of the Toyota and they threw them with human bodies inside into the river”.

The victims' Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with a large amount of blood in the cargo area which was later confirmed to belong to Saunders, the court heard.

Rachel's body had been recovered from the crocodile infested River Tugela on February 14 and Rod's on February 17, by local fisherman but both bodies were not initially linked to the missing persons’ inquiry.

It is believed that they both died from being beaten to death with a blunt instrument after being kidnapped and robbed, and were then dropped off the bridge into the river for crocodiles to devour their bodies.

On February 10, a message from Del Vecchio to his wife and their then lodger said there was an elderly couple in the forest and that it was a good 'hunt' and he had the 'target'.

He said in a message to an unknown person allegedly sent 'when the brothers in kinya go out and do this work it is very important the body of the victims is never found.

'It remains a missing person case' said the message.

The trial continues.

The Saturday Star