Police forensic experts are conducting DNA tests to determine if the badly decomposed body accidentally discovered by a fisherman in the Tugela River is that of Rod Saunders.“No conclusive findings have been made yet,” said Hawks spokesman Captain Lloyd Ramovha.
“But we can confirm that DNA samples have been taken and sent to Pretoria for analysis to establish if the body is linked to the Saunders kidnap case.
“Investigators have also visited all morgues in the search area to determine if there are any other identified bodies that fit the time frame of the case.”Saunders, 74, and his wife, Rachel, 63, were abducted by Islamic State-linked suspects from a remote KwaZulu-Natal forest on February 10.
The Cape Town-based British botanists, owners of the indigenous seed supplier Silverhill Seeds in Kenilworth, have been missing ever since.
Initially police were convinced that the couple had been kidnapped and murdered in Ngoye Forest Reserve near Mtunzini, 130km north of Durban.
But in spite of regular, intensive searches with tracker dogs and helicopters and a combined investigation involving the FBI and British police, they were not found. The quick arrest on February 15 of two prime Isis-linked suspects, Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 38, and his wife Fatima Patel, 27, yielded incriminating evidence about the couple’s demise but shed no light on where their bodies were dumped.
Neither did the arrest of a third suspect, Thembamandla Xulu, 19, for possession of the Saunderses’ cellphones.
But police did get a breakthrough in late March when they finally nailed Malawian Ahmad Jackson Mussa aka Bazooka in Durban North following an intensive five-week manhunt.
He co-operated with investigators and guided their search for the Saunderses’ bodies to the Tugela River mouth.
But a search party involving boats and divers failed to find their bodies, which were believed to be submerged, wrapped up in their sleeping bags.
Then a few weeks ago, said a source close to the investigation, the Hawks were alerted that an unidentified body lying in the Kwadukuza mortuary in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal could be linked to the hunt for the Saunders couple.
Badly decomposed with a foot missing, it had been found on February 28 about 500m from the Tugela River mouth by a fisherman. But local police who removed it did not link it to the Hawks search being conducted 60km north of them.
Del Vecchio, Patel and Xulu have since appeared several times in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court charged with the kidnapping, assault and robbery of the Saunderses. Del Vecchio and Patel also face charges under the Terrorism and Related Activities Act.
Damning evidence documented in an affidavit incriminates them in a R700000 credit card spending spree and an ATM ransack of Rachel’s FNB account.
Incriminating text messages also indicate that the senior couple were a target for an Isis-motivated hunt, abduction and killing.
The damning affidavit also linked Bazooka to Del Vecchio, who messaged him “that there is an elderly couple in the forest”, that “it is a good hunt” and that they had equipment.
The conversation continued between the accused in a similar manner and later Del Vecchio confirmed that “he has the target”.
Hopes dwindled that the Saunderses, widely described as gentle and peace-loving, would be found alive with the discovery of a Del Vecchio text that read: “When the brothers in Kenya go out and do this work it is very important that the body of the victim is never found and it remains a missing person case.”
The Saturday Star