“There will always be two high-profile murders in Stellenbosch a year,” sergeant Stephen Adams, 42, says as he leans forward.
“At least two per year: [One in the] first six months and [one in the] last six months.”
Brief silence follows as he contemplates the statement he’s just made before he continues: “We still believe it.”
Standing up, Adams walks past Colonel Deon Beneke, 45, the acting station commander of the Stellenbosch police cluster, towards Sergeant Marlon Appolis, 41, where he takes a cigarette.
“All of us, we have that [belief],” Adams adds as he lights the cigarette.
Beneke remains silent, before Appolis, sitting next to him, adds: “It is like a spell that’s over Stellenbosch.”
In an interview with News24 in Beneke’s backyard in Wellington – roughly 30 minutes from Stellenbosch – the three detectives explained how they were able to successfully solve four high-profile murder cases in the area: the Van Breda family of De Zalze Estate, Stellenbosch University student Hannah Cornelius, guest house owner Marie Verwey and, most recently, Susan Rohde – the wife of property mogul Jason Rohde.
Adams testifying during a trial at the Western Cape High Court. (Jaco Marais/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
The murders, at least one every year since 2015, captured the public’s attention as gruesome details were revealed in the Western Cape High Court over the course of a few months.
In July 2018, the court sentenced Henri van Breda (23) to three life sentences for using an axe to murder his mother, father, and brother at the estate in 2015. The motive for the murder is still unknown.
Months later, in November, three men were sent to jail for the murder of Hannah Cornelius aged 21, whose bare body was found in May 2017 at Groenhof farm, roughly 20 minutes outside of Stellenbosch, where she had been raped and stabbed.
In February, Marie Verwey’s caregiver and three accomplices were sent to jail for stabbing the 81-year-old 61 times while she saw in her wheelchair in Paradyskloof, Stellenbosch, in February 2017.
And two weeks later, Jason Rhode (49) was sentenced to 20 years in prison for strangling and smothering his wife of 22 years, Susan Rohde (47) to death in a hotel just outside Stellenbosch in July 2016.
As he puffs on his cigarette, Adams says they are still anticipating the next high-profile case to reach their desk this year.
Jeffrey Zetler, 62, the owner of much beloved Stellenbosch strawberry farm stall, Mooiberge, was stabbed to death on his wife’s birthday in June, 2018.
“If it’s a new year we would say: ‘Okay, the first one for 2019 must still come,'” Adams says. “When or where we don’t know.”
Beneke, Adams and Appolis with the Henri van Breda prosecuting team (Twitter, @SAPoliceService)
The key to catching a murder, Appolis says, is to join the dots and find where they made mistakes. “You never find the perfect murder.”
The detectives – who have more than 50 years of combined experience in the police service – say they feel vindicated after successfully solving the murders.
The Western Cape police commissioner recently thanked them personally for their commitment to the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Beneke, originally from rural Robertson in the Boland, said when he arrived at the Stellenbosch police station in 2014, there was a commonly-held belief that the station was unable to solve high-profile murders.
“We [were] labelled, ‘Stellenbosch you are going to mess up [Henri’s] case again,’ because wherever you go they would say another Inge Lotz.”
He was referring to Lotz, a 22-year-old Masters student who was found dead in her apartment in Welgevonden, Stellenbosch, in March 2005. She had been stabbed in the chest.
Her boyfriend, Fred van der Vyver, was arrested for her murder, but found not guilty when it was revealed in court that police fabricated evidence against him.
Adams, Appolis and Beneke were not at the Stellenbosch police station during that time.
“Now they [are] going to think twice before they say Inge Lotz again because we’ve proven them wrong,” Appolis says.
Near the end of the interview, Adams, who mostly remained silent during the conversation – occasionally making remarks about whatever his colleagues said – said he believes detectives have a sixth sense for smelling out murders.
“Wherever your sense leads you, you follow your sense.” As an example, he referred to “Tannie Verwey” who was killed by her caregiver.
He said there were no leads at the scene, but that they joined the dots when they discovered a vehicle – which had been spotted on CCTV footage in front of Verwey’s home at the time of her murder – parked in front of the caregiver’s home .
“Three o’clock the morning we decided, let’s go to Paarl (to the caregiver’s house) now, and the case was cracked open. Three o’clock that morning without any leads; nothing.”
Adams and Appolis outside the Western Cape High court (Twitter, @SAPoliceService)
All three mentioned that the adrenaline and a sense of justice kept them coming back to the police.
During an investigation they would easily work up to 24 hours a day, they said. “We never switch off.”
Beneke, who was their commanding officer during the investigations, said Adams or Appolis could expect a call any time of the day – even at night.
“If I want something to be done, you can ask them. I don’t take no or a promise for an answer.”
Appolis, who is raising a 5-year-old girl, says he is often angered by the lies killers tell in court and that he fears for the safety of his child but remains committed to the police.
“For me, it’s just about giving answers to a family, helping them to get closure to what happened. [I am] not much worried about the media business.”
Before excusing himself to drive to a family gathering in Stellenbosch ahead of Springbok rugby match, Adams adds that he joined the police service at the time when many of his friends joined.
“[But] now it’s my calling,” Adams says as he walks away.
His bakkie drives off into the Cape countryside where the next Stellenbosch killer could be roaming the streets. “When or where we don’t know.”