Crime: Cold case files, South Johannesburg, chapter 1
This week, 13 years after Tendani “Betty” Ketani was kidnapped and murdered, her family may finally start getting some answers about why she was killed. A breakthrough in the case came after the amazing discovery of a confession letter hidden under a carpet. ALEX ELISEEV broke the story and explores what the next chapter may hold.
A court has ordered that the identities of five men arrested for Tendani Ketani’s murder must remain secret, at least for now.
This was done to allow police to try make further arrests and for an identity parade to be held, which could boost the case against the alleged killers.
This Friday, the men – including two policemen – are due to apply for bail at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. When this happens, they will be forced to reveal information about themselves that could be the start of a long road towards closure for Ketani’s family.
It’s also likely that if any of them have confessed – and the police say at least two have – they may enter a plea and make dramatic submissions.
The bail applications are the next instalment of a story that has captured the country’s imagination and is being described as a movie in the making.
The story began on the last day of April, a Saturday, at an old house in Kenilworth. The tenants, who were sharing half of this house, had just left and the owner, a chef, was expecting the new ones to arrive soon.
But the house was a mess. It smelt of dog piss. And its owner – who has asked to remain anonymous - was too embarrassed to let the new tenants in.
He decided to start ripping up the carpets that same evening, calling in his family to help.
The brown carpets were similar to those found in an office, glued down in perfect squares. One by one, the chef tore these out and stashed them outside the front door.
At about 9.30pm, he lifted up a square and released a terrifying secret. Hidden beneath the carpet lay a bundle of letters, one of which turned out to be the alleged confession of a killer.
The chef could barely believe his eyes. One of the notes was handwritten, the others were typed. One of them began with: “If you are reading this then I am dead”. Over three pages it revealed how a gang committed a spree of abductions – in order to torture their victims – and killed Ketani, a 37-year-old mother of three.
The letter gave detailed descriptions and offered names, telephone numbers, addresses and dates. The author had written the letter to someone he knew and pointed him to a safe that contained cash and some other incriminating items.
The letter described how Ketani was captured, shot and mistaken for dead. It says her killers found her in a hospital a few weeks later and managed to kidnap her a second time, using a fake transfer letter and pretending to be medical workers.
It claimed her body was then placed into a shallow grave, which was filled with concrete and allowed to set. The grave was located behind the garage of the Kenilworth house. Later, the killers seem to have had a change of heart, broke up the grave and dumped Ketani’s corpse at another site.
The note claims at least two other people were abducted and that the gang sometimes dressed in army uniforms and used police stations as a place to do their dirty work.
It ended with the author pleading for those implicated to be brought down.
“Lastly, f*** them all!!!”
The chef realised how important it was to get the letter to the authorities and – through his boss – handed it over to private investigators from VIP Support Systems, who in turn alerted the police. The investigators worked flat out to bring the cold case back to life. In the world of police work, 13 years is a lifetime. Files go missing, complainants move and become impossible to trace, witnesses forget crucial details.
When Ketani vanished in May 1999, only a missing person case was registered. Several others cases had been opened in connection with other abductions, but never linked. Connecting all the dots and arranging all the puzzle pieces so many years later was difficult and time consuming, and was later described as “sterling work” by the province’s head of detectives.
Ketani’s family never knew for sure why she disappeared and hoped she would return some day, alive and well. They had seen such things on television, where people went missing for 15 years but made miraculous reappearances.
This week, while consulting with the police and the prosecutors, the family was finally told about how Ketani was killed. Her brothers and sisters travelled from the Eastern Cape to see the suspects in court and to help the state oppose bail. For them, the most painful part was hearing how Ketani was buried, unearthed and dumped. Her youngest child was just a year old when she went missing.
Her siblings can't imagine why anyone would have wanted to hurt her. She was a kind and simple woman who came up to Johannesburg to work, settling down at a restaurant at a popular shopping centre. They say she had resigned from the restaurant and was fighting with her boss when she vanished. They think this could have something to do with it, but say they have been haunted by questions ever since. Her brother, Mankinki, cries when he shares his feelings.
The five men were arrested over five days this month. The two policemen involved are brothers. The one has left the service but the other was still wearing the uniform when he was arrested.
On Friday, all five stood in the dock, their backs to Ketani's family. The author of the letter was amongst them.
The magistrate agreed to a request from the prosecution and ordered journalists not to name the suspects or to show any photographs of them. The proceedings were over in minutes, leaving so many questions unanswered.
How did they know each other? If they committed the crimes, why did they do so? Were they responsible for any other crimes? Did they stop at any stage and live low-profile lives? Why was the letter written and left behind? Who are the other people the police are trying to capture? How far does the web stretch?
Hopefully, on Friday, some more secrets can be set free. DM
Photo by mrmanc.