Hitchens's razor: Amateur sleuths present compelling new evidence in Inge Lotz case
- Marianne Thamm
- South Africa
- 04 Oct 2015 (South Africa)
Ten years after the brutal murder of 22-year-old Stellenbosch student Inge Lotz and the subsequent acquittal of her then boyfriend Fred van der Vyver of the killing, amateur forensic sleuths Thomas and Calvin Mollett have discovered that prints of the hammer implicated in her killing were found on a bloodied towel left at the scene. Once dismissed and vilified, Thomas Mollett is now an author and sought-after guest speaker. In a new book, Mollett suggests the new findings on the towel, and proof that other evidence was fabricated by experts, warrant a retrial. By MARIANNE THAMM.
It is unusual for a private person to present academically, senior forensic pathologist Dr Linda Liebenberg last week told an audience of forensic pathologists, forensic science students and pathology officers as she introduced amateur forensic detective Thomas Mollett, who was giving an address at the University of Cape Town (UCT) health sciences faculty.
“This is about the science. The fiction versus the faction. Thomas and Calvin have produced two books pointing out the fallacies and the mistakes that saw justice not being done. A girl is dead and nobody has been found guilty,” said Liebenberg.
Liebenberg said she hoped Mollett's presentation would teach those present what not to do at the scene of the crime and how to meticulously collect evidence to build a case.
Hitchens's razor, refers to a term used in 2003 by writer Christopher Hitchens, which posits that the burden of proof, or the onus in a debate, lies with whoever makes the greater claim. If this burden is not fulfilled, a claim is unfounded and opponents need not argue against it any further.
“What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence,” wrote Hitchens.
Hitchens was referencing Occam's razor, a thesis which states that that which makes the fewest assumptions should be selected. And when it comes to the baffling and disturbing Inge Lotz cold murder case, Thomas and Calvin Mollett have become poster boys for Hitchens's razor.
Inge Lotz was found brutally murdered in her apartment in a secure complex in Stellenbosch on 16 March 2005. There were no signs of forced entry, nothing had been taken and she had not been sexually assaulted. Inge, still wearing her nightie, was bludgeoned to death on a couch in her lounge as she lay reading a magazine. She sustained 13 blows to her head, face and right hand with a blunt instrument. She also had 20 stab wounds to her neck and her chest appeared to have been gouged.
Performing an autopsy two days after the murder, district surgeon, Dr Rachel Adendorff suggested to police that they “look for a hammer”.
Inge's boyfriend Fred van der Vyver was later charged with the crime when an ornamental hammer, given to him earlier by Inge as a present, was found when police searched his bakkie a month after the murder. After a 10-month trial, Van der Vyver was acquitted. Later, in the Cape High Court, he won a civil claim against the police for malicious prosecution but this was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal. In 2012 Van der Vyver married Elmari Dorfling.
Mollett, a copy editor who has a BSc in human movement, first became interested in the Lotz trial when he read Antony Altbeker's Fruit of a Poisoned Tree, which suggested Van der Vyver had been framed by the police. Intrigued by what he thought to be discrepancies and illogical conclusions in the case for Van der Vyver's defence, Mollett began to painstakingly pour through the evidence, turning his small apartment in Piketberg into a bargain basement crime scene investigation laboratory. Mollett obtained the case file and set to scientifically test the evidence and testimony by various experts presented to the court during the trial and which secured Van der Vyver's acquittal.
Lugging a severed pig's head up from the local Piketberg butcher, Mollett replicated police tests on a pig with the incriminating hammer, with a replica of the weapon. Along with his brother Calvin, an engineer who lives in Canada, he reviewed everything including the Folien 1 containing Van der Vyver's fingerprint, which police testified they had lifted from the cover of a DVD Inge had hired on the day of her murder. This evidence would place Van der Vyver at the scene of the murder on that day. The brothers measured every aspect of the evidence, calculated water drops and repeatedly scrutinised photographs of the crime scene. In South Africa, Thomas Mollett went back and interviewed anyone who had had anything to do with the chain of evidence.
The original findings of the Mollett brothers on the discrepancies in the Lotz case and as set out in their first book, Bloody Lies (Penguin), have been debated and widely discussed and have kept the baffling cold-case in the public eye for over 10 years.
While working on their second book, Bloody Lies Too (Piquet publishers), published in July this year, the Mollett brothers also began work on a second project. They reviewed the evidence presented in an another famous case and will soon publish their explosive new findings.
The brothers' second stand-alone book came about after Thomas Mollett had “managed to get more documents from the Lotz case” and had spent hours reviewing this evidence, recreating tests and pouring over newly found photographs of the scene and the body.
What they have uncovered – including a clear imprint of the implicated hammer on a bloodied towel found in the bathroom, and their discovery that “forensic geologist” Roger Dixon, who also testified in the Pistorius trial, had lied to the court – is enough for the state to initiate a retrial, he says.
The Lotz case can only be reopened due to legal error and Mollett claims that in Dixon's case this is indeed what occurred when the expert fabricated his section 212 affidavit, which was accepted as prima facie evidence in the trial. Dixon's finding was that a fingerprint police said had been lifted from the DVD had instead been lifted from a glass. A smudge at the top of this Folien 1 print, Dixon offered was a print of Van der Vyver's lip.
“Roger Dixon's report is fraudulent, perjurious, incorrect and dishonest. It was a legal error to accept it as prima facie evidence. We can and will prove this in a court of law,” says Mollett.
Dixon had told the court that he had met with a Constable Swartz who had taken the original Folien 1 from the DVD case and who had demonstrated to him how this was done. However, this was a lie, as Mollett found when he spoke with Swartz.
“Swartz has never met Dixon in his life, and after many requests, Dixon could not provide us with details of this alleged meeting. This is perjury. In addition, we have in our possession legal opinion that Dixon's affidavit on many levels does not comply with the legal requirements of Section 212 of the Criminal Procedure Act and that it therefore should have been inadmissible as prima facie evidence.”
Asked whether there was any likelihood that Van der Vyver would be recharged, Mollett told the Daily Maverick: “Even if there were errors of law, the DPP (director of public prosecutions) needs to be convinced that there is enough new and compelling evidence – strong enough to have good chance of success. Even though we believe there were errors of law in the Lotz case,it seems unlikely that there will be a retrial – it seems like nobody wants to touch that case again.”
One of Mollett's keenest detractors has been Professor David Klatzow, who at a previous presentation to UCT by the sleuth, sat in the front row of the lecture theatre, thrusting a digital recorder in the direction of the lectern. Klatzow was contracted by Van der Vyver's father, Professor Louis van der Vyver, to review the evidence. He maintains that police bungled the case and that there was no prima facie evidence case against Van der Vyver.
The two have subsequently apparently called off hostilities – they clearly have much in common – with one source remarking: “I have a rare photograph of Professor Deon Knobel (retired head of pathology at UCT), Dr Klatzow and Thomas Mollett all together at the same time.” Thomas Mollett has also spoken on panels with Klatzow at book fairs.
In the meantime the Mollett brothers have lodged a complaint with the International Association of Identification against the experts at the trial who testified on Van der Vyver's behalf.
“Evidence,” Mollett told those gathered at UCT last week “should serve the court and no one else. These experts were paid by the defence in order to make the evidence fit or tailor the story they told the court, hoping to create reasonable doubt. The defence has an obligation to the client but it should be to the court. Expert witnesses serve the court and not their 'side'. In the end the court in the Lotz case valued these overseas experts, these names, much more than those who collected the evidence, the police. The scene of a crime is holy and while police do and can make mistakes, the evidence speaks for itself,” he said.
If the defence claimed that the smudge at the top of the Folien 1 lift of Van der Vyver's fingerprint from the DVD case was in fact a lip print from a glass they had insisted police lifted the print from, they should have tested this.
“Testing it would have been simple. Bring Fred's lip and let's make a print,” said Mollett.
The smudge was in fact, he said, the finger in a latex glove of the person who had handled the cover to dust it for prints. He had gone back to the specific duster and had measured her index finger which fitted the smudge perfectly in the Folien 1 lift.
The new book uncovers a number of apparently disturbing oversights, the most explosive being a clear impression “that can without any doubt be reconciled with the implicated hammer” on the bloodied towel, according to Mollett.
The towel was originally brought to the police forensic laboratory where Sergeant Peta Davitsz tested it, cutting out two sections in order to perform DNA and blood tests. She had initially identified a mark which appeared to her to have been made by a hammer. After these tests the towel was returned to the evidence bag and has since gone missing.
Inge's father has written to police asking for the towel.
Mollett, using 100% same-scale overlays of photographs taken of the towel, found a distinct and clearly visible imprint of the hammer found in Van der Vyver's bakkie. The ornamental hammer is a relatively rare one and the Molletts managed to procure several samples of similar hammers from the US.
They found that each of the hammers had unique markings or “class characteristics”, most notably the size of the head, the bottle opener on the one end as well as the length of the shaft. The Molletts learned that each hammer is finished individually in the factory as it is removed from the mould resulting in these distinguishing characteristics.
In the book detailing how he found the imprint, Thomas Mollett writes of one of the photographs of the towel; “Above is a photo of the towel taken some time after the murder. It seems like the examiner was interested in the linear mark since he took quite a couple of photos, but he seemed to have missed the tapered print to the right of it – in terms of geometry very reconcilable with the implicated hammer's side-view.”
Other “suspicious prints” of the bottle opener on the hammer, can also be seen on the towel and another was spotted by Mollett on the arm of the blood soaked couch. It had been missed entirely before.
The Molletts list seven bullet points with regard to the evidence of the hammer, including that objections by Professor Gert Saayman (the state pathologist who also testified in the Pistorius trial) to it as the potential murder weapon had to be viewed in the context that he had “a demonstrable personal connection with the defence team”. They also point out that the autopsy report contained incorrect information that could be proved to be incorrect (with regard to the diameter of the wounds); that the implicated hammer's two striking sides could be reconciled with all of Inge's head wounds; that marks and prints on the towel and the couch (of the bottle opener) could be reconciled with the shape of the implicated hammer, that it was highly likely that the hammer had come into contact with blood as Luminol applied to it “reacted in a way it reacts to blood and blood alone” and finally that Van der Vyver had “full knowledge of the hammer's whereabouts and had every opportunity to take it from behind the seat and put it in a more suitable place”.
“His story about forgetting the hammer behind the seat is simply not reasonable,” reckons Mollett.
The 96-page Bloody Lies Too is an exhaustive overview of all the evidence and compellingly points to a miscarriage of justice.
Thomas Mollett is a forensic tracker. He has the capacity for relentless concentration and the ability to see what others have, perhaps through haste or through routine, apparently overlooked. Those who claim to be experts are naturally irritated by this apparent amateur upstart.
“This study,” Mollett says of new book “is not about opinions, feelings or emotions – it is about the evidence and logical references that can be drawn from it. What I am determined to do is make sure that anyone who testifies in a case like this, be they and expert or a policeman, must serve the court. We will be watching them. We know justice can be bought so the collection of evidence is crucial to the narrative that the legal teams will create around an event. The court case is a chess game. But the ruler does not lie. Just use basic maths, basic science. And you don't need a laboratory to do it, use technology”. DM
Main Photo: The bloodied towel with the clear imprint of the hammer.
Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.