‘Cold Case’ Alex: Finding the truth among angels and demons
- Marelise van der Merwe
- South Africa
- 13 May 2016 01:56 (South Africa)
Four years after the then ice-cold Betty Ketani case gripped headlines around the country, surviving members of her family made a heartwrenching journey to Johannesburg, to visit key crime sites and bring her spirit home to the Eastern Cape. At the same time, the journalist who broke the story is launching his gripping new book about the case. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE spoke to Eyewitness News’ Alex Eliseev.
Pick up Cold Case Confession, journalist Alex Eliseev’s new book about the Betty Ketani murder, and you’d be forgiven if, at first, you thought it was heavily fictionalised. Or even fiction – if you’d been living under a rock and missed four years of headlines. As Eliseev himself puts it, “It is absolutely extraordinary. A one in a million set of circumstances. Even the names… Carrington Laughton, Paul Toft-Neelsen, Eric Neeteson-Lemkes… would probably never emerge from the imagination of the most talented fiction writer.”
Now, in May 2016, Eliseev has just completed the journey with Ketani’s family to knock on the door of a broken-down railway bus, after all these years, asking her spirit to come home.
Whether justice has been done is open to debate. Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has called the Ketani case a story about the “relentless search for truth and justice”. Eliseev says he thinks, mostly, that justice has been served. The family seems satisfied, although the motive for the murder may never be absolutely certain. Eliseev’s hope is that the story gives the public more insight into the workings of the justice system.
“To me, what this book reveals is that beneath the never-ending scandals at the police and the NPA, lies a layer of dedicated people – not all, but many – whose actions should give us all hope,” he explains.
As it happens, it’s not just the story itself that is gripping. Eliseev has succeeded in bringing the major players to life in a way that would not be out of place in any crime thriller. The book – as much as it is a tribute to the struggle for justice for Betty Ketani – is a page-turner.
“The greatest compliment I’ve received so far about my portrayal of the characters was on the night of the Johannesburg launch,” says Eliseev. “One of my closest friends came up to me and told me that having read the first few chapters of the book, she was able to (correctly) identify the man who had found the confession under the carpet and who was on that night a guest at the event. In a busy entertainment room with a hundred people or more, this was the ultimate compliment.
“I have never been a writer who spells out how many hairs are in an eyebrow or what colour the shoelaces are. I experience people in my own way and pick up details which splinter in my imagination and, in my opinion, help give the reader an insight into them.”
As an example, he says, one of the first policemen to investigate the Ketani case was a Yeoville detective named Gerhard Pretorius, a veteran cop who worked murders in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Eliseev settled on one detail that spoke volumes: that he once slammed the phone down on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela because, well, nobody told him how to investigate. “One sentence,” explains Eliseev, “but a wide open window into his personality.”
It all began in May 2012, when Eliseev received a tip-off that a peculiar murder case was brewing. He wasn’t yet 100% sure of the details, but marched into EWN editor-in-chief Katy Katopodis’ office, sensing something big was about to happen. Katopodis agreed, and gave him freedom over a period of years to pursue the story in depth and as he saw fit – a luxury that is rare in what he calls “the million-miles-an-hour, tweet-so-fast-your-fingers-ache world we live in”.
The approach paid off. A murder that had gone unsolved for over 12 years was unravelled through the chance discovery of a confession hidden under a carpet, which opened with the words: “If you are reading this, then I am dead.”
“That was the magnet,” explains Eliseev, “but as the years rolled on, I began seeing the human side of the story.”
He more than saw it; he became so involved that he opted to share the proceeds from the book with Ketani’s family. He got to know those trying to avenge her death for years – the policeman who was hospitalised due to his acute stress related to the case. “The initial seduction lay in the perfect alignment of all the stars required to awaken this slumbering docket, but in the end it was the desire to tell Betty’s story and to see whether justice would be served,” he says.
“With a story like this,” he adds, “there is absolutely no need for Aromat.”
As time went on, it wasn’t necessary to look for ways to characterise the major players in the story. They had taken on a life of their own. A picture of Betty Ketani hangs in Eliseev’s home office; he accompanied her family on their journey to call her spirit home.
“I feel very honoured to have been there throughout their journey,” he says, “from the first visit to Johannesburg in 2012, following the discovery of the confession, to the trip they made just days ago to confront the sites of Betty’s violent death. The Ketani family experienced the worst agony imaginable: not knowing what happened to Betty for almost 13 years; discovering the details of her brutal death; testifying against her killers; and then driving across the country to bring her spirit home.
“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else on the day they knocked on the side of the old, hollow railway bus – where Betty died – and asked her spirit to accompany them.”
Eliseev’s extreme investment in the case earned him some good-natured ribbing: colleagues pretended to shiver as they nicknamed him “Cold Case”; notes were left on his computer saying #Justice4Betty. Eliseev and Katopodis never gave up, though. When the book was published in 2016, Katopodis sent him a gift and a card saying “Massive congrats, you did it.”
But being so invested also had more disquieting elements. Conway Brown, who confessed to holding Betty Ketani as she was stabbed and left for dead, burying her body in a shallow grave and robbing the grave years later, is also the man who hid Carrington Laughton’s confession under his carpet. He came clean to the police, in a move that broke the case open and – in Eliseev’s view – was part of his journey to atonement. Eliseev spent days interviewing him, a fascinating and revealing process. Laughton, meanwhile, refused every interview opportunity and maintained he was framed. His life, says Eliseev, only emerged through letters, statements, court testimony, social worker reports and descriptions by those who knew him.
Dealing with a cold case, for Eliseev, was ultimately a “delicate dance between good and evil, light and dark, angels and demons – all defying the passage of time”.
“I know the family feels a great sense of closure,” he says. “Does the Ketani family have all the answers they crave? No. Are there others who should face trial for what transpired in 1999? Based on the evidence in the trial, yes. Do Betty’s children believe justice has been done? Yes.
“And that’s where it stands for now.” DM
Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter and editor. His book Cold Case Confession launched in Cape Town on Thursday 12 May and is published by Pan Macmillan. More information about the Betty Ketani case is available at www.alexeliseev.co.za