US couple attacked and robbed on the way to Cape Town airport after Google Maps directs them via high-risk route
The attack on the couple, in which the husband was seriously injured, is the latest in a spate of stoning incidents on the notorious route. The City of Cape Town says it is scheduled to meet Google to determine how to warn motorists about the dangers in future.
On the morning of Tuesday, 24 October, Los Angeles couple Jason and Kate Zoladz were en route to Cape Town International Airport when a brick shattered the car window, and four men approached their rental car and robbed them at gunpoint.
The couple, who were holidaying in South Africa, were on their way to the airport to exchange their rental car for a 4×4, to drive to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. They left their Airbnb in Simon’s Town at about 7am on Tuesday, 24 October, and drove along the R310 Baden Powell Drive before turning left on to the M22 New Eisleben Road. At 8.44am, the couple stopped at a red light on the intersection of New Eisleben Road and Sheffield Road in Browns Farm, Philippi, according to the rental car trip report. A man attacked the car by shattering the driver’s window with a stone.
The attack occurred about 6km from the airport and mere blocks from the notoriously crime-ridden stretch of road known as the Hell’s Run on the N2 highway. The Zoladz couple were directed by Google Maps – unaware that they were navigating their vehicle along a hazardous route.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Families of stoning victims on Cape Town’s N2 ‘Hell Run’ are still waiting for justice
“We were driving; just following the Google Maps directions to the airport. We were about 6 or 7 kilometres from the airport when we stopped at an intersection with a red light and a man smashed the driver’s side window with a brick. The brick smashed Jason’s jaw to the bone,” Kate Zoladz told Daily Maverick last Thursday.
The force of the brick broke Jason’s jaw, necessitating two surgeries to repair it. During the attack, the brick also ricocheted off Jason and hit Kate’s arm, bruising it.
At least four attackers
After the brick shattered the window, Kate described how a man reached into the vehicle and unlocked the doors.
“I don’t know how many people were on my husband’s side – there were at least four,” she said. From the passenger seat, Kate watched as three men with guns approached the vehicle, opened the passenger door and pulled her out of the car.
“They didn’t say anything but they pointed their guns at me and grabbed my bag off my body and started patting me down and going through my pockets. They also took the keys that were in the ignition.”
Shaking, she gave up three mobile phones and credit cards.
“The entire time I didn’t want to look them in the face, so I just looked at the ground and repeated, ‘Take everything; take it all’,” she said.
The men began firing gunshots in the air. Speaking to Daily Maverick, the couple described there being “hundreds of people”, including school children, near the scene at the time of the attack.
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“When the shots stopped, I looked over to where Jason was. He stood up next to the car and had blood gushing down the side of his neck. At this point, one of the men with guns came back and handed him the keys to the car,” Kate said.
“I think when they saw how badly he was injured they decided not to take the car, or maybe they realised it was a rental – for whatever reason, they decided not to take the car,” she said.
The couple got back into the car, with Jason behind the wheel, and began driving back along the route they had come. They hadn’t gotten far before Jason said he was losing too much blood and was going to faint. Kate took over the driving and soon spotted a police officer who escorted them to Melomed Tokai Private Hospital.
‘All too common occurrence’
The attack on the Zoladzes is not an anomaly. In April 2023, Daily Maverick reported on a similar incident that occurred on the same stretch of road, about 2km from where the Zoladzes were ambushed. Leonie van der Westhuizen died after a stone shattered the car window and struck her in the head, triggering cardiac arrest. The Van der Westhuizens were reportedly directed by Google Maps because their planned route was closed.
Both the Van der Westhuizens and the Zoladzes said there were no warnings of a higher crime risk.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith told Daily Maverick in April, that “attacks on road users have become an all too common occurrence”.
In July, a 21-year-old student from Inscape in Stellenbosch, Lucilla Vlok, had her jaw fractured when a perpetrator hurled a stone through her car window, while she was driving on the N2, to Cape Town International Airport.
In response to questions from Daily Maverick, Ruth Solomons, the spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s metro police department, said that between July and September 2023, the department had responded to 1,061 incidents on the N2 and R300 in Cape Town.
“The City of Cape Town’s safety and security directorate conducts as many patrols as possible with its available resources. However, policing this particular crime is incredibly difficult, as stone throwing incidents or attacks on road users tend to be sporadic in nature and do not follow a clear pattern.
“The City has numerous enforcement services that deploy daily along the major routes in the metropole, including the R300, N2 and N7, following an increase in incidents over the past decade,” Solomons said.
She said officers also monitored known smash-and-grab hot spots.
“Unfortunately, road users in general are vulnerable to attack, as indicated in the statistics.
“The City advises anyone travelling in an area that they are unfamiliar with, to stick to the major routes as far as possible, and use exits closest to their destination. For tourists in particular, we advise that they liaise with their travel agent or local police station in the area where they are staying to find the best and safest routes to the airport and other attractions,” she said.
Solutions and preventative measures
Speaking to Daily Maverick, the Zoladzes suggested some ways of dealing with the issue, which included engaging with Google Maps to implement safeguards for drivers, such as excluding certain unsafe routes or in-app alerts to users warning of high-crime areas. They also suggested erecting signage warning of crime hot spots, and initiatives at Cape Town International Airport alerting tourists to unsafe routes.
“It seems like a very easy, low-tech thing to do – 2 to 3km from the area on both sides have a [sign] that warns people that they’re entering a high-crime area,” Jason said.
“I know I would’ve turned around.”
The Mitchells Plain police station recorded an 6.1% increase in “serious crime reports”, from 1,923 incidents reported from April 2022 to June 2022, to 2,040 reported in the same period in 2023. This is according to the SAPS first-quarter crime statistics for April to June 2023. Additionally, Philippi East police station ranks eighth nationally on the list of the top 30 police stations which receive reports of robbery with aggravating circumstances. This police station also ranks fourth nationally for reports of carjacking.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Reduction in murder and sexual crimes tempered by a slew of less impressive statistics
In response to questions from Daily Maverick about why warning signs had not been erected, the City’s mayoral committee member for urban mobility Rob Quintas said: “Warning signage is usually only erected once the City can confirm repeat incidents at the same location, for example, along Jakes Gerwel Drive near Bonteheuwel, which is a key link to the Cape Town International Airport with numerous unfamiliar road users travelling via this route to and from the West Coast region.
“Also, it is important to state that crimes of this nature do not necessarily stay in a fixed location – hence the need to first establish whether there is a recurring pattern … lest we end up with a plethora of irrelevant warning signage, which then erodes the credibility of the very same signage,” he said.
Lyndon Khan, spokesperson for Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the Mayor and Cape Town Tourism had, on 25 October, requested an urgent meeting with Google Maps.
The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 2 November 2023.
GPS services, including Google Maps, have come under fire for directing drivers through hazardous routes in numerous countries in recent years. In the US, the family of a North Carolina man who drowned in 2022 after he drove off a collapsed bridge while following Google Maps directors is reportedly suing Google for negligence.
In response to detailed questions from Daily Maverick, a Google Maps spokesperson said: “We take a wide range of factors into account to deliver the best driving route, including road size, directness, estimated travel time and fuel efficiency. We take driver safety very seriously and encourage drivers to follow local laws, stay attentive, and use their best judgement.”
After noticing limited safety information about unsafe areas and routes for tourists on Cape Town Tourism’s website, Daily Maverick sent questions to Cape Town Tourism about campaigns and safety information for tourists ahead of the festive season. We had not received a response by the time of publication.
A police report, according to the Zoladzes, was filed at Kirstenhof police station. Police spokesperson Sergeant Wesley Twigg confirmed that Harare police are investigating a robbery-with-firearm case.
“No arrests have been made, [and] the investigation into the matter continues.” DM