One day, I arrived at work to find a piece of paper stuck over my computer screen. It was a blank sheet with three words scribbled in the centre: #JusticeForBetty. Someone in the newsroom was poking fun at me. Again. I made no inquiries as to who the culprit was, nor did I extend any energy or investigative skills to track the person down. It could have been anyone. I had annoyed enough people – particularly editors – with my relentless coverage of the Betty Ketani story.
First published on EWN.
It had become something of an in-joke at the office. Some people started calling me: “Cold Case” and one colleague, who I won’t expose, had a habit of pretending to shiver when we greeted each other. It was pretty funny and I took no offence. I couldn’t deny it, the trial I had committed to cover in full was taking a very, very long time to wrap up.
I broke the #ColdCase story in early 2012, shortly after the first arrests were made. It was – and remains – the most intriguing and unusual crime I have ever encountered as a journalist.
A hidden confession is found by pure chance under a carpet and leads to the solving of a then 12-year-old murder mystery in which a mother-of-three simply disappeared. For all those years her family lived in agony, while her killers held onto their dark secret. Within weeks of the discovery, six men are behind bars, two of them brothers, one a former policeman the other still in uniform.
The confession opens with the words, “If you are reading this then I am dead” and reveals how Betty Ketani was kidnapped, stabbed in the head on the side of a dark road, left for dead, rescued and taken to hospital… only to be snatched again and abandoned in an old bus parked on a remote farm. It was inside that bus (which was used as an outside room) that she died on that winter’s night in 1999.
The man who, it turned out, had written the letter, Carrington Laughton, was the first accused. Four years later, two of which were consumed by a fierce legal battle during which Laughton tried every possible tactic to break the state’s case, a court found him guilty of murdering Ketani.
By then, almost 17 years had passed since her abduction. The brothers, Carel and David Ranger, were convicted of culpable homicide.
The Betty Ketani trial ran, on and off, from 2014 to 2016. It sailed firmly under the shadows of the Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani trials, which sucked up all available media oxygen. The defence disputed everything and the state was forced to call dozens of witnesses, some merely to explain how they handled an evidence bag. A doctor was called all the way from the Eastern Cape to prove that he took DNA swabs from Ketani’s children.
There were endless applications for the case to be declared unfair, clashes in diaries that led to months of delays and cross-examination that lasted for days (Laughton spent 13 days on the witness stand). It was a long, difficult trial.
What made it unique was that Ketani’s body was never found; only six tiny bones were retrieved from a shallow grave. There are only a handful of such murder cases in South Africa’s legal history. DNA tests were carried out in a laboratory in Bosnia, with experts flying in to testify, while the handwriting analysis was complex because the majority of the confession under the carpet had been typed. It was a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, with three of the accused eventually turning state witness.
For lead prosecutor Herman Broodryk SC it was the most difficult case in a 34-year career. His opponent was a brilliant lawyer and fellow silk, Laurence Hodes SC, who had his own team assembled.
In the end, the case that emerged was so complicated, with such strong arguments, that Judge Natvarial Ranchod took four months to prepare judgment. The trial took around 100 court days.
For Broodryk, his partner, Advocate Namika Kowlas, and investigating officer Captain Gerhard Van Wyk it was an anxious wait. The matter had consumed them and saw them investigating until the very end, having to reopen the state’s case to call two new witnesses. The defence had ambushed them with a last-minute alibi. Kowlas had spent two Decembers drafting reply papers to bail applications that were later abandoned. It had been a long, emotional road, during which Broodryk and Van Wyk had battled with their health.
Then came the judgment.
Two years, to the day, after the trial began, Laughton and the Ranger brothers were found guilty. Betty Ketani was avenged. Her daughter and brother were in the back row of the court’s public gallery to witness the moment. There were tears and hugs in the corridor. Betty’s daughter Bulelwa said the family finally had closure and would now bring her mother’s spirit back home to the Eastern Cape. For the prosecutors it was a clean sweep, with the defence’s DNA evidence being rejected and Laughton’s lengthy evidence being described as “false beyond any reasonable doubt”. Laughton’s claim that he was being framed collapsed.
The NPA and the police are never short of scandals. Every day seems to bring a new debacle. As the Ketani judgment was being delivered, the NPA’s boss, Shaun Abrahams, was in the headlines for two immensely controversial decisions (Breytenbach and Booysen).
But on the ground, prosecutors like Broodryk and Kowlas, and detectives like Van Wyk give everything they have to under-the-radar cases. Quiet quests for justice, which don’t spark international media frenzies. Judgments delivered without cameras or rivers of live Tweets.
Sure, there is corruption and rot within both organisations, but there are also dedicated people who honour their professions, often at great personal cost.
Broodryk says it all comes together as soon as a verdict is handed down.
“Everything is just suddenly worth it. All the hardship, the heartache, the personal suffering, the trouble, everything bad that you can think of that goes into a long case like this,” he says.
“Afterwards, when you walk out of court and you see the daughter of the deceased and the brother of the deceased, of Betty Ketani, and you see them crying, suddenly everything is worth it. Nothing that you could have done could be too much.”
And as for me and the countless reports I fired off about the trial that seemed to drag on for an eternity, well, I was just fortunate enough to be able to tell the story. Covering these kinds of cases is why we get into journalism. To amplify voices and to watch over how the system serves all South Africans, not just the millionaires or the celebrities.
Photo: Betty Ketani’s family with the team that avenged her.
There were difficult moments along the way. But on my office wall at home hung a photograph of Betty Ketani. In that frozen moment she was very much alive, happy, lazily leaning back against an old Chevrolet. When I felt defeated and wanted to give up, I looked at that photograph and thought about her life. I thought about her three children living in her late sister’s house in Queenstown. And I thought about what her murder had done to her family and how desperately they wanted closure.
And as for the #JusticeForBetty piece of paper… I kept it as a souvenir. Perhaps one day the mystery of who stuck it onto my computer screen will also be solved. Stranger things have happened. DM
Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev.
Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.
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