It took four years of determination by police and forensics experts to unravel the Betty Ketani cold case, writes Alex Eliseev
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said the Betty Ketani trial “inspires confidence in the system”, and reaffirms the idea that justice is not reserved only for the rich and famous. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) hailed it as a “landmark case”. What most people don’t know is that the so-called cold case also served as an important test for the South African police to further collaborate with international DNA laboratories, and that its success now promises to awaken other slumbering investigations dating as far back as the 1980s.
The Ketani case centres on the discovery of a written confession hidden under a carpet, which helped unravel Ketani’s kidnapping and murder 12 years earlier.
The discovery led to the arrest of six men, including the letter’s author, his friends and two former policemen brothers. The trial lasted two years and ended this month. It saw prosecutors tie together threads of circumstantial evidence, ranging from the confessions of accomplices to complex handwriting analysis.
But one of the most fascinating aspects of the case was, without a doubt, the DNA evidence.
Betty Ketani was stabbed and left for dead. She survived what the trial judge described as a “brutal attack on a defenceless woman”, only to be snatched from hospital and left to die a “cold and lonely” death inside an abandoned bus on a remote farm.
Her body was initially buried in a shallow grave, but later dug up and disposed of.
The police excavated that grave not once, but three times, and eventually (with the help of the NPA’s Missing Persons Task Team) found six tiny feet bones. These degraded, spongy remains were their only hope of proving that Ketani’s body had once been buried at the location.
Three of the bones were sent to the local laboratory in Pretoria, but those who examined them said it was like trying to pull DNA from a mummy. Two of the bones were destroyed in the process.
The three remaining bones were sent thousands of kilometres overseas to Bosnia-Herzegovina, to a laboratory called the ICMP, the International Commission on Missing Persons.
The decision to send the bones abroad was taken by the police’s Brigadier Leonie Ras, who heads the Victim Identification Centre, which she describes as the “voice of the dead”. It was a bold move, given the cost and the fact that something like this had never been tried before.
The ICMP is renowned for being able to extract DNA from the skeletons of World War 2 soldiers whose remains had spent six decades lying exposed to the elements in a Russian pine forest.
The ICMP had also solved the “world’s greatest forensic puzzle” by identifying the bodies of thousands of people massacred in the Balkans during the civil war.
Incredibly, of the three bones sent to the ICMP, one gave up just enough DNA for a partial match to Ketani’s three children. Two experts from the laboratory were flown out to testify in the trial – also a first for the SA Police Service.
Although Ketani’s body was never found, those small bones and the specks of DNA they kept locked inside them became one of the main pillars of the state’s case.
The Ketani bones did not travel to Bosnia alone. Ras sent bone samples from two other cases to the ICMP, asking for DNA profiles. In the first, a skeleton had been found buried under a swimming pool at a house in Bedfordview, eastern Johannesburg. The victim appeared to be a woman who, given the year the pool was installed, was killed before 1989. It was a cold case a decade older than the Ketani mystery.
The second case revolved around the body of a child, found in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 2012.
In both cases, attempts to extract DNA had been made locally, but had failed.
Ras says her unit has now worked on about 10 cases with the ICMP. All these cases were “positive”, meaning they yielded DNA profiles that could be matched to relatives of victims should they be found one day. The DNA results open new doors of possibilities.
“We have used the ICMP in cases where we were really running into dead ends,” Ras explains. “We also get knowledge from them and see how we can improve our own techniques. We exchange ideas and techniques with them.”
Ras says she foresees further collaboration with the ICMP in cases that require specialised skills.
“What I have learnt from the Betty Ketani case is that, as a scientist, you must always keep on exploring … You must never stop or give up.”
The Ketani case is exciting because it proves that, with dedication from investigators and prosecutors on the ground, along with a bit of luck (say, an old confession hidden and forgotten under a dirty carpet), anything is possible. And as cold cases awaken, more families stand the chance of being given long-overdue closure. Or, as Betty Ketani’s brother calls it: “Freedom.”
Cold Case Confession is on sale at bookstores throughout the country and as an e-book. For more
information, go to alexeliseev.co.za
GRIM DISCOVERY Investigating officer Captain Gerhard van Wyk (standing far left) helps sift through soil during the third and final exhumation of Betty Ketani’s grave. This was the day the six bones were discovered
MURDERED Betty Ketani was stabbed and left for dead