DNA

It took four years of de­ter­mi­na­tion by po­lice and foren­sics ex­perts to un­ravel the Betty Ke­tani cold case, writes Alex Eliseev

CityPress - - Voices -

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

PHOTO: COURT EX­HI­BI­TION

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

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