Who killed Inge Lotz? Her killer, whoever that was, remains at large
LONG BEFORE OSCAR AND REEVA, THE MURDER OF INGE LOTZ – AND THE TRIAL OF HER BOYFRIEND, FRED VAN DER VYVER – TRANSFIXED THE COUNTRY. HE WAS ACQUITTED IN 2007, BUT TWO VIGILANTE INVESTIGATORS ARE OUT TO PROVE HIS GUILT. VETERAN REPORTER ANTONY ALTBEKER RESP
on 16 April this year, when Roger Dixon testified in Oscar Pistorius’s defence, I tweeted,‘If anyone cares, Dixon’s report on the fingerprint in Fred’s case was key to convincing the court that it was from a glass.’ It was a moment of convergence for two of the biggest murder trials that have taken place in South Africa to date.
By the humble standards of my Twitter account, my timeline lit up after I associated Dixon with the defence of Fred van der Vyver, who was tried in 2007 for the murder of Inge Lotz. Within a few minutes, there were dozens of comments and retweets, the tone of which, overwhelmingly, was,‘Yeah, well, Dixon misled *that* judge, just like he’s trying to do here.’
An example of this was from @Truth4Inge, the Twitter handle for two brothers – Thomas and Calvin Mollett – who’ve made it their mission to prove that Van der Vyver’s acquittal was the result of the efforts of experts like Roger Dixon, who, they say, knowingly misled judge Deon van Zyl. The Molletts’ claims have been made on their blog, in various newspapers, on Carte Blanche, in a series of submissions to the International Association for Identification to have Van der Vyver’s international expert witnesses censured, and now in the subtly titled book, Bloody Lies. It is a book – full disclosure – in which the Molletts say some untrue and libellous things about me. Still, if you’re inclined to believe them, you may be disinclined to believe what I have to say about their work, which is, by turns, misleading and, not infrequently, laughable. [Ed’s note: the Molletts, contacted for comment, objected to Altbeker’s response to their work.A comment from them is included at the end of this story; details of their claims can be found on their website Truth4Inge.com.]
To understand what the Molletts are doing, you need to understand something about the case on which they have fixed their energies. On 16 March 2005, Inge Lotz was brutally battered and stabbed to death in her flat in Stellenbosch. She was 22 years old, beautiful, the soloist in her church choir, and studying for a Masters in statistics. From the outset, the police were convinced that Inge had been murdered by someone close to her: nothing was stolen from the flat, there were no signs of forced entry, and the sheer violence of the crime (she’d been subjected to a ferocious beating to the head and face with a blunt object, followed by multiple stabbings to her chest) suggested that there was something personal at stake for her killer.
At the time of her death, Inge was dating a young actuary called Fred van der Vyver. A scion of a successful farming family,
he’d attended Grey College in Bloemfontein before becoming one of the top students in Stellenbosch’s actuarial science department. Fred was interviewed by the police on the morning after the crime, and was asked to give a full account of his movements the previous day – especially in the late afternoon and early evening when Inge was killed. His story was a simple one. He’d been at work at Old Mutual 40 kilometres away in Pinelands, where he had attended a day-long meeting with his boss and a number of co-workers. After that he’d gone home where he’d had supper with his flatmate before the two of them visited a neighbour.
It is important to know that everything about Fred’s story checks out in every way. His boss and his boss’s boss, along with four other people who were at the meeting with Fred, all signed sworn affidavits that he’d been there all of that day. In addition, his cellphone was linked to Pinelands towers whenever it was used that day, and records from his computer show that he used it at lunch and shortly after the meeting finished at 5pm. Most importantly, Fred’s office – which is the headquarters of one of the largest insurance companies in the southern hemisphere – has considerable security infrastructure, and repeated trawls through card-swipe records and CCTV footage of every exit revealed no evidence that Fred had so much as left the section of the building in which his office was located, much less left the Old Mutual campus itself.
From the outset, the police were convinced that Inge had been murdered by someone close to her: nothing was stolen from the flat and there were no signs of forced entry
Despite this, in June 2005, Fred was arrested for Inge’s murder, a crime for which he was tried between February and November 2007. If the police were never able to offer evidence that Fred had left Old Mutual, what they did produce were three pieces of forensic evidence, each of which linked Fred to the crime scene. These proved, or so they claimed, that however he’d done it, he must have left the office that day. He must also have driven to Stellenbosch, committed a brutal murder, cleaned up, and returned to work where his behaviour seemed completely normal to everyone with whom he interacted. He also managed to do this without anyone’s noticing his absence from a meeting at which only 10 people were in attendance. So what was their evidence for this? The first and most significant part of their case was Fred’s fingerprint which the police said they found on the cover of DVD that Inge had rented just after 3pm on the day she died. This was long after Fred had left the flat that morning, making it the only object in flat on which the presence of his fingerprint would annihilate his alibi. In addition to the fingerprint, police officers also testified that a bloody mark on the bathroom floor could be matched to the sole of one of Fred’s shoes, and that the two sides of an ornamental hammer-cum-bottle-opener they’d found in his car matched the size and shape of the wounds to Inge’s head.
Theirs was a case that rested entirely on forensic evidence, one that sounds like an episode from CSI, but after a marathon trial, Judge van Zyl’s decision was emphatic: not only had the prosecutors failed to prove Fred’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, their account of how the murder happened was ‘highly improbable, if not impossible’. This conclusion was based on his acceptance of testimony from a slew of international experts that demonstrated problems with the police evidence. The defence, for example, had shown that, while the police had tried to link the hammer to the crime through the similarity of its size and shape to those of Inge’s wounds, the method used for proving this was deeply flawed and that the pathologist’s report on the injuries in fact suggested the wounds were far larger than the hammer.
In relation to the supposed shoeprint, the world’s leading authority on shoeprint impression evidence, Bill Bodziak, a man who (literally) wrote the textbook on the subject and in a previous life was the FBI’s lead witness in the OJ Simpson case, testified that not only was the bloody mark not made by Fred’s shoe, it was almost certainly not left by a shoe at all. He also testified that the policeman who testified about the ‘shoeprint’ had flat-out lied to the judge when he claimed that he (Bodziak) had supported his conclusions after a meeting in his lab in Florida. In fact, he’d rejected those conclusions.
Finally, and after testimony from two international fingerprint experts, one of whom was the author of Interpol’s guidelines on the handling of fingerprint evidence, the judge accepted that the fingerprint had not been lifted off a DVD cover, but rather had come off a drinking glass. It could not, therefore, prove that Fred had been in Inge’s flat after 3pm on the day of the murder.
You need to read all of the Molletts’ various writings to get a sense of the strange mix of artificial judiciousness and spittle-flecked paranoia with which they attack the claims of Fred’s experts. Their essential approach, however, is to throw as much spaghetti against the wall as they can, and see how much sticks. And, as you’d expect,
based on the laws of probability, some does. They show, for example, that it is quite likely that the pathologist had mismeasured Inge’s wounds, and that, in reality, they were closer to the size of the hammer than she’d recorded. That’s a mark in their favour. What they fail to grasp, however, is that the only reason the defence focused on the size of the wounds at all was because that was the only link the police posited between the hammer and the murder. In fact, there were also experts ready to testify that if the hammer had been the murder weapon, they would have expected to find traces of Inge’s DNA on it, if not on the metal surface, then in or under the rubber handle.As it happens, the only DNA found on the hammer was Fred’s.
In addition, the defence had numerous forensic experts ready to testify that the wounds to Inge’s head and skull were not at all typical of assaults with a hammer – especially a small one like Fred’s. This they say, would not have been capable of creating some of the injuries and would have left other kinds of tell-tale damage that wasn’t present. Against this the Molletts offer various hypotheses about the structural integrity of the squamosal suture. But since they are, respectively, a civil engineer and a copy editor by trade, it is hard to take this seriously.
The Molletts’ best work – and I use the term in a strictly relative sense – concerns the fingerprint, where they go after pretty much every claim made by every defence expert about why one or other of its elements is not compatible with a lift from a DVD cover. They say the defence experts are wrong about the orientation of the fingerprints and whether this matches how someone would hold a glass rather than a flat object. They say the experts are wrong about the claim that two distinct lines on the lift are not compatible with the surface and edges of a DVD cover, but are compatible with a lift from a glass. They say the mark that the experts believe is a lip print is not a lip print at all, but sweat from the gloved finger of a police fingerprint expert. They say the water marks on the lift are not actually compatible with having come from a glass, and more likely came off a DVD cover. They say it’s possible for fingerprint powder to fail to adhere to the plastic of a DVD cover (which would explain the fact that the lift is relatively clean), even though the experts say this is not possible.
The list goes on and on, and occasionally one or other of the Molletts’ claims does have a degree of plausibility. Their big problem, however, is that as much as they criticise Fred’s experts for failing to reproduce exact duplicates of the police’s lift when conducting experiments using glasses rather than DVD covers, they have not been able to produce a single lift using a DVD cover as the substrate that looks even remotely like the lift in this case. In fact, there isn’t a single image of a lift from a DVD holder in the hundreds of pages they have produced over two years of work, much less one that looks like the lift the police say came from Inge’s flat. Not one. Why not? I think it’s safe to say that it’s because they can’t produce one that doesn’t give the game away.
Roger Dixon, as readers may remember, was a qualified geologist, but he’d offered his opinion on all sorts of issues associated with the physical evidence against Oscar – ballistics, acoustics, the interpretation of blood splatter. Under merciless cross-examination of Gerrie Nel, however, he was exposed as a non-expert in all these areas.
If Dixon was the non-expert witness venturing into fields about which he knows too little in Oscar Pistorius’s case, it is the Molletts who are the Roger Dixons of Fred’s case.
Antony Altbeker is the author of Fruit of a Poisoned Tree:
A true story of murder and the miscarriage of justice, an account of the trial of Fred van der Vyver for the murder of