Uncle on Stella families’ heartbreak
Louis Hough relives the horror of the day he found the bodies of his niece and her best friend – and the searing heartache of the murdered girls’ families
HE USED to think of himself as a strong guy who could handle anything – but that was before the senseless, unthinkable tragedy that robbed him of one of the people he loved most in the world and left his brother a broken man.
“I’m not someone who cries but now I’m crying every f**king five minutes,” the rugged man in the khaki shirt and leather hat tells us. “I can’t get those images out of my head.”
For Louis Hough (47) it feels as if the ordeal has been burnt into his brain. He’ll never forget the horror of arriving at the high school in the small town of Stella in North West and finding his niece Sharnelle (17) hanging from a banister in the hostel and her best friend, Marna Engelbrecht (16), lying dead on a bathroom floor (YOU, 7 June).
He vividly recalls his brother Ronnie’s anguish. “I had to keep my brother from physically attacking the police officers because they’d left his daughter there, left her hanging. So I told him, ‘You hold her. I’ll cut the rope.’
“I don’t know how long it was that Ronnie just sat there with her head in his lap, stroking her back, her feet.”
Louis is quiet for a moment, then continues. “Then I said to him, ‘Brother, she’s gone. You have to stop now.’ He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Feel this, Brother, she’s still warm. Jesus, help me.’ ”
Louis sits on a paint tin in front of a red Ford bakkie on an icy cold day on a farm near Potchefstroom where he’s working. He makes a living building steel structures, stores and encampments on farms.
It’s 11 days since the tragedy that consumed his family and it feels as if the will never go away. How do you ever get over something as traumatic as this? That’s what Louis wants to know.
HE WAS the first family member of the victims to arrive on the scene. Louis says when he got there Marna’s body was already rigid, ice cold, her skin tinged light blue. But not Sharnelle’s. Her body was still warm. Limp.
When Marna’s dad, Stefaans, arrived on the scene he didn’t say a word, Louis recalls. They’d struggled to get hold of him, and his wife, Rianet, had arrived there before him. “He parked the car, greeted his wife and walked inside. There he kissed his daughter, walked back out, got in his bakkie, cried bitterly and drove off.”
Later that day Sharnelle’s ex-boyfriend Xander Bylsma (19) was arrested. Police say he’s confessed to the crime. He’s appeared in the Vryburg magistrate’s court, where he’s due to apply for bail on 20 June.
But for Louis, even if Xander ends up spending the rest of his life behind bars it will never be enough.
“That’s what gets to me,” he says. “What happened here was no accident. It was blatant theft – the theft of many peoples’ way of life and the lives of two beautiful children.”
Louis lives with his wife, Antoinette (42), and their children just a few kilometres from Ronnie (46) in a small farmpain
ing community near Stella.
His daughters, Linette (21) and Linmari (19), taught Sharnelle how to cook, knit, crochet and do woodwork, he tells us. “The three of them grew up as sisters between me and Ronnie. Ronnie knows more about my two daughters than I do. And I know more about Lallie [Sharnelle’s nickname] than he does.”
But now their close family have been torn apart by the tragedy.
“My mother’s been vomiting and is in hospital in Vryburg. She has Alzheimer’s. I think she’s reliving the tragedy every five minutes when she comes around,” he says of his mom, Linta (77).
His father, Giel (81), is also taking strain. “My dad is one of those guys who believe men don’t cry. He’s been crying for a week nonstop,” Louis says, becoming emotional himself.
Louis has always thought of himself as a calm and restrained man but says that in that awful moment when he had to use his pocket knife to cut the noose from his niece’s neck something snapped in him.
While he managed to stay strong for his brother’s sake, the next day the trauma hit him like a tidal wave.
He says he “lost his mind” that day. He still doesn’t know how exactly he ended up in a field, driving in circles. Bleeding. Confused. Insane. Vengeful.
About 9am he’d borrowed a friend’s bakkie to drive to the farm where we’re talking to him today. But he got only as far as the neighbouring town, Sannieshof. Friends who’d started looking for him during the day eventually found him at around 6pm in a field. They discovered the interior of the bakkie was spattered with dried blood.
Louis had taken the same pocket knife he’d used to cut the noose the previous day and used its sharp blade to cut his own right forearm, imagining it to be Xander’s throat. “They tell me I started cutting my arm again [when they found me] and kept saying, ‘I’ve cut the little s**t 365 times but I don’t want the bastard dead.’ I don’t know why 365 times. I don’t even know how I got there. In broad daylight. Stone-cold sober.”
WHEN Sharnelle had problems her Uncle Louis was often the first person she’d turn to. He says about four months before her death she’d ended things with Xander for the first time. “She was down in the dumps. I drove her to [neighbouring town] Delareyville in this red Ford bakkie and bought her this gold ring.” He points to the bakkie behind him, then to the goldplated costume ring which he bought from a street vendor and is now suspended from a chain around his neck.
“I went on my knees and said, ‘Be my pretend girlfriend.’ She smiled and said, ‘Oh my wooooord!’ We’d hugged and she’d told me how much she loved me and that she’d be happy to be my pretend girlfriend.
“That day I promised her I’d love her, make her laugh and protect her. She’d laughed heartily and was happy.”
She’d told her father of her uncle’s sweet gesture.
Louis says the Saturday after the girls’ funeral Ronnie produced the ring during a family lunch at Louis’ farm.
“When Ronnie gave me the ring back, he said, ‘Brother, she’s left you’.”
Louis starts crying. “And there I was, feeling like a 10-year-old boy whose heart had just been broken for the first time. I walked out and sat behind the house, sobbing uncontrollably.” Louis recalls how he supported his niece when she decided to give her relationship with Xander a second chance. They dated for about 11 months. “I told her, ‘It’s still your heart. I can’t stop you.’
“I’d raised my kids to learn you need to make mistakes, that you need to fall down to learn how to get up again . . . If only we’d known who Xander really was.”
Louis knew Marna really well because he grew up with her dad. “Marna was just like Lallie – she never saw the bad in anyone or anything. That’s why I believe they never would’ve even suspected Xander would harm them. They both thought life was a song,” he says.
He tells us many years ago his close friend Deon Erasmus was seriously injured in a fire. “I used to repeat to them Deon’s word to me in his most painful moments, ‘Even when you’re too sad to sing, at least hum the tune – but don’t ever lose the tune.’ The girls lived by those words.”
Louis plans to be in court for Xander’s bail hearing and he believes Stefaans and Ronnie will be there too. But he’s struggling with his rage.
Has he considered professional help to deal with his trauma? “I don’t believe anything anyone tells me will help me,” he says. “I need to get to the Kalahari. In the open veld one finds one’s head again.”
‘I’m not someone who cries but now I’m crying every f**king five minutes’
ABOVE: Sharnelle Hough in an old pic with Xander Bylsma, the ex-boyfriend now accused of her murder. RIGHT: Her uncle Louis says it feels as if the pain of her death will never go away.
ABOVE: Sharnelle’s dad, Ronnie. BELOW: Sharnelle and her best friend, Marna Engelbrecht, Xander’s second cousin. Xander faces charges of murdering both girls.