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

YOU (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY JANA VAN DER MERWE PIC­TURES: MARTIN DE KOCK

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.

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