June Steenkamp

‘ Reeva was un­lucky – sooner or later Os­car Pis­to­rius would have killed some­one’

Friday - - Front Page -

They waited 20months­for jus­tice. Last month, Os­car Pis­to­rius was sentenced to five years in prison for killing their daugh­ter, Reeva. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, June and Barry Steenkamp tell Jerome Starkey about how they’ve coped – and why they fear they­may never know what re­ally hap­pened

This is the first time I have seen June Steenkamp smile. She is sit­ting at the far side of a long wooden ta­ble over­look­ing a swimming pool in the shady court­yard of a guest house that has be­come her sec­ond home in Pre­to­ria, South Africa.

The av­enues out­side are flush with bluish-pur­ple jacaranda blos­soms. Pupils from Pre­to­ria Boys High School, which is just across the road, are trick­ling through the gates in their old-fash­ioned uni­forms: short­sleeved khaki shirts with a school tie, and khaki shorts and match­ing socks pulled up to their knees.

It was as a pupil there that her daugh­ter’s killer, Os­car Pis­to­rius, first dis­cov­ered he could run.

June Steenkamp has stayed in this small, dis­creet guest house many times since March, when the South African Par­a­lympian went on trial for mur­der. It was here that she’d wake up at dawn ev­ery morn­ing dur­ing the trial and steel her­self to face the world’s me­dia – and the dou­ble am­putee, known as the Blade Run­ner, ac­cused of shoot­ing dead her daugh­ter, Reeva, a model, in the early hours of Valen­tine’s Day last year.

For much of the past seven months I have sat one row be­hind June and the en­tourage of rel­a­tives, friends and women’s league sup­port­ers, in the North Gaut­eng High Court, as we heard, in un­spar­ing de­tail, how four hol­low-tipped bul­lets tore into Reeva’s body and “blew the brains out of her skull”. The court­room gasped

as one when pic­tures of Reeva’s blood­ied head flashed up on screens. We watched Pis­to­rius sob and vomit. Yet we were spared the bur­den of be­ing the vic­tim’s mother.

Five hun­dred and sev­enty four days after that night, and fol­low­ing a trial that lasted six months, Pis­to­rius was ac­quit­ted of pre­med­i­tated mur­der but con­victed on the lesser charge of cul­pa­ble homi­cide, the South African term for man­slaugh­ter.

In a tense court­room, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled the State had failed to prove Pis­to­rius knew it was Reeva when he opened fire through the locked toi­let door of his apart­ment in an ex­clu­sive gated com­mu­nity in Pre­to­ria. Through­out the trial, he said he mis­took his girl­friend of three months for an in­truder.

“He said pulling the trig­ger was ‘an ac­ci­dent’. What? Four times an ac­ci­dent?” June rails in her book, Reeva: a Mother’s Story. “He said Reeva did not scream, but she would def­i­nitely have screamed. I know my daugh­ter and she was very vo­cal.”

In court, June’s lips were al­ways pursed. Her eyes gazed in­scrutably at who­ever ad­dressed the judge. Some­times it seemed as if she had been se­dated, but she tells me now she only took tran­quil­lis­ers to help her through the fu­neral, which she can barely re­mem­ber.

“The press re­ferred to me as Stone­face,” she says. “But a lot of peo­ple said they ad­mired my com­po­sure.” When the pic­to­rial ev­i­dence was too graphic to bear, the State’s lawyers would throw her a glance to warn her to look away or take off her glasses. Just once, she didn’t turn in time and saw a pic­ture of Pis­to­rius, top­less, stand­ing on his pros­thetic legs, drenched in Reeva’s blood.

When we meet, all she says by way of greet­ing was “Hi”, but her eyes light up and her lips part into a smile. She’s just be­ing po­lite, but it casts away the death mask she has donned in pub­lic. Sud­denly, after all th­ese months, she seems more hu­man – and her grief more real. “I think I have a way of cop­ing and keep­ing things in; that’s the only way I have sur­vived this,” she ex­plains. “But I think once all this is over it’s go­ing to... It’s all go­ing to come rush­ing back and things are go­ing to be even harder.” She lets out a sigh as her voice trails off and she con­tem­plates the fu­ture.

“You can laugh about some things,” the 68-year-old says. “It’s not like you are mis­er­able all the time. It’s just this wrench­ing pain that you get in your heart.” She pauses. “And your soul. That’s what it is.”

At times her pain was so in­tense, she thought she might be go­ing in­sane. “This is go­ing to sit with us for the rest of our life. It’s never go­ing to be right. Be­cause she’s not with us. It’s al­ways there. The minute your eyes open in the morn­ing, or if you wake up in the mid­dle of the night, there it is.” She of­ten wakes at around 3am, the time when Reeva died.

June moved from Black­burn, in Eng­land’s Lan­cashire county, to Cape Town, aged 19, and has never been back. It was in Cape Town where she met her sec­ond hus­band, Barry, Reeva’s fa­ther.

To­day, Barry is sit­ting at the ta­ble, lean­ing on his fore­arms as he did in court. With a bushy white beard and a pub­li­can’s gut (they run a “work­ing-class” restau­rant in Port El­iz­a­beth called the Bark­ing Spi­der), he looks like Fa­ther Christ­mas. He heaves him­self round to greet me. This re­tired race­horse trainer, 71, has suf­fered two strokes since his daugh­ter died and he was only well enough to at­tend the trial in time for the clos­ing ar­gu­ments in Au­gust, six months after it first started.

“As soon as he gets cross or up­set about any­thing, he has to put th­ese tablets un­der his tongue so he won’t have a heart at­tack,” June ex­plains to me, as if he isn’t here. The first day he at­tended court he took three, she says.

They lived apart for 14 years, but never di­vorced and moved back in to­gether in 2008, after bur­glars broke into June’s home on a night when Reeva had been vis­it­ing from Jo­han­nes­burg. Reeva said it wasn’t safe and forced her par­ents back to­gether. Frag­ile mar­riages might have cracked un­der the trauma

they’ve en­dured, but she says they have grown closer. “We are happy. We are very close,” his wife says.

Both have chil­dren from their pre­vi­ous mar­riages who live in Eng­land. Reeva, their only child to­gether, was born 18 years after June’s first daugh­ter, Si­mone. Barry has a son, Adam. Reeva was “un­ex­pected”, June ad­mits. “I think she was a gift from God.”

They have a re­cur­ring im­age of Reeva, who was 29 when she died. It is the thought of her ter­ri­fied and alone in the small toi­let cu­bi­cle, plead­ing for her life or scream­ing in agony once she had been shot. June: “Both of us are haunted by the same night­mare. The vi­sion of Reeva suf­fer­ing this ter­ri­ble trauma. Her ter­ror and help­less­ness. Her yells for help pierc­ing the silent night air.”

Her hus­band imag­ines her beg­ging for her life. “He ag­o­nises over what was go­ing through her mind: ‘Where is any­one? Who is go­ing to save me?’”

There are two lawyers also sit­ting at the ta­ble, with their lap­tops out: Dup de Bruyn and Ta­nia Koen, who have acted as spokes­men since th­ese griev­ing par­ents were thrust into the spot­light. In the last days of the sen­tenc­ing, the Steenkamps were again in the head­lines. Ger­rie Nel, the pros­e­cu­tor known as “Pit Bull”, re­vealed Pis­to­rius had paid the Steenkamps 6,000 rand a month (about Dh2,000) since March 2013. He also of­fered Reeva’s par­ents a one-off pay­ment of 375,000 rand from the sale of his car, which Nel de­nounced as “blood money”.

De Bruyn says the Steenkamps re­jected the sec­ond of­fer and plan to re­pay the monthly stipends, be­cause “their cir­cum­stances had changed”.

June ad­mits in her book they “al­ways had money wor­ries and that was stress­ful and drain­ing”. At the point when Reeva was mur­dered they were pen­ni­less.

Through­out Reeva’s child­hood, when Barry ran a liv­ery sta­ble, the fam­ily was poor. “As long as I can re­mem­ber, they re­ally bat­tled,” Reeva’s cousin Kim Martin told the sen­tenc­ing hear­ing. “Peo­ple tend not to pay you, and Barry would never the night be­fore she died, Reeva told her mother she had sent them money to pay for satel­lite tele­vi­sion, be­cause she wanted them to see her in a re­al­ity TV show, Tropika Is­land of

which was just about to air.

Trea­sure,

Eigh­teen months on the Steenkamps are no longer poor. “I have done some deals,” says De Bruyn, in a thinly veiled ref­er­ence to the book and the lu­cra­tive tele­vi­sion in­ter­views he’s ar­ranged on their be­half. “Ev­ery time they have an in­ter­view they must go and live through the trauma of what they have ex­pe­ri­enced, and they suf­fer,” says the lawyer. “And they need the money, so what is wrong in ask­ing for some­thing for that suf­fer­ing?”

Are they ex­ploit­ing Reeva’s death? “I think she would have wanted us to have some money,” her mother says. “Imag­ine go­ing through this trauma, suf­fer­ing, pain and hav­ing no money. Some­times not even for food or any­thing. Strug­gling.”

The monthly stipends from Pis­to­rius were sup­posed to be off­set against any civil claim for com­pen­sa­tion the Steenkamps might choose to make, but the court was told the cou­ple have no plans to sue. Reeva’s mother sug­gests that’s be­cause they don’t need to any more.

“Well, how long do you think we’re go­ing to live?” she asks. “I’m 68 and Barry’s 71. How long do we have? With­out money, how would we have done that? How would we have sur­vived?” The money they’ve made is theirs, but they hope to start

‘We are both haunted by the same night­mare… of Reeva’s yells for help pierc­ing the night air’

turn a horse away.” They had moved from Cape Town to the East­ern Cape where Barry was bankrupted and forced to close his sta­bles. After the fu­neral, when it was re­vealed in the press that the cou­ple were broke, their land­lady served them with two months’ no­tice for fear that her rent would not be paid.

Reeva was their pen­sion. “She used to say that she was work­ing to look after us in our old age,” re­calls her mother. In their last con­ver­sa­tion,

fundrais­ing for the Reeva Steenkamp Foun­da­tion. They hope to run two women’s shel­ters, in Port El­iz­a­beth and Cape Town. In South Africa a woman is killed by a part­ner ev­ery six hours. “There are very poor ar­eas and they have got very lit­tle help for any­thing in that di­rec­tion,” she says.

At times the mem­oir reads like a scrap­book of dot­ing mem­o­ries. It draws on let­ters, school re­ports and keep­sakes. Some­times it’s Reeva’s CV. But in some way it is an at­tempt to re­dress the bal­ance. Not only did they lose their daugh­ter in a hor­rific, vi­o­lent way, they had to watch her re­duced to “Os­car Pis­to­rius’s girl­friend” in the del­uge of cov­er­age that fol­lowed. Dur­ing the trial, her mother notes how Reeva was re­ferred to as “the de­ceased” in the ster­ile lan­guage of the court.

“Reeva has be­come sort of in­vis­i­ble,” she says. “She’s a per­son. She’s somebody who’s loved and somebody who’s go­ing to be missed for ever and ever.”

Yet what June hid in court, be­hind her stoic mask, she re­veals in print with abun­dant frank­ness. In her view, Pis­to­rius is “ar­ro­gant”, “moody”, “volatile” and “com­bustible”. He is “gun-tot­ing”, “trig­ger-happy”, “posses­sive”, “vague”, “eva­sive” and “shifty”. She does not be­lieve his story. “It was Reeva’s bad luck that she met him, be­cause sooner or later he would have killed some­one. I do be­lieve that.”

Judge Masipa, a for­mer crime re­porter who be­came the sec­ond black woman ap­pointed to the High Court in South Africa, said Pis­to­rius had been a “poor wit­ness”. But she con­cluded that he gave a ver­sion that “could rea­son­ably, pos­si­bly be true ... In crim­i­nal law that is all that is re­quired for an ac­quit­tal,” as she ac­quit­ted him of the mur­der charge with its manda­tory life sen­tence.

“I wasn’t happy with it at all,” June says. Her voice seems more mea­sured than her words de­serve. “I don’t think that was jus­tice for Reeva at all.”

Ac­cord­ing to the ath­lete’s ver­sion of events, he was in love with Reeva. On the night she died, she came to his house in Pre­to­ria’s ex­clu­sive Sil­ver Woods es­tate and cooked him a meal of chicken and vegetables be­fore they went up­stairs. She did some yoga on the bed­room floor, while he lay on the bed brows­ing the in­ter­net and mak­ing phone calls. They fell asleep to­gether some­time after 10pm.

It was a hot sum­mer evening and the bal­cony doors were open, where two fans blew air across the bed. Os­car said he woke around 3am and Reeva asked him, “Can’t you sleep, my baba [baby]?”

He went to the bal­cony, on his stumps, to move the fans and close the doors, then went to­wards a chest of draw­ers to ob­scure a light glow­ing on his hi-fi, which he told the court had been disturbing him, but be­fore he could drape her jeans across the the bath­room win­dow was open. The toi­let door was shut. Then he heard a noise, com­ing from the toi­let cu­bi­cle, which he be­lieved was the in­truder com­ing out to at­tack him. He fired four shots “with­out think­ing”.

The screams the neigh­bours heard were his, his lawyers said, once he re­alised his mis­take. The other “gun­shots,” which came later, were the sounds of a cricket bat as he bat­tered down the door to try to save Reeva’s life.

Reeva’s par­ents are un­con­vinced. “He’s the only one who knows the truth,” June says.

In the three months that they knew each other, Reeva and Pis­to­rius had be­come South Africa’s red-car­pet cou­ple. She had bro­ken up with long-term boyfriend-War­ren La­houd, the man her par­ents thought she’d marry, a few months ear­lier. There was a short-lived dal­liance with Fran­cois Hougaard, a pro­fes­sional rugby player. When she ap­peared at the South African Sports Awards on Pis­to­rius’s arm in Novem­ber 2012, her friends feared she had be­come a “trophy girl­friend”.

The ath­lete told his trial that she strug­gled with the press scru­tiny that came with the re­la­tion­ship. June scoffs that this is “rub­bish”. On the con­trary, Reeva en­joyed the at­ten­tion, and per­haps it clouded her judge­ment. “How­much of an unattrac­tive at­ti­tude did she dis­miss be­cause he was a golden boy,” June won­ders in her book. “How­much was she flat­tered to have won his heart?”

Pis­to­rius told the court they were plan­ning a life to­gether, but June thinks Reeva had “nag­ging doubts about their com­pat­i­bil­ity”.

Pathol­o­gist Prof Gert Saay­man, who car­ried out Reeva’s au­topsy said food in her stom­ach sug­gested she had eaten around 1am, when Pis­to­rius said they were both asleep.

‘It was Reeva’s bad luck that shemet him, be­cause sooner or later he would have killed some­one’

light he heard the sound of a win­dow slid­ing open in the bath­room.

“That’s the mo­ment that ev­ery­thing changed,” he said.

Afraid it was an in­truder who had climbed a lad­der to break in and harm them, he scram­bled back to his side of the bed, grabbed his Taurus 9mm pis­tol and hob­bled to the bath­room, scream­ing at the in­truder, “Get the [ex­ple­tive] out ofmy house!” He saw

Her mother is also trou­bled by the photographs that showed Reeva’s jeans strewn across the bed­room floor, as Reeva was a “neat freak”.

In the book, Reeva’s mother dis­sects ev­ery text, ev­ery tweet, ev­ery email, for hid­den mean­ing in the brief re­la­tion­ship. She con­cludes that it was volatile, un­pre­dictable. Barry re­calls that when the po­lice read out mes­sages from What­sApp mes­sag­ing ser­vice, it was as though their daugh­ter was “talk­ing in court”. Reeva said Pis­to­rius scared her, and that he picked on her “in­ces­santly”. In her par­ents’ ver­sion of events, their daugh­ter was grad­u­ally be­ing ground down by Pis­to­rius’s de­mands.

Reeva, her par­ents say, was un­happy when she ar­rived at Os­car’s house. CCTV footage, ac­cord­ing to her mother, shows her look­ing mis­er­able as she ap­proaches the com­pound. Some­thing was brew­ing. By 1am, when Reeva was said to have eaten, the cou­ple were fight­ing, which is backed up by a neigh­bour who heard two peo­ple ar­gu­ing from 1.56am. “There is no doubt in our minds that some­thing went hor­ri­bly wrong, some­thing up­set her so ter­ri­bly that she hid be­hind a locked door with two mo­bile phones,” June writes.

Reeva was shot wear­ing a sleeve­less black top and grey track­suit seems strangely calm. Judge Masipa made the right decision based on the ev­i­dence be­fore the court, June says. It’s just there was some­thing miss­ing.

She sym­pa­thises with the ath­lete’s fam­ily. Pis­to­rius’s mother died when he was 15, but his sib­lings, Aimee and Carl, his un­cle, Arnold, and aunt, Lois, were in court almost ev­ery day. His es­tranged fa­ther, Henke, also came to­wards the end.

“They did noth­ing wrong,” she says. “They are suf­fer­ing like we are suf­fer­ing. Ex­cept that he’s still breath­ing. That’s the only dif­fer­ence.”

Aimee passed her a note dur­ing the sec­ond week of the trial. “She wanted to know if we needed any­thing and she in­cluded her phone num­ber.” She says it was sweet, “but it would not have been proper to ac­cept their fam­ily’s show of con­cern”.

Some le­gal ex­perts have sug­gested the State could ap­peal, claim­ing that Judge Masipa made an er­ror in the law by not con­vict­ing him do­lus even­tu­alis – in­di­rect in­tent – a type of mur­der used when a per­son re­alises there is a pos­si­bil­ity that their ac­tions might kill some­one, but car­ries on re­gard­less. “That would en­tail another five years of court,” June says. But the cou­ple just wants it all to be over and done with.

In the lead-up to Pis­to­rius’s sen­tenc­ing, Reeva’s cousin Kim Martin said their fam­ily had been ru­ined and urged the judge to jail Pis­to­rius. In the event, he was given five years in prison and an ad­di­tional three years’ sus­pended sen­tence for a firearms of­fence, a sen­tence June

‘Her bag was packed. There’s no doubt in our minds that Reeva had de­cided to leave Os­car’

shorts, “clothes for a sum­mer’s day, not her night clothes”. She was fac­ing the door when the first bul­let struck her hip, “prob­a­bly plead­ing”.

“Ei­ther of them could have re­ceived a Valen­tine’s Day mes­sage from another ad­mirer that might have sparked a row,” June spec­u­lates. “Her clothes were packed. There is no doubt in our minds: she had de­cided to leave Os­car that night.”

Michelle Burger, a univer­sity lec­turer who said she heard blood­cur­dling screams the night Reeva died, said there was a pause be­tween the first shot and the fi­nal three. “I think he may have shot once and then he shot her again,” June writes. She says she sat through the trial be­cause she wanted jus­tice and she wanted the truth. Both, she feels, have been de­nied. Yet she be­lieves was “right”. She in­sists the fam­ily isn’t “seek­ing any­thing” but agrees on the im­por­tance of send­ing a mes­sage to so­ci­ety that what Pis­to­rius did is “not OK”. “We wouldn’t want him to suf­fer,” she says, be­cause that would be in­hu­man. “Even though he has done some­thing ter­ri­ble.”

Both of them have found a way to for­give. It’s what Reeva would have wanted. “Reeva, I think, she would have for­given him, too,” Barry says.

In fact, they want to meet Pis­to­rius. They never met when their daugh­ter was go­ing out with him. Steenkamp says it would be a way of “claim­ing back” their daugh­ter. “I am not en­tirely sure what I am go­ing to say. I know how I feel, but it’s in my head and it must stay there un­til that time that we meet,” she says. Her hus­band wants an apol­ogy. He wasn’t in court the day Pis­to­rius turned to Reeva’s mother and promised her that her daugh­ter “felt loved” when she went to bed that night.

“I would like him,” Barry says, “to re­ally, truth­fully say, although he said it in court, ‘I’m sorry’. I would like him just to say it to our faces. You know, to be gen­uine with us and sit down and say how sorry he is for ev­ery­thing. And also the grief that he has caused every­body.”

Do they think he would tell them the truth? “No,” says June in a whis­per. “Very im­prob­a­ble.”

Reeva’s death was “a dou­ble tragedy”, June writes. Two gifted young lives were shat­tered. Two days after Reeva died, the re­al­ity TV show in which she starred was broad­cast with the Steenkamps’ bless­ing. “A lot of peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand that,” she says. “Be­cause, how many women can watch, when they know their daugh­ter’s dead? I wanted to see her laugh­ing and alive. I didn’t miss one of those episodes.”

As for Pis­to­rius, “He’s lost a lot,” she says. Ac­cord­ing to his lawyers, the Par­a­lympian is pen­ni­less. “He lost all his spon­sors. He lost all his money. He hasn’t even money to pay for le­gal ex­penses,” de­fence lawyer Barry Roux said at the sen­tenc­ing. He is suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress disorder and his rep­u­ta­tion is in tat­ters.

“But Reeva’s lost the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing a grand­child for us,” her mother says. She isn’t smil­ing now. “Hav­ing a baby, get­ting mar­ried. And, of course, her ca­reer was go­ing so well. She was just about to take off. Now, she’s not even here breath­ing, you know. That’s the thing.”

June was up­set that her daugh­ter was re­duced to just ‘Os­car Pis­to­rius’s girl­friend’ dur­ing the trial

The cou­ple say they have found a way to for­give, as that’s what Reeva would have wanted

June says she re­mem­bers very lit­tle of Reeva’s fu­neral

Although he did so in court, Reeva’s par­ents want Os­car to apol­o­gise in per­son

De­spite once hav­ing had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, the ath­lete is now pen­ni­less

Barry and June didn’t meet Os­car when he was dat­ing Reeva, but would like to now

Barry suf­fered two strokes after his daugh­ter’s death and was only able to at­tend court for the fi­nal ar­gu­ments

Os­car’s rep­u­ta­tion and fi­nances are in ru­ins fol­low­ing the trial, but at least he’s alive, June points out

The pair quickly be­came a ‘red car­pet cou­ple’, with friends wor­ried Reeva was be­com­ing a trophy wife

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.