Under the skin of a killer
‘They descended on the body of their victim, Michael van Eck, like hyenas tearing a buck apart. They derived pleasure from the murder,’ the prosecutor told a horrified court in Welkom. Vivian Attwood reports
RESIDENTS of the Free State town of Welkom are reeling after a soft-faced young woman was sentenced to 20 years’ jail without parole on Friday for her role in slaughtering, dismembering and skinning a young man she lured through Facebook.
Johan de Nyscchen, advocate for the state, said if one looked beyond the little-girllost façade of Chane van Heerden, you would find a monster who would kill repeatedly.
“They researched everything to do with the dark side of humanity and found pleasure in the killing and mutilation of their victim,” he said. “Once you’re programmed to kill, you will do so again and again.”
De Nyscchen was arguing for the accused to be declared a dangerous criminal.
When the judge subsequently ruled that Van Heerden would serve 20 years before she could hope to have her sentence reassessed, his words were greeted with disbelief by many in the court and townsfolk were also aghast.
During the trial it emerged that Van Heerden and her coaccused fiancée, Maartens van der Merwe, enacted fantasies fuelled by their love of crime novels and the macabre, by stabbing 23-year-old mining engineer Michael van Eck to death in an isolated cemetery outside the town.
They then hacked off his head, right arm and both legs and buried his torso in a shallow, improvised grave.
Van Eck’s skinned head was found in a fridge at the cottage the couple shared, along with his facial skin, eyes and ears. His right arm was buried in the garden, with the remains of two slaughtered cats.
Testifying for the state, University of the Free State forensic psychologist Dap Louw said he had conducted intensive international research and skinning was a rare phenomenon.
“There has never been a case where a victim was so precisely skinned. She (Van Heerden) had done it so precisely that one could easily have confused the skin with a real mask,” he told the court.
Social worker Marilise Vergottini testified that Van Heerden’s vision of the world was abnormal. She said the accused had indicated she would have killed again if she had not been apprehended.
“The sentence is ridiculously lenient for such a terrible crime,” said a Welkom businesswoman who declined to be named. “She showed no humanity. Next thing we’ll hear that the other one (Van der Merwe) is going to get away with it because he’s crazy.”
Van der Merwe is under psychiatric observation at a state mental facility to determine whether he will be fit to stand trial in February. He was reportedly diagnosed as schizophrenic in his early teens.
Before her arrest, Van Heer- den, an amateur artist, also had a history of psychological problems. Friends of the couple said they both appeared to “live in a fantasy world”.
Although they attended Bible classes regularly, the two never missed the television drama, Dexter, about a serial killer who leads a double life as a “normal” citizen.
During the trial it emerged that Van Heerden and Van der Merwe had decided to escalate their experiments from killing cats to larger prey.
“Van Heerden told the court they were going to adopt a dog from the SPCA, but she told her lover she could not stomach pretending to an animal you we were offering it hope and a home, only to murder it. The two then decided to hunt for human prey,” said a reporter who had covered the case.
Van Heerden duly
ap- proached Van Eck on Facebook, and arranged to meet him for a spurious date in April. When he failed to turn up for work the next day, his employer raised the alarm, leading to the discovery of his dismembered remains and the arrest of the two suspects.
Brigadier Gérard Labuschagne, head of the SAPS Investigative Psychology Department, testified that Van Heerden “should be managed as a serial murderer”.
He explained that a number of aspects of the case, including “trial runs” on animals, the gathering of body “trophies” at the murder scene and fantasies prior to the killing, were consistent with psychologically motivated crimes.
Van Heerden’s portfolio of artwork was introduced as a court exhibit. It provided a horrifying insight into her disturbed psychological make-up.
Labuschagne said she had rendered “sketches representing a face with the mouth stitched closed, similar to the manner in which the deceased’s mouth was stitched closed”. She had also written a poem in which she said: “I will tear off their faces to see the truth… .”
Although Van Heerden’s Facebook profile has been removed, her lover’s is still intact. His profile picture shows the good-looking Van der Merwe kneeling in a passageway, dressed entirely in black. His eyes are closed and his hands are placed as if in prayer. Under “activities and interests” he lists: “Silence” and “Not sleeping”.
He cites his favourite quotation as follows: “Sifting through the facts, I sometimes believe I see that life is two locked boxes, each containing the other’s key.”