butchered in their beds

Henri Van Breda went to elab­o­rate lengths to try to con­vince the judge he hadn’t hacked his fam­ily to death in the early hours. There seemed lit­tle doubt of his guilt, but the ques­tion was:

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Tanita Matthews

Deep in­sight and ex­pert opin­ion on the night Henri Van Breda hacked his fam­ily to death

why did he do it?

As his en­tire fam­ily lay bleed­ing to death up­stairs, the vic­tims of a vi­cious axe at­tack, 20- year- old Perth Univer­sity stu­dent Henri Van Breda sat in the kitchen down­stairs and smoked the first of three cig­a­rettes as he called his girl­friend. The call went unan­swered. When he had fin­ished he Googled the emer­gency num­bers that would fetch his fam­ily ur­gent med­i­cal as­sis­tance, de­spite the fact that the tele­phone num­ber for the res­i­den­tial doc­tor was on the fridge barely me­tres away. He would later tell the court how he had tried twice to get through to the emer­gency ser­vices but failed, be­fore col­laps­ing in the hall­way and black­ing out.

It wasn’t un­til three hours later that he phoned for help. While on the phone to the emer­gency dis­patch re­spon­der on the morn­ing of 27 Jan­uary 2015, he asked for mul­ti­ple am­bu­lances to at­tend 12 Goske Street in the gated com­mu­nity of De Zalze Golf Es­tate in Stel­len­bosch, South Africa. How­ever, for five long min­utes of a half- hour emer­gency call, Van Breda sim­ply talked about the lo­ca­tion of the home. He was so calm and un­pan­icked the dis­patcher thought the call might be a prank. He made no men­tion of the fact that an in­truder had bro­ken into his fam­ily home in the mid­dle of the night and axed his fam­ily to death, nor im­me­di­ately said that his younger sis­ter Marli might have also sur­vived. But this was his sworn tes­ti­mony in what would be a shock­ing and en­thralling 66- day trial, in which Van Breda be­came the ac­cused triple- mur­derer of his 55- year- old mother Teresa, his father, 54- year- old Mar­tin, and older brother, 22- year- old Rudi, as well as the at­tempted mur­derer of 16- year- old Marli.

Found guilty at the Western High Cape Court, Van

Breda’s case for his de­fence, built on colos­sal lies, proved hope­less. Real Crime spoke with le­gal ex­pert Tracey Ste­wart, who at­tended South Africa’s high­est pro­file mur­der trial since that of fallen Par­a­lympic hero Os­car Pis­to­rius, who gave us a blow- by- blow ac­count of Henri Van Breda’s im­plau­si­ble in­truder story and the truth of that bloody night.

Grue­some Scene

In­side the Van Bredas’ lux­u­ri­ous home on the morn­ing of 27 Jan­uary 2015, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found the ground floor eerily undis­turbed. A hand­bag with a purse full of cash, a lap­top and a Monopoly board game sat un­touched on the grand wooden ta­ble per­pen­dic­u­lar to the front door and the stair­case that led to the first floor. In con­trast to the lower floor, a wa­ter­fall of blood had spilled down from up­stairs and come to a stag­nant stand­still. A pair of fe­male bod­ies lay in a crim­son pool at the top of the stair­case, while two male vic­tims lay in a nearby bed­room. Lodged in the wall be­tween the floors was a blood­stained axe, re­spon­si­ble for the in­juries to the vic­tims. Each vic­tim had suf­fered vi­cious head wounds, leav­ing their skulls and brain mat­ter ex­posed on the home’s var­nished wood floor. Mar­tin, Teresa and Rudi were all pro­nounced dead at the scene. How­ever, Marli was still alive – barely – de­spite mul­ti­ple hacks to the head and a sev­ered jugu­lar vein.

Marli was trans­ported to hospi­tal, where hours of life­sav­ing brain surgery and a week- long in­duced coma helped the 16- year- old vic­tim sur­vive the at­tack. As she lay sleep­ing, the world waited for her to wake up and share the de­tails of what had hap­pened that fate­ful night. Mean­while, the only

other sur­viv­ing Van Breda be­gan giv­ing his ver­sion of events to po­lice.

In his of­fi­cial state­ment, Henri Van Breda de­scribed a quiet fam­ily evening – a movie and din­ner in front of the TV with his father and brother un­til late into the night. He claimed he and his brother Rudi had re­treated to their shared bed­room up­stairs to sleep later that evening. Un­able to doze off, he had watched a box set se­ries on his lap­top be­fore lis­ten­ing to mu­sic at around 3am. Dur­ing a trip to the en- suite bath­room, he had sud­denly heard noises com­ing from the bed­room. Through a crack in the door he had spot­ted what he de­scribed as a man dressed in black clothes, a bal­a­clava and gloves stood over his brother’s bed, who then be­gan hit­ting him over the head with an axe. Henri Van Breda called for help and his father came rush­ing into the room, to­wards the at­tacker. The ax­e­man swung his weapon, killing Mar­tin and laugh­ing ma­ni­a­cally at his vic­tory.

The as­sailant then al­legedly left the room and ven­tured out into the hall­way, where Teresa had called out, con­cerned about what was hap­pen­ing in the room. Out of sight from Henri Van Breda, the in­truder sup­pos­edly at­tacked his mother and sis­ter. With ev­ery­one else in­ca­pac­i­tated, the at­tacker came back in for the cow­er­ing man still in the bath­room. Find­ing his strength, Van Breda claimed he sin­gle- hand­edly fought off the ax­e­man, dis­arm­ing him of his blood­stained weapon “fairly eas­ily”. A strug­gle en­sued, leav­ing Van Breda with mul­ti­ple wounds, but with the up­per hand as the one left hold­ing the axe. De­feated, the killer re­treated, pass­ing by his fe­male vic­tims and dart­ing down the stairs as only sur­vivor bun­dled after him. Seiz­ing an op­por­tu­nity to strike his op­po­nent, Van Breda hurled the axe in the di­rec­tion of the flee­ing man. It missed, lodg­ing it­self in the wall at the foot of the first flight of stairs. Down­stairs the as­sailant joined a sec­ond, un­seen in­truder, who Van Breda claimed to have only heard speak­ing in Afrikaans, and the pair dashed out of the back kitchen door into the night.

News that an af­flu­ent fam­ily had been at­tacked in­side their se­cure gated com­mu­nity in the heart of pic­turesque Stel­len­bosch spread like wild­fire in a coun­try where vi­o­lence and break- ins are a com­mon oc­cur­rence. While po­lice and lo­cal me­dia work closely when a large- scale crime is com­mit­ted, South African res­i­dent and at­tor­ney Tracey Ste­wart told us that this case was dif­fer­ent: po­lice and pros­e­cut­ing au­thor­i­ties re­mained “very numb” about any of the fine de­tails, re­fus­ing to re­lease more than was nec­es­sary about the at­tack. “The in­for­ma­tion we re­ceived was that it was a wealthy fam­ily, a fam­ily who had re­cently re­turned to South Africa after leav­ing and liv­ing in Aus­tralia for a while, and we knew that the en­tire fam­ily was mur­dered and only one son had lived, which was Henri,” Ste­wart said.

Mean­while, Marli was slowly awo­ken from her coma. With the world hop­ing she would be able to fill them in on what had hap­pened, she was di­ag­nosed with ret­ro­grade am­ne­sia and could not re­mem­ber any­thing about the night.

Hor­rid Henri

The hunt for more in­for­ma­tion on the crime be­came a feed­ing frenzy for the press. When a snip­pet was re­leased of the emer­gency call Henri Van Breda had made al­most three hours after the at­tacks oc­curred, it was gob­bled up and churned out across the front pages. As he de­scribed how his fam­ily were bleed­ing from the head, Van Breda’s gruff voice let out what was in­ter­preted to be a sti­fled laugh.

a wa­ter­fall of blood had spilled down from up­stairs and come to a

stag­nant stand­still

Ac­cord­ing to Ste­wart, spec­u­la­tion in the coun­try was rife but “no­body thought for one sec­ond that it was not Henri” who was the per­pe­tra­tor. How­ever, ev­i­dence against the only sur­viv­ing son was merely cir­cum­stan­tial, and it took in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­most two years to gather enough ev­i­dence to charge Van Breda with three counts of mur­der, one of at­tempted mur­der and one of de­feat­ing the ends of jus­tice.

Van Breda pleaded not guilty to all counts at the Western Cape High Court in April 2016, read­ing out his of­fi­cial ver­sion of events to the court­room in what Ste­wart said was the first time the pub­lic had ever heard his de­fence. “Prior to read­ing his plea ex­pla­na­tion I think most peo­ple spec­u­lated that he would use a de­fence of in­san­ity or per­haps be­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of some­thing that af­fected his abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween right and wrong,” Ste­wart told us, “so it was quite sur­pris­ing that he raised the is­sue of the in­truder.” Ac­cord­ing to Ste­wart, “It wasn’t the fact that it couldn’t have been an in­truder that we didn’t be­lieve, it was just the cir­cum­stances around the al­leged in­tru­sion.”

Be­fore the trial com­menced, a bid was put be­fore the coun­try’s high­est courts to al­low the trial to be tele­vised. In South Africa the le­gal sys­tem of­ten pre­vents the pub­lic from sit­ting in on crim­i­nal tri­als, some­thing that Ste­wart said changed with the 2014 trial of Os­car Pis­to­rius, the Par­a­lympics star who was ac­cused of mur­der­ing his girl­friend Reeva Steenkamp in­side his Pre­to­ria home in the early hours of Valen­tine’s Day in 2013. Cam­eras in­side the court­room cap­tured every dra­matic mo­ment of the trial, which even­tu­ally re­sulted in Pis­to­rius be­ing found guilty of cul­pa­ble homi­cide. Now, al­most two years on, the press were clam­our­ing for ac­cess to the court­rooms.

Van Breda’s at­tor­ney ar­gued that cam­eras in the court­room could con­tam­i­nate the trial and that their client, who planned to tes­tify in his own de­fence, had a se­vere stut­ter that was present when un­der stress, and that this could in turn af­fect the qual­ity of his ev­i­dence. After a tense de­bate, high court judges ruled that the pres­ence of cam­eras in the court­room would not de­ter fair and right­ful jus­tice, and the trial date was set for 4 April 2017. Van Breda was granted bail un­der strin­gent con­di­tions while the pros­e­cut­ing and de­fence at­tor­neys built their cases. Marli re­turned to school but was kept at arm’s length from her older brother. It was soon re­vealed that she would not be giv­ing ev­i­dence at court.

While the pub­lic had Van Breda firmly in their sights as the per­pe­tra­tor, the ques­tion of mo­tive re­mained a mys­tery. It was sug­gested that the stu­dent had a metham­phetamine ad­dic­tion. South Africa’s big­gest Sun­day news­pa­per, The Sun­day Times, tracked down a man claim­ing to be the ac­cused’s drug dealer, who iden­ti­fied Van Breda as a reg­u­lar cus­tomer of his. Po­lice never con­firmed this to be true.

Oth­ers reached the con­clu­sion that the son of a wealthy man­ag­ing direc­tor for a Ger­man- based real es­tate ser­vice in Aus­tralia was at risk of be­ing cut off from the fam­ily fortune. How­ever, in South African courts, a mo­tive is not re­quired for con­dem­na­tion, and ap­prox­i­mately 320 pages of com­pelling ar­gu­ments made Henri Van Breda sus­pect num­ber one.

Tak­ing to so­cial me­dia plat­form Twit­ter on the first day of the mur­der trial, Tracey Ste­wart high­lighted Van Breda’s “cold” and “chill­ing” de­meanour, a man­ner that was al­most un­wa­ver­ing through­out the trail. In­hab­it­ing the wit­ness stand for four days, Van Breda was cross- ex­am­ined by Su­san Gal­loway, while his own at­tor­ney, Pi­eter Botha, at­tempted to paint a plau­si­ble in­truder the­ory to the judge, Si­raj De­sai.

A Shadow Of Doubt

The Van Breda fam­ily was por­trayed by the ac­cused as a lov­ing and “fairly close- knit” unit who had “no en­e­mies,” a fact that seemed strange given the bru­tal­ity of the crime. How­ever, two of the home’s clos­est neigh­bours posed op­pos­ing sto­ries as to what they heard the night the fam­ily were slaugh­tered in their home. Stephanie Op’t Hof tes­ti­fied that she heard ag­gres­sive males hav­ing a huge fight a few hours be­fore the axe killings were thought to have taken place. Botha tried but failed to con­vince her that what she had heard was the sound­track of the film the fam­ily had been watch­ing in the late hours of the evening. Mean­while,

above Nes­tled into the Western Cape, Stel­len­bosch is a well­known univer­sity town fa­mous for its pic­turesque vine­yards, but in 2015 its De Zalze Golf Es­tate be­came fa­mous for the grisly and vi­o­lent Van Breda mur­ders

top Henri Van Breda’s girl­friend ( right) stood by her part­ner through­out his trial, in­sist­ing that he was in­no­cent and that he wanted jus­tice for his fam­ily

above- left The axe, lodged in the wall: judge and pros­e­cu­tion had an is­sue with the ac­cused’s the­ory that the in­trud­ers ven­tured into the se­cure es­tate without a weapon, ran­domly killing the fam­ily with their own axe

above- right Both the de­fence and the pros­e­cu­tion re­lied heav­ily on blood spat­ter anal­y­sis that was com­pelling to both sides of the ar­gu­ment. How­ever, a lack of for­eign DNA at the scene proved fa­tal to the de­fen­dant’s ver­sion of events

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