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:
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.
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.
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
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