A “Cold and Lonely Death”

The Betty Ketani trial is over. Four years after they were arrested (and a marathon 2-year trial later) Carrington Laughton and brothers Carel and David Ranger have been convicted and sentenced for murdering Ketani in May 1999. Ketani’s brother, Mankinki, was in court for the sentencing and as he walked out he quoted none other than Nelson Mandela: “It’s been a long walk to freedom”.

By freedom, the family means closure. With sentencing done, the family can move forward. Betty’s daughter Bulelwa can start looking for work again, knowing it won’t be disrupted by subpoenas to testify in Johannesburg. Ketani’s youngest daughter, Lusanda can focus on her school work again and on raising her young son. Mankinki can get back to running his little shop in Barkly East.

In the coming days, the family will return to Joburg to fetch Betty Ketani’s spirit and to escort it back home. In Queenstown, across the road from their house, Betty’s children will bury her, seventeen years after she first disappeared. When they need guidance or just someone to talk to, they will be able to visit her grave. It’s too late for this year’s Mother’s Day, but next year they will have a grave to gather at. A painful chapter in their lives has ended.

In court, for the first time, Judge Natvarial Ranchod gave his impressions of the crimes that had been committed and the manner in which Ketani was murdered. You can listen to it here:

Carrington Laughton has been sentenced to an effective 30 years behind bars. The Ranger brothers, who have already spent four years in jail, will have to spend another four each. They were convicted of culpable homicide and got away with lighter sentences.

It’s important to also remember that three other accused, Conway Brown, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke pleaded guilty and received more lenient sentences.

Laughton and the Rangers applied for leave to appeal their convictions (and, in Laughton’s case, his sentence) but were refused it by Judge Ranchod. They will now have to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein.

Prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas, along with investigating officer Captain Gerhard Van Wyk, will now busy themselves with extradition applications for outstanding suspects who they believe should face justice.

Although the trial has ended, there are still missing pieces in the #ColdCase puzzle. And if a 3-page confession to a murder can be discovered lying under a carpet 12 years after the crime, then who knows what the future holds.

Third Chapter of the Trial Resumes

October 24, 2014

The #ColdCase trial has resumed and has been underway for around three weeks. We are now 40 court days (and 25 witnesses) in, with the state yet to close its case. The trial is moving extremely slowly, with lengthy cross-examination of every witness.

The latest chapter of the trial began on October 6, 2014 with yet another twist. Prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas called their first Section 204 witness: Andre Coetzer. South Africans were introduced to Section 204 witnesses in the Brett Kebble murder trial, where three hitmen were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. This trial already has three Section 105A witnesses, who also bargained with the state but were convicted and sentenced instead of escaping prosecution all together (as is the case with 204 witnesses).

Coetzer was a police reservist who has admitted to lying about a string of notorious raids in Hillbrow in 1999. These raids were linked to Cranks, where Betty Ketani worked. Coetzer is important to the state because he confirms parts of the secret confession and implicates the accused. He is an old friend of the alleged author of the confession, Carrington Laughton, and painted a picture of policemen who were moonlighting and carrying out illegal raids. Coetzer’s credibility came under fire during cross-examination, given that he had made false statements before. Defence advocate Laurence Hodes accused him of delivering a “pack of lies”. He also produced a Facebook chat that Coetzer’s wife had to try and point of discrepancies in this evidence. In essence, Hodes argued that Coetzer was “directed” by the police and will say anything to save himself (which is a similar line of attack used against earlier witnesses).

Next up was much awaited witness, Dirk Reinecke, who spent five days in the witness box. Reinecke is the third of the 105A witnesses (along with Conway Brown and Paul Toft Nielsen). He testified about how Ketani was kidnapped and interrogated in a hotel room shortly before she disappeared. He is also a crucial link in the chain – and is the man who claims to have handed Conway a duffel bag containing Laughton’s confession. This is important because the letter was found under a carpet at Conway’s house, many years later. Reinecke’s testimony included his friendship with Laughton and the others, their experience with Naked Motoring and other aspects of the case. He faced fierce cross-examination, with his credibility on the line. Hodes also revealed a claim by his client that Reinecke knew about a conspiracy to implicate Laughton in a crime by creating a fake letter – which Dirk denied categorically. As before, it’s now up to the court to decide whether it will accept Reinecke’s evidence, parts of it or none of it. Only time will tell.

The defence then brought an application claiming that the trial was unfair because prosecutors were not playing open cards and their witnesses were testifying about things which were not mentioned in their statements. In essence: “Trial by ambush”. The state fought back and won, with the court dismissing the application. It may not have been a wasted effort, however, because it’s now on record and should there be an appeal, it will certainly be raised.

The next man to step into the witness box was Themba Tshabalala, the victim of those Hillbrow raids in 1999. Tshabalala was kidnapped from his flat and later from the restaurant where he worked, tortured and grilled about those who worked at Cranks (including his wife). He opened a case back then, but has been waiting for justice for 15 years. While giving his evidence in chief, he also produced a diary / notebook which he claimed he kept all those years ago. It was quite an astonishing turn of events, given that this is the first we heard about this diary. Tshabalala told the court he found the book after his first day of testifying, but Hodes set out to prove that he had written in new entries to make them look like historic ones. Basically, Hodes accused him of fabricating evidence, which the witness denied. There was a lot of cross-examination about discrepancies in statements, the ID parade which Themba attended in 2012 and the controversial diary. In turn, Themba complained to the court about being harassed and about people taking down his car registration plate outside court.

Tshabalala’s story needs to be interrogated as does his “ability to observe and recall” (as Hodes phrased it). The diary which surfaced leaves a lot of questions (including Hodes’ argument that it could not have been in existence in 1999, given its copyright notice).  But I couldn’t help feel sorry for him, sitting for days on end in the court, being made to feel like the accused, accepting scraps of lunch from those in the public gallery. There is little doubt of what happened to this man and how traumatic it was. What’s in dispute is who kidnapped and tortured him, and why? I am not for one moment suggesting that victims of crime should not have to go through the process of testifying and being cross-examined – that’s the law – but Tshabalala was really hauled over the legal coals. The defense feel they have done major damage to the state’s case by breaking this witness while the prosecutors believe despite mistakes, Tshabalala has corroborate key aspects of the case.

The witness who is now on the stand is Ketani’s brother Eric. He is in court to explain the family structure, relating to the DNA samples that were taken from Betty’s three children. The defence is disputing everything, including the DNA results, which were confirmed at a lab in Bosnia.

The trial was originally set to run until mid-November, but the judge has already asked all parties to be available until end of term, which is in mid-December. So hang on tight… there’s a long way to go

Police handwriting expert denies being a “hired gun”

May 15, 2014

The Betty Ketani murder trial has resumed and is set to run for five weeks. The case began on Monday (after a two month pause) with the cross-examination of the state’s handwriting expert, Marco van der Hammen.

Van der Hammen is an impressive witness. He has 22 years experience in his field, has handled nearly 4 000 cases and has testified in court more than 200 times. Outside of the witness box, he is a polite, friendly man who clearly has a deep love for his work. You may have come across his name in the Dina Rodrigues case or the murder trial of Thandi Maqubela, the wife of slain acting judge Patrick Maqubela. Van der Hammen gave evidence in both those trials.

The Colonel was the second police analyst to study the confession letter and compare it to various samples gathered by investigators or provided by Conway Brown (who has pleaded guilty and is now a state witness). Like with DNA analysis, Van der Hammen examined what he had to work with, constructed hypotheses and tested them to reach his findings. Basically, he found that Carrington Laughton was in all probability the man who signed the confession and who wrote several lines at the bottom of its third and last page.

This handwriting match – along with the DNA evidence – is crucial to both the state and the defense, and so it was not surprising to see Van der Hammen spend three days under cross-examination by Laughton’s advocate Laurence Hodes.

It’s fascinating to see how signatures get broken down into various unique parts (in this case: 14 points) and then compared. Or how Van der Hammen pulls out unique letters and patterns while analysing the “rhythm and form” of the written words. He spots how one letter links to another, for example, and then searches for traces of this repetition in other samples. Hodes used the term “wonderful science” sarcastically, but I’m happy to dry it off from that sarcasm and use it seriously. Regardless of whether the court accepts the evidence or not, it’s been intriguing learning more about it.

Like before, Hodes and his team did their homework. They had a mountain of reference material, had consulted their own expert (who is likely to testify later) and had their own analysis. The veteran advocate challenged the veteran cop on pretty much every front, working his way to a dramatic finish during which he accused Van der Hammen of being a “hired gun” for the state. Van der Hammen smiled ever so slightly as the accusation was fired and replied: “My Lord, I’ve been called many names before… I’ve been called a hired gun before as well… I’m here not as an advocate, I’m here as a professional in a certain field.”

Hodes accused the officer of excluding certain evidence, of excusing away discrepancies or differences which he could not explain and questioned the reliability of handwriting analysis. He locked horns with Van der Hammen on issues like whether the confession was typed on a laser or ink-jet printer, whether the third page may have been inserted later and why the document was not sent overseas for complex chemical tests to determine its age (given that bones from a shallow grave – believed to belong to Ketani – were sent to Bosnia when the local laboratories failed to extract DNA from them).

But Hodes saved the fireworks for prosecutor Namika Kowlas, who handled the re-examination. He launched a dramatic series of objections, accusing her of being underhanded and dishonest, of leading the witness and of slipping him information to guide his answers. He also accused her of asking questions which don’t belong in a re-examination. Hodes fumed, saying he would not sit by and watch the questions unfold. He stopped only once the judge asked him to, assuring him that his concerns had been heard. Kowlas, quite cunningly, didn’t fight back, but rephrased the questions or moved on, abandoning them. She had made her points, which were that Van der Hammen has a wealth of experience with no court (as far as he knows) ever dismissing his evidence and that Laughton had (despite what the defense claimed) been asked for samples of his handwriting but had refused to cooperate.

The defense steered the questions to support Laughton’s version, which is that the confession is a forgery and that he neither wrote it nor signed it. He’s likely to heap the blame on Conway Brown, who hid the letter under the carpet and later forgot all about it. Brown will be the next witness and is quite possibly the most crucial one for the prosecutors. Remember, he places himself at the scene of the murder, claiming that he held Ketani while Laughton stabbed her with a “silver metal shaft, similar to a knitting needle”. Brown also admits to burying the body in a shallow grave and later digging it up. How he performs on the witness stand will largely determine how the rest of the trial is handled by both sides.

As for Van der Hammen and the handwriting evidence… the court will not lightly disregard his findings. They were presented in an expert manner by a man who is clearly an expert. What will be interesting to see is whether Laughton’s own, private handwriting analyst will be able to do enough to tip the scales and to cast enough doubt on Van der Hammen’s report. The study of handwriting is not like fingerprint or DNA analysis. It is more subjective. Less reliable. More open to interpretation. So for everything that Van der Hammen has concluded, a different expert may be able to show the complete opposite. The court will then be left to decide which analysis is more reliable.

Either way, in a case which is almost entirely built on circumstantial evidence, the handwriting plays an important role as one of the pieces of the puzzle.

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Our Trip in Brooklyn

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Three Accused Roll Over and Trial is Delayed

July 23 2013

Three of the six men arrested for the murder of Betty Ketani have turned state witness and will testify against the alleged author of a confession that broke wide-open the mysterious cold case.

Yesterday was due to be the first day of a four-week trial, but the plea and sentence agreements – which were months in the making – have led to a delay.

Tomorrow, a new indictment will be served on the remaining three accused but the trial is now only likely to run in November. (Add: Trial date has now been set for November 4)

Ketani was working as a chef at Cranks Thai restaurant in Rosebank when she vanished without a trace in mid 1999. For over a decade her family – including her three children – hoped she would reappear. Then, last year, that hope died with the completely random discovery of a letter hidden under a carpet at a house in Kenilworth, south of Johannesburg.

Prosecutors have set out to prove the letter is a forgotten confession written by Carrington Laughton and hidden at a house where his friend Conway Brown used to live. It was at the same house that Ketani’s body was allegedly buried in a shallow grave before it was dug up and disposed of. Laughton denies writing the letter and any involvement in Ketani’s murder.

Brown, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke have pleaded guilty to various crimes surrounding the Ketani murder. Brown is the only one who will have to serve jail time, while the others have escaped with suspended sentences or correctional supervision.

Their evidence is crucial to prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas, who are hoping to convict Laughton and two policemen brothers Carel and David Ranger.

In their admissions, Brown and the others describe Laughton as someone who had connections to corrupt policemen and used his hold over people to lure them into crime. They say he was a natural leader who manipulated those around him.

Brown has gone as far as confessing to holding a woman – believed to be Ketani – while Laughton stabbed her in the head or neck with a “silver metal shaft, similar to a knitting needle”.

“He (Brown) actively participated in holding the deceased while Carrington was stabbing her. Once she dropped to the ground the accused and Carrington left her for dead”.

He admits to burying the body in his yard and then digging it up four years later and disposing of it at a nearby rubbish dump.

These, and all other allegations, are still to be tested during the trial. It’s also hoped a motive for the murder will emerge. The state claims Ketani was killed over a work dispute while evidence has now been heard of an investigation (carried out by Laughton) into a string of thefts from the restaurant.

A woman identified as Monique Neeteson-Lemkes, the daughter of the restaurant owner Eric Neeteson-Lemkes, is also implicated by the accused-turned-witnesses. Both father and daughter have left South Africa.

Toft-Nielson has admitted to helping dig up and dispose of the body while Reinecke has confessed to kidnapping Ketani on a separate occasion, describing how she was picked up from work and taken to a hotel room for questioning, allegedly by Laughton and Monique.

“Betty became extremely distraught with the questions and allegations and demanded to be taken home. Carrington refused and stated that she will remain there until she provides answers,” his statement reads.

Reinecke says that at the time, he worked for Laughton’s private investigations company which was probing the thefts at Cranks. He adds that Ketani was eventually released after midnight.

The letter found under the carpet details at least three other cases of abduction and torture of restaurant staff or their family members.

Prosecutors have had the letter analysed by a handwriting expert while several bones found in the shallow grave were sent for DNA testing in Bosnia. The DNA tests concluded that while corroborating evidence is needed, the bones are 4740 times more likely to belong to Ketani than to any other human being.

Ketani’s brother was in court yesterday and says he has no problem with the state’s deals but is hoping for “big sentences” for those who killed his sister. He says after waiting fourteen years, he’s prepared to wait until November.

(This is an article I wrote for The Star)

A Long Postponement

(November 19, 2012)

The former owner of Rosebank Thai restaurant Cranks has made a surprise appearance on a list of state witnesses contained in the indictments served on six men on trial for Thandiwe “Betty” Ketani’s murder.

The mother-of-three was kidnapped and murdered 13 years ago, but a breakthrough in the case came only after a bundle of confessions were found under a carpet at a house in Kenilworth earlier this year.

The alleged gang arrested for the crime returned to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Monday for prosecutors to move the case to the South Gauteng High Court.

The trial date has been set for July 22 next year.

Carrington Laughton, Conway Brown, policemen brothers Carel and David Ranger, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reynecke each face five counts of murder, kidnapping and attempted murder.

This week, the state finally spelled out its case against the accused, alleging a woman named Monique Lemkes was the person who recruited them to commit the murder.

Monique’s father Eric was the owner of Cranks restaurant, where Ketani worked as a chef. Cranks shut down several days after news of the arrests broke.

The state claims that: “Accused 1 (Laughton) was involved in a romantic relationship with Monique. The aforementioned Monique was at the time managing Cranks restaurant in Rosebank.”

The indictment goes on: “The deceased (Ketani) launched a claim against her employer at the CCMA, following a labour dispute. Monique Lemkes then recruited the accused to kidnap and murder the deceased.”

It then details how the first abduction went wrong and Ketani was snatched from a hospital before being killed and “buried in the garden and covered by concrete”. Her body was dug up three years later and disposed of at a municipal dump.

There is no mention of how Ketani was killed: “The accused subsequently killed the deceased in an unknown manner”.

Monique is believed to be living in Australia and it remains to be seen whether she will be brought to South Africa to stand trial.

Meanwhile, a list of 57 witnesses offers an insight into the trial, even though deals may still be struck between the state and the defense teams.

On that list are the policemen who investigated the case, as well as the undercover agents who worked with them. Laughton’s ex-wife Jayne also features. She was the “mystery witness” who gave the state an envelope of photographs which could now be used during the trial.

Many of the victims of violent abductions (allegedly committed during the search for one of Ketani’s co-workers) may also testify. As could some of Ketani’s family members and the chef who’s family discovered the confession letters.

Interestingly, some of the people mentioned in the confession – which was allegedly written by Laughton and discovered at Brown’s home – are also named as witnesses. One is a former police reservist while another is a serving policeman.

Former owner of Cranks, Eric Lemkes, is listed as witness number 33.

Prosecutors are also still waiting for several bones found in Ketani’s shallow grave to be sent to Bosnia for tests. If the DNA sample matches those taken from her children, the state’s case would receive a major boost. However, prosecutors have said they are willing to proceed without the bones, following a precedent set in the Francis Rasuge case.

According to the indictment, all five charges relate to the murder of Ketani. It’s not clear why the state is not pursuing charges relating to the abductions and torture of several other people who knew Ketani.

Defense teams will now be able to apply for copies of the police docket and prepare for trial. Two of them are out on bail, while the rest will remain behind bars.

A New Piece of the Puzzle

I’m very happy to announce that this website has helped connect me to someone living more than 10 000km away. A few days ago, I received an email from a person – a perfect stranger – in the UK, who has some information to pass on.

Isn’t it amazing that a website can help bridge such massive distances and add to the quality of the information being gathered? I can’t reveal what the information is, but I’m sure it will help me place one more piece in this puzzle. It may be a small piece, or a big one. I’m sure you’ll understand that I also can’t say who the source is.

I’ve had a chaotic few weeks covering census 2011 and the US Elections. But now that the dust is settling, I’ll get to do some more investigation on this case and, with a few weeks of holiday in early December, I’ll carry on writing.

As always, if you have some information or know someone who does, please get in touch by clicking here.

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