The trouble with movie trailers is that they tease. They flash images or scenes and suck you in, without revealing the real connections or giving away the ultimate twist.
That’s kind of what happened at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Monday, when the six men arrested for Tendani “Betty” Ketani’s murder returned to the dock.
A strobe light was turned onto the case and both the state and defence were forced to make important revelations, including the alleged motive for the grisly murder.
The breakthrough in the case and the arrests came a few months ago, when a confession letter was discovered hidden beneath a carpet at a house in Kenilworth, south of Joburg.
It landed in the hands of a friendly chef who believes in karma and who immediately passed it onto the police. After a few weeks of intense investigation and the tracing of old dockets and complainants, the dominoes began to fall and five men were arrested. A sixth was added after an identity parade was held.
Online publisher Carrington Laughton was accused of writing the letter, which began with the words “If you are reading then I am dead” and ended with “lastly – f*** them all!!!”
The letter detailed various crimes, revealed who committed them and where the reader could find evidence to back up the sensational claims.
The letter spoke of abductions and the torturing of several people, as well as the murder of Ketani, a mother of three who worked at a Rosebank restaurant.
It referred to a sex tape, secret telephone recordings, photographs, a stash of cash, a “black hood” which was allegedly used to blind the victims and a cache of guns. It offered dates, addresses, as well as telephone and ID numbers.
It was allegedly meant to be a voice from the grave, asking the reader to avenge Laughton’s murder. As it turned out, Laughton was never killed and was instead arrested on May 8, 2012.
The letter was found at a house once rented by Conway Brown, who is now accused number two. Its discovery was a complete fluke during renovations.
On Monday, it emerged that Brown was abandoning his bail application and had made a full confession about the role he played in the crime. With a soft face and a cross around his neck, Brown sat quietly until being led back to the holding cells.
Laughton, on the other hand, pushed ahead with his bail application. The 40-year-old told the court he disputed the authenticity of the letter, which he believes will consume a large part of the trial.
He spoke about his two young children and the fact that his wife was expecting another in October. He revealed he had worked as a private investigator, but was more recently running a motoring website, and that he had a previous conviction for perjury.
Laughton claimed the state had no case against him and that he had neither the money nor the means to flee South Africa.
Interestingly, he disputed that the letter constituted a confession in terms of the country’s laws and said there was no corroborative evidence to back up the information it contained relating to Ketani’s abduction from hospital.
Laughton vowed not to interfere with witnesses and said his business would crash if he remained in custody. According to him, the trial would take years, not months, to reach its conclusion.
Next in line were the two policemen, brothers David and Carel Ranger.
Through their applications it emerged that one of them was now a security guard while the other had worked his way up through the police ranks, but had been suspended following his arrest. Between them, they have seven children.
Their stories are fairly similar. They claim to have helped transport Ketani from hospital, but allegedly dropped her off at a bus station without harming her in any way. They say there was no sign of a kidnapping (they didn’t notice “anything strange”) and at no stage dressed up in doctor’s uniforms or faked medical certificates.
This was a response to a version contained in the Laughton letter, which chronicles a failed hit on Ketani, followed by her abduction from a Vereeniging hospital. She was then allegedly killed and buried in a shallow grave of concrete and later dumped at another site.
Carel goes a little further to say that during his time as an officer he raided several addresses based on tip-offs about illegal immigrants. He says it’s not inconceivable that he may have detained the man who’s accused him of kidnapping and torturing him during two separate abductions.
The man accuses the gang of smashing down his door and driving him to a small place in the veld, which he calls the “killing place”. He describes being beaten and told to pray for one last time unless he was willing to lead his attackers to Ketani and others.
Carel says he remembers driving a man to fetch his ID book and nothing else. He said he suffers from high blood pressure and can’t await his trial in custody, while David told the court one of his children is autistic and requires special care.
While Laughton and the Ranger brothers will have to wait to hear whether they’ll be granted their freedom, the court did release two of the accused.
Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reynecke were given bail of R20,000 each and snuck out of court while the other bail applications were being heard.
They’ll have to report to a police station three times a week and will only be allowed to travel with permission from investigators. But they’ll still be celebrating as the state has downgraded the charges against them significantly.
Initially, the six men were charged for acting in “common purpose” under schedule 6 of the criminal procedure act. But prosecutors seem no longer to believe – or have no evidence to prove – that Reynecke and Toft-Nielsen had anything to do with the murder. Their involvement came later, presumably to help move the body (which Reynecke has so far denied).
Toft-Nielsen has also given a confession in front of a magistrate in which he says that he regrets getting involved with “these people”.
There’s no indication yet whether the state will strike deals with some of the accused, or if it will rely on its own evidence.
While opposing bail, prosecutors read the confession letter into the record, along with a lengthy affidavit by one of the investigating officers. A plea from Tendani’s brother Ronnie, in which he describes the pain of spending 13 years wondering if she was alive, was contained in an affidavit. Ronnie says the accused have shown no remorse and have failed to come forward to seek redemption.
But what’s haunted Tendani’s family the most is why she was killed. The police statement offers their version:
“The deceased went missing during the month of May, 1999, whilst employed at Cranks Restaurant (in Rosebank). One of the outstanding suspects’ father is the owner of (the) restaurant…
“The accused operated as a gang, sought out and killed the deceased to silence (her) with regard to an alleged CCMA claim lodged against the restaurant.”
The restaurant has apparently closed down but its owner has not been arrested.
So many questions remain: Could this really be the motive or was there something deeper? What is the real story behind the owner’s daughter, identified as Monique Lemkes in the confession letter, and where is she now? Will there be more arrests before the trial? Will the syndicate be linked to other crimes? And most importantly, of all the versions now before court, who’s telling the truth?
The case is due to resume on Wednesday, when the state will finish challenging the bail applications of Laughton and the brothers. A judgment will then be handed down and the matter will roll over to mid-August.
Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEliseev
This column first appeared in The Daily Maverick.