ALEX ELISEEV: Ex-wife steps in Ketani murder case
More twists and turns in the latest instalment of this real-life crime thriller.
The alleged author of the confession letter in the Betty Ketani murder case and two policemen brothers were back in court on Thursday, applying to be released on bail.
State prosecutors revealed that the mystery witness who derailed the bail application more than a week ago was in fact the ex-wife of Carrington Laughton, the man believed to have written the confession.
We know that the woman – identified only as Jayne – stepped forward after seeing media reports of the case, approaching the legal team through a lawyer. She says she was terrified, but felt it was her civic duty to help the prosecution.
Jayne’s appearance changed the game because the state now had a witness willing to confirm that the handwriting in the letter belonged to Laughton.
He’s denied the letter’s authenticity and says it will form a major part of the trial.
The letter was found earlier this year hidden beneath a carpet at a house in Kenilworth, in southern Johannesburg. It was unearthed 13 years after Ketani – a mother-of-three who worked at Cranks restaurant in Rosebank – was abducted, killed and burried in a shallow grave of concrete. Five years later, the concrete was allegedly broken up and dumped elsewhere.
The letter was exceptionally detailed, giving names of those abducted and tortured, dates and names of those who allegedly committed the crimes. It was peppered with identity and telephone numbers, makes of cars and directions to places where certain pieces of evidence lay waiting.
One of the paragraphs mentioned a batch of photographs meant to show how members of the gang had double-crossed each other, with doctored images of victims who were meant to have been killed, but were in fact alive.
Jayne claims Laughton had given her these photographs as an “insurance policy”, asking her to keep them safe. She hid them at a safe at her parents’ house and never thought about them again until this year. After the arrests, she retrieved them and handed them over to the police.
The trial should reveal more about these photographs, but what we do know is that the woman depicted in them worked with Ketani at the restaurant. Police believe her face was superimposed onto the body of a handcuffed and wounded woman to create the impression that she had been injured or killed.
The woman, Ruth Mncube, has been tracked down and interviewed, and confirmed she never posed for the photographs. Laughton’s letter further confirms she had never been captured.
While the photographs remain mysterious, they have proved to be an important piece of the puzzle. The state says they offer further proof that the letter is genuine and the details it contains are real.
Prosecutor Namika Kowlas argues these details are pieces of a mosaic, which have come together to reveal a grisly picture of a gang willing to do anything to keep Ketani’s murder a secret.
While defence teams argue the letter’s authenticity is yet to be determined, the state questions how this could be, when every name, every car make, every firearm mentioned checks out.
Kowlas has also told the court the men should remain in custody because witnesses are frightened and evidence in the case could be destroyed.
In her statement, Jayne states she fears for her life, especially now that she has turned to the police. In 2007, she took out a protection order against her husband, forbidding him to visit her home or workplace.
Those who claim to have been abducted and tortured by the gang in 1999 have also given statements to say they live in fear. Ndaba Bhebe speaks about how the gang visited him at his Hillbrow flat and told him they knew he had opened a police case against them. He says he was told that should it get to court, he would be killed. He was also told that the gang had people out in the streets watching his every move.
“I felt really scared of these people,” he says in a statement. “I moved (out of the) flat I was staying in due to the threats and was scared for my life”.
But the most surprising claim comes from one of Laughton’s co-accused, Paul Toft-Nielsen. He was one of the two men released on bail (the remaining one – Conway Brown – has abandoned his application) and made a tearful confession to a magistrate about his role in the crime. He claims to have helped dispose of the body several years after the murder.
Toft-Nielsen says that a day before he was released on bail, he received a threat from Laughton, with whom he was sharing a prison cell. He says he was warned that he would live to regret helping the police find Ketani’s body.
“He told me that there is no evidence against him and if we show the police where the remains and concrete blocks were disposed of, the police may find enough evidence to convict him of murder,” Toft Nielsen said. “I have seen what he is capable of and thus feel the threats should not be taken lightly.”
Laughton denies this, saying that Toft-Nielsen is living in a “dream world”. He says the two had been friends for 30 years and questions whether his accuser has an ulterior motive (read: buying favour with the state in order to reach a plea bargain).
Alone, this warning from Toft-Nielsen may not have carried much weight, considering he’s an accused and his credibility is in question. But seen together with the statements of other victims, as well as the ex-wife, Laughton’s prospects of receiving bail grow slimmer.
Remember, the evidence of Glenn Agliotti’s ex-wife sank that corrupt former police chief, Jackie Selebi.
Laughton argues the two had a lengthy divorce and had never had any problems since. But Jayne’s safety will be a priority for the court. As will Laughton’s background as a private investigator, which gives him intimate knowledge of how an investigation works. The fact that he had five firearms (four of which have been seized) and a previous conviction for perjury, probably don’t help matters.
Most importantly, he’s applying for bail under schedule 6 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which means he has to show exceptional circumstances to be set free. Typically, this involves an accused who is extremely sick or is able to smash the state’s case and prove its weakness.
As for the two policemen brothers, Carel and David Ranger, they claim to have played open cards with the court in terms of helping transport Ketani from a Vereeniging hospital. They deny having any knowledge of the murder, or suspecting that the woman was being kidnapped. They also argue there is no evidence linking them to the killing and that the charges they face (abduction) are less severe than those faced by the two accused who have already been released on bail.
The state disputes this, saying that clearly the two of them knew what they were doing and that their admissions are not the whole truth. With both having served as policemen, it’s argued, they too would be in a position to hamper the investigation.
Finally, the state has also told the court that police require months to wrap up the investigations and that at least another four suspects are being sought.
Detectives believe the motive for the murder lies somewhere in a wage dispute Ketani was having with Cranks restaurant, which closed down just a few weeks ago. Police say her murder was meant to “silence her” and stop her from going to the CCMA.
While this seems like hardly a reason to kill someone, perhaps she threatened to blow the lid on something bigger? Whatever the truth is, the police have a lot of work to do and a lot of evidence to gather. Those who ordered the hit – or arranged it – must be captured and prosecuted.
Forensic tests also continue to determine whether any bodies found at a specific site in Booysens in 2004 can be linked through DNA to Ketani. The defence argues that without a body the case is weak, but the state points to the murder trial of policewoman Francis Rasuge, who’s killer was jailed without her body being found (it was subsequently unearthed).
The Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court is due to give judgment in the bail hearing on June 29.
Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEliseev
This column first appeared in The Daily Maverick.