An affidavit in the alleged kidnapping case of missing Cape-based botanists, Rodney and Rachel Saunders, reveals chilling details of an alleged premeditated murder plot and collusion in disposing of their bodies.
While the couple has yet to be found, this is the first indication that the dual South African-British passport holders may no longer be alive, although technically they are still considered missing by South African authorities.
Sayefudeen Del Vecchio, 37, and Fatima Patel, 27, who are married under traditional Islamic law, and 19-year-old Thembamandla Xulu – who lived with the couple – have been charged with the alleged kidnapping, assault and robbery of the Saunders, who were last heard from on February 8.
Del Vecchio and Patel, who were arrested on February 15, at their homestead near Mtunzini just 130km north of Durban, are also facing terrorism charges. Xulu was arrested on February 26.
The trio appeared in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday for a formal bail application.
An affidavit filed by investigative officer, Detective Warrant Officer Anuresh Lutchman, who is based in the Crimes Against the State Unit within the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (known as the Hawks), shows he opposed bail on several grounds.
These included claims that it was in “the interests of justice…and international peace and security” as well as concerns that the accused would “interfere with investigations” into the whereabouts of the “missing couple [who] have not yet been found” or alert others being sought by the police.
Giving an insight into the State’s case, Lutchman said multiple chat room conversations on encrypted messaging services would form part of the evidence.
“On 9 February 2018 there [were] discussions of preparing to kill the kuffar [non-believer] and abduct their allies, to destroy infrastructure and to put the fear in the heart of the kuffar,” said Lutchman’s affidavit.
“On 10 February 2018, [Del Vecchio] mentioned to [Patel] and Bazooka (the nickname of the man still being sought by the police) that there is an elderly couple in the forest, that it is a “good hunt” and that they had equipment. The conversation continued between the accused in a similar manner and later [Del Vecchio] confirmed that he has the target.”
Lutchman goes on to say that on February 10, in an unrelated discussion, [Del Vecchio] gave guidance in the following manner by mentioning in a discussion: “When the brothers in Kenya go out and do this work it is very important that the body of the victim is never found and it remains a missing person case”.
Two days later, Del Vechhio confirmed in a chat on Telegram, an encrypted chat application used on smartphones, that he was taking “a lot of cash from the ATM”, according to the affidavit. The State is alleging that Del Vecchio and Patel drew hundreds of thousands from the account of Rachel Saunders.
Lutchman’s affidavit also describes how he found a flag at the premises of Patel and Del Vecchio’s homestead that was “consistent with the flags that are used by [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State] ISIS to show support and membership of the terrorist organisation”.
Other items found included a drone, camping equipment, two generators and paintball equipment, amongst others, all purchased with Rachel’s bank card.
“A GPS device belonging to Rachel and Rodney Saunders was also found during the search of the premises. The serial number on the device confirmed that it was indeed the property of…the Saunders”.
“After an extensive search and rescue operation that was launched in the Ngoye forest area, the Toyota Land Cruiser that belonged to Rachel and Rodney Saunders was recovered on 18 February in the Verulam area. A forensic examination conducted on the vehicle indicated that there was human blood inside the cargo area of the vehicle.”
Ngoye Forest is in Zululand and is a globally recognised destination for botanists and bird enthusiasts.
Del Veccchio was also advising someone via Telegram on bomb making, according to Lutchman’s affidavit, where he quoted Del Veccchio as saying: “But bombs are easy akhi (brother) just use fireworks powder and close it in a metal [c]ontainer and you have a good bomb”.
A “MujGuide” was also recovered on a digital device owned by Del Vecchio.
“This manual provides highly relevant detail on how to carry out terrorist attack, including bomb making,” read the affidavit.
According to Lutchman, Xulu was found with two cellphones in his possession, with his sim cards inside the phones. The phones belong to the Saunders.
“Accused 3 [Xulu] failed [to] reasonably explain how he came into possession of the two cellphones and was subsequently arrested,” Lutchman said.
The specialist investigator said the terrorism charges also relate to information that a “bearded male on a quad bike was frequenting the Radars at King Shaka International Airport”. The bearded male was later identified as Del Vecchio while Patel is accused of helping a 15-year old teenager “to join ISIL in April 2015”.
“[Patel] also had contact with Tony Lee and Brandon-Lee Thulsie (Thulsie Twins) who were arrested in Johannesburg in July 2016 for terrorism offences,” read the affidavit.
Advocate Jay Naidoo, for Del Vecchio and Patel, did not put in a formal bail application, while judgement in Xulu’s application was reserved.