Henri van Breda has left Kelly Phelps baffled. The University of Cape Town senior lecturer in the department of public law has been following the trial of the axe murderer with interest. But what remains a mystery to her has been the inability of the state and defence to prove Van Breda’s motive.
Why did he try to wipe out his entire family and attempt to kill his sister, Marli, on that fateful Wednesday of January 27, 2015 – the day Martin van Breda, wife Teresa and son Rudi were found axed to death?
Yesterday, Judge Siraj Desai sentenced Van Breda to three life terms, 15 years’ imprisonment for attempted murder and 12 months’ imprisonment for obstructing the course of justice. The sentences will run concurrently.
He was also declared unfit to possess a firearm.
“Throughout the trial, Henri has maintained his innocence and the judge has emphasised that there has been no evidence of motive – something which has left me numb,” said Phelps.
With suggested motives having ranged from money to drugs “these have merely remained rumours and speculation”.
Phelps said it was highly unlikely that “if you plan the demise of your family for financial gain, you use an axe to kill them”.
“It is unlikely that you can plan killing them in such a brutal and grotesque manner and put yourself at the centre of the murder,” said Phelps, who has followed several South African family killings in the past.
“It has been very hard to read Henri’s demeanour in this trial as there were times he was sedated, sometimes nervous and uneasy.
“Failure to establish the motive has proven to be the weakest case for the state. We should remember no one else was present at the time except Henri. Perhaps his sister, Marli, will speak one day.”
Phelps found it “hard to understand how a young man in his 20s, brought up so well in such a nuclear family” could “commit such a heinous act”.
“There has been no evidence of psychopathy or antisocial behaviour,” said Phelps. “No person can find it so easy to sleep at night after axing to death your maternal parents and brother. This has been one of the most brutal cases I have seen – the killing of your most intimate family in this fashion.”
For Gauteng clinical psychologist Lynette le Roux, who specialises in psycho-legal and forensic work, the murder trial posed more questions than answers.
Le Roux said: “There are very tough questions to be asked and there is not one answer because this is an extreme case. First, it would be important to establish the history with his parents, brother and sister.
“Also establishing a history of aggressiveness towards other people would be vital.
“Has he had difficulty in relationships with other people? Is there history of coming into conflict with the law? Was there substance or alcohol abuse?
“Understanding past history from childhood would also be important. Did he ever abuse animals? Is there a personality dynamic that made him behave in this manner? Using an axe to kill is very violent and it begs the question: what made him so angry?”
Other family murders:
The Van Breda murder case has served as a chilling reminder of the growing level of family violence in South Africa. Some brutal murders include:
- Margaret Rheeder, from Port Elizabeth, who poisoned her husband in April 1957.
- The death of four-year-old Jandre Botha, who was murdered because he refused to call his mother’s lesbian lover “daddy.” Hanelie Botha (Jandre’s mother) and her partner, Engeline de Nysscen, were found guilty.
- Sandile Mantsoe, who was sentenced after murdering and burning the remains of his girlfriend Karabo Mokoena.
- Christopher Panayiotou, who was sentenced to life for the murder of his wife, Jayde.
- Diego Novella of Guatemala, who murdered his American girlfriend Gabriela Kabrins Alban in July 2015.
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