The trial against three suspects in the brutal murder of a Cape Town-based couple travelling in Zululand, resumed on Monday at the Durban High Court in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Respected botanists Rodney Charles Saunders (74) and his wife Rachel May Saunders (63) were killed near Eshowe, and their bodies thrown in a river to be eaten by crocodiles in February 2018.
The three accused – Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio (39) and his wife Bibi Fatima Patel (28) who lived in Zululand, and their lodger Mussa Ahmed Jackson (35) from Malawi – are facing charges of kidnapping, robbery, murder and theft. The court has been hearing how the ruthless gang pounced on the couple while they were searching a remote nature reserve for rare seeds which formed part of their business.
The trial is making international headlines as the pair used to travel the globe giving lectures on their passion and expertise on the Gladioli of South Africa, and were both British citizens. South African-born Rachel had received dual citizenship after marrying British-born Rod.
Cape Town-based Rod and Rachel Saunders spent six months a year scouring wild mountains and forests for sought-after stock for their thriving worldwide mail-order seeds business.
But while on their travels, they were targeted, kidnapped and beaten to death before being put in their sleeping bags and thrown into a river infested with crocodiles.
Their badly decomposed bodies had been eaten by river creatures when they were pulled out of the water by fishermen days later. They were unrecognisable as the missing couple and were deposited at mortuaries.
It was only months later – when police could find no trace of them that they ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be DNA tested – that Rod and Rachel were identified.
The full-scale hunt for the couple, who had vanished while collecting seeds, had already resulted in four arrests. The three suspects currently in court have denied the kidnapping, murder, robbery and theft charges.
The fourth suspect was found to have bought cell phones belonging to the Saunders, and was not involved in the kidnap and killing. In return for vital evidence, the suspect was given a suspended sentence.
The tragic couple were keen adventurers who set up a successful business in Cape Town selling seeds they found in remote areas to customers around the world, and the court was told of their last journey.
They left their home in Cape Town in their Toyota Land Cruiser on February 5, 2018, to keep a rendezvous in the Drakensberg Mountains in KZN with a BBC TV documentary film crew.
The internationally renowned botanists were interviewed by TV presenter Nick Bailey for an episode of Gardeners World as they searched the Drakensberg Mountain region for rare Gladioli flower seeds.
A selfie taken by Mr Bailey and posted on his Twitter account, as well as a photo taken by producer Robin Matthews during filming, were believed to be the last snaps taken of the couple alive.
After filming, expert horticulturist Rod and microbiologist wife Rachel, who had been married over 30 years, parted ways with the TV presenter and headed off to camp at a dam by a remote forest.
They were last in contact with an employee at their workplace Silverhill Seeds (which they ran from their home in Cape Town) on February, 8, just three days after they had set off to meet the BBC.
Dr Saunders and her husband Rod said they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve in Zululand, but were never heard from again; and on February 10 the alarm was raised.
The court was told: “Around February 10 the investigating officer received information that Rodney Saunders and his wife Dr Rachel Saunders from Cape Town had been kidnapped in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region.
“It was established on February 13 that the defendants were drawing money from various ATM’s which amounted to theft of R734,000 (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment.
“It is alleged that between February 10 and 15 at the Ngoye Forest the accused did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rachel Saunders and between the same dates did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rodney Sanders” it was said.
On February 15, 2018, Del Vecchio and his wife were both arrested at their home in Endlovini which is about 50km from the Ngoye forest where the Saunders vanished. The arrests followed Hawks, SA’s organised police crime-fighting unit, discovering a link between the cell phones belonging to Mr and Mrs Saunders and the cell phones of the suspects, and they applied for a search warrant.
It was said that a number of items which had been bought on Dr Saunders’s bank card were recovered including receipts in the handbag of Bibi Patel which corresponded with the date and time of the use of Dr Saunder’s bank card.
The court heard: “On March 23 the third accused Mussa Ahmad Jackson was arrested and he made a statement to the effect that he was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road.
“Del Vecchio in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove sleeping bags from the back of the Toyota and they threw them, with human bodies inside, into the river”.
The victim’s Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with a large amount of blood in the cargo area, which was later confirmed to be blood that belonged to one of the victim’s – Dr Rachel Saunders – the court heard.
Rachel’s body had been recovered from the Tugela on February 14 and Rod’s on February 17 by local fishermen, but both bodies – which were badly decomposed – were not initially linked to the missing persons inquiry.
Later on April 25, DNA checks in morgues finally showed one of the body’s in one mortuary as Rod’s and the other DNA check result, which was received on June 6, identified Rachel.
It is believed both died from being beaten to death with a blunt instrument after being kidnapped and robbed. They were then dropped off the bridge into a river for crocodiles to consume.
The indictment states that when the phones of all three suspects were analysed their communications had WhatsApp messages that led to fears the group were members of terrorist group ISIS.
One message, on February 9, 2018, discussed how they must “kill the kuffar (non-believer) and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and to put fear in the heart of the kuffar”.
On February 10 a message from Del Vecchio to his wife and their then lodger said there was an elderly couple in the forest and that it is a good “hunt” and he has the “target”.
Del Vecchio in a message to an unknown person allegedly said “when the brothers in kinya go out and do this work it is very important the body of the victims is never found. It remains a missing person case.”
When Rod and Rachel first met, he was a nursery manager at the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, and Rachel was a leading microbiologist at a nearby university.
Rachel was a keen collector of indigenous seeds and travelled to all corners of South Africa to find different types of Gladioli; and after they married Rod decided to quit his job to join her on her travels.
In 1995 the couple set up Silverhill Seeds named after their home in Silverhill Crescent, and built up a successful business working from home, employing staff to sell their seeds around the world.
The trial continues.
To use any of the text or photos, please contact Jamie Pyatt News Ltd.