My hunt for tragic ghosts

You Magazine, August 09, 2007

By Susan Purén

FOR almost two decades there have been more questions than answers about the disappear­ance of six young girls in Gauteng in the late '80s. Now at last there has been a breakthrough in the mystery that has become known as the Gert van Rooyen saga.

The girls seemed to have vanished into thin air and po­lice tried in vain to track down Tracey-Lee Scott-Crossley (13), Fiona Harvey (11), Joan Horn (13), Anne-Marie Wapenaar (12), Odette Boucher (12) and Yolanda Wessels (12).

Today there's little doubt Van Rooyen, a convicted sex offender, and his partner, Joey Haarhoff, abducted the teenagers. But what did they do with them?

The couple took their gruesome secrets to the grave. As police closed in on them in 1990 Van Rooyen first shot Haarhoff, then himself. Investigators demolished his Capital Park, Pretoria, home in 1996 in the hope it would yield clues but emerged empty­handed.

Since then the case has popped up in the news from time to time but has remained unsolved. Then at the end of July, Carte Blanche had viewers glued to their TV sets with a gripping programme in which Bloemfon­tein inventor Danie Krugel and Joburg clairvoyant Marietta Theunissen joined forces with Carte Blanche producer Susan PurEn to find answers.

Danie and Marietta believe they've tracked the girls' remains to a deserted area within six city blocks of Van Rooyen's house. Danie says he used hair samples from some of the girls and one of his inventions to find the remains. Marietta says she has communicated with the girls in the spirit world. Archaeologists from the University of Pretoria, working in the area Danie and Marietta pointed out, excavated bones which they sent for DNA testing. Carte Blanche has now asked the police to continue investigations in the hope they'll do further excavatations in the large area the team couldn't cover in a week.

Here is Susan Puren's account of her two-year search for answers.

IT'S the phone call I've been waiting for weeks - no, make that years. It finally comes on Wednesday 11 October 2006.

"I've found them," he says. "They're lying side by side in Capital Park!"

I'm a veteran journalist but I'm overwhelmed nevertheless. Tears run down my cheeks and my heart pounds as I drive into Pretoria. "Drive west down Malherbe Street and turn right into Behrens," he directs. "They're lying under the reeds."

I can visualise the spot because I know Pretoria – the low bridge that looks threatened when the Apies River rises in flood. Near the place where Gert van Rooyen shot himself and Joey Haarhoff:

IN the early winter of 2005 cameraman Ferdinand Kapp and I travel from Bloemfontein to De Aar to film a programme for Carte Blanche.

On the way back Kappie mentions in passing a Bloem­fontein man who is said to have developed a revolutionary device that uses hair samples to trace missing people.

Suddenly I don't feel tired from the long journey any more. It sounds impossible but Kappie is per­suasive. A few days later I call Danie Krugel in Bloem­fontein but he's media-shy.

"I'm not ready yet," he says. "We're still testing."

Kappie has told me of Danie's suc­cesses - that he has tracked down sev­eral runaway kids using hair samples taken from their beds. Shaving stubble on a razorblade was enough to nail a killer. Hair on a headscarf helped track down a missing domestic worker in a hospital hundreds of kilometres away where she lay desperately ill.

The method is vague and Danie won't elaborate. All I know is his device works on the principle that there is communication between components of an object.

My media colleagues are sceptical. "Impossible," they snigger.

But the possibilities continue to intrigue me - which is how my partnership begins with Danie Krugel, director of secu­rity at the Technical University of the Free State and a former police colonel.

I tell him about my interest in the Gert van Rooyen case. When the police demolished his home in 1996 to search for clues I was with the SABC and our team of reporters virtually camped in front of the Mal­herbe Street house.

The neighbours got to know us so well they'd call out our first names and send over sand­wiches and tea.

I tell Danie about Van Rooy­en's sons, Flippie and Gerhard, both now in jail, and we dis­cuss the theories about the case: Satanism, child-traffick­ing, prostitution, corruption, political involvement and the possibility that Van Rooyen hadn't committed suicide but had been shot by police.

We chat about the private investigators, the psychics, the crazies, the attention-seekers and the liars. About the way people have kept coming back to the case over the years, probably because we all struggle to accept that six children can vanish without trace.

I also tell him about Kobie Wapenaar, the mother of one of the girls with whom I've kept in touch. Like the others she hasn't stopped hoping her daughter, Anne-Marie, would one day be found.

In the end Danie and I decide we're going to make a concerted effort to try to solve the case.

The first person I call is Kobie, who still lives and works in Kempton Park where her daughte disappeared. I tell her about Danie's successes.

"You don't by any chance have a lock of Anne-Marie's hair?" I ask.

"Yes I do," she says.

"Come fetch it whenever you want."

DANIE meanwhile starts having excellent results with bones too and in mid-2006 he's finally ready to talk about his invention. We prepare to do a TV show on him.

The lock of Anne-Marie's hair, which I collect from Ko­bie's workplace, is attached by a pink ribbon to a card with a verse on it. I feel uncomforta­ble as I remove a few hairs with tweezers. I wrap them in a sheet of paper for the trip to Bloemfontein.

I meet Danie face to face for the first time on a cold winter morning in his office at the university The cameraman is Ferdinand Kapp, who told me about Danie's device a year ago.

We do various tests and cap­ture everything on video. Then we remove a hair sample from Kappie and I take him aside and ask him to hide in the cemetery.

Danie analyses the hair and does his calculations. Within 20 minutes he points out on an aerial map of Bloemfonteinprecisely where among the hundreds of graves Kappie is hiding.

"Just next to the Jewish sec­tion under those shrubs," he says. He's spot on. It's impres­sive but Kappie and Danie know each other and you can't be sure they're not in cahoots.

The next experiment takes us to a hill on the city's outskirts where we hide a can of oil in the bush. Danie, who'd earlier taken a sample of the oil, waits in his bakkie 6 km away: Fif­teen minutes later he gives us the GPS coordinates of the hidden oil.

There's a discrepancy of a few hundred metres in the reading but Danie is neverthe­less delighted because it's the first time he has been able to find oil over such a long distance.

Suddenly it hits me how sig­nificant this invention could be for Danie, the country and society in general.

The next day we drive to old diamond diggings on a farm. The piles of sifted sand have been lying here for a centuryand are covered with grass and bush. A new generation of fortune-seekers are now crush­ing the gravel in the hope of finding diamonds missed by diggers long ago and Danie has pointed out places where the ground should be worked further.

Over a three-month period more than 300 carats of good­quality diamonds have been recovered using his equipment, he says.

We don't get around to ex­perimenting with Anne-Marie's hair sample. Danie says he wants to do the tests without pressure. The girls have been missing since 1988 and '89, after all.

He calls a week later and asks if I left some of Anne-Marie's hair behind in Kempton Park.

His equipment has picked this up.

The following Sun­day Kobie Wapenaar and her son, Albert, bring the rest of the hair to Pretoria and it's passed on to Danie.

Two days later he reports, "It's a weak signal andd it's indicat­ing a Pretoria direction. We need to make sure - get me the hair of another child," he says.

I obtain Yolanda Wessels' thick brown plait - cut off shortly before she disappeared. It still smells of shampoo.

I immediately send it to Bloemfontein.

The next day an excited Danie calls. "The signal is so strong I almost think the person whose hair it is could be alive," he says. "This signals straight to Pretoria."

The signal and read­ing must be refined and Danie will have to go to Pretoria with his equipment to do this.

ON the morning of 11 October he sets off for Pretoria and by four in the afternoon my cellphone rings. He has found them.

He gives me directions and

I meet him at the last houses in the cul-de-sac. He's waiting for me and looks a bit dazed. He's clearly upset.

Aroundd us builders' bulldoz­ers and trucks rumble back and forth - the area on the out­skirts of Capital Park is being developed. We walk through clouds of dust to the thick clump of reeds.

Danie stops. "This is where I get a signal for Anne-Marie and there's one there for Yolanda," he says, sounding emotional. He points to trees on the edge of a dry pan.

I'll never forget that moment.

It can't be coincidence - the pan is less than 2 km from Van Rooyen's home. In the distance you can hear the hum of the city but here behind the clump of reeds it's eerily quiet and we're completely alone except for the occasional train going past every five or 10 minutes

The pan is surrounded by an earth wall. The area is strewn with builder's rubble. The near­est houses are 200 m away. To the west is the road where Gert and Joey died. It's a bleak scene, a horrible place where you don't want to linger.

I immediately call the office and soon the area is being filmed for Carte Blanche. A tense Danie alternately paces up and down or stands with his hands on his hips.

He talks haltingly but the camera is rolling.

"What went through their heads," he mumbles. "The guy was such a monster. .."

A few days later we decide to start digging. We're soon joined by a team of archaeologists from the University of Pretoria and on 31 October they start stripping the reeds.

"If they're here we'll find their bodies," team leader Professor Maryna Steyn says.

Transnet, which owns the land, has given us seven days to do excavations but doesn't know what we're looking for. Neighbours watch us come and go but don't ask questions.

It's dusty work in the hot November sun but we press on. By day two it's obvious we've tackled a near impossible task. We work systematically, sifting the soil, but in vain - we don't find what we're looking for.

We find animal bones with saw marks scattered on the ground. Someone has obvious­ly had braais or picnics here. Everything is packed into bags for classification.

By the end of day three it's clear a week is much too short to dig up the entire area. Danie is unable to narrow down thesearch area and we decide to call in psychic Marietta Theunissen.

We meet in a Johannesburg coffee shop - and we're in for a shock. Before we say a word she tells us exactly what we're doing and describes the area where we're digging.

"Here's the railway line, here's the river and there's a tree that sticks out," she says, draw­ing a map of the area. It's the tree Danie marked with a Y for Yolanda.

Mariette is unaware of Dame's existence but writes Yolanda's name next to the tree on her map.

After seven days of searching we leave the excavations with a few bags of bones. One small bone is sealed separately in a bag for further investigation because some team members think it could be from a human hand or foot.

DNA tests show they're right: the bone is of human origin but belongs to a man. The rest of the bones are sent to Cape Town for testing.

Months later I'm still think­ing about the other four girls.

I manage to get hair samples of two of them - Joan Horn and Fiona Harvey. Danie tests these and the results point to the same spot.

The tests take six months to complete but the results exceed all our expectations. The DNA of six people, four men and two women, is identified.

But then comes the letdown: the DNA in the bones cannot be compared with that of the girls as it's too degraded.

"Those are the results for now," says Dr Munro Marx, managing director of the Cape Town test laboratory. "But we'll carry on testing in the hope of finding more conclusive results."

Meanwhile we're waiting with bated breath. And six mothers relive their agony.