Johannesburg – Thirty years ago, the last of Gert van Rooyen’s six known victims disappeared.
On November 3, 1989, 13-year-old Yolanda Wessels, the niece of Van Rooyen’s partner Joey Haarhoff, was last seen and since then the police and armchair sleuths have tried to establish what happened to Wessels and the other five girls.
It has become perhaps South Africa’s most famous cold case and now, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the case, an unusual initiative has been launched to put pressure on the police to find the girls.
An online petition has called on Police Minister Bheki Cele to appoint a new investigating officer to probe the case.
“We demand that the parents get answers. Many people have fractured information and it is time that we get an investigating officer who can put these puzzle pieces together and give these ageing parents peace of mind,” the petition reads.
The petition was started on January2 on the website Petitions24, and by Thursday 629 people had signed it.
And while the petition hasn’t garnered a lot of support as yet, criminologist Professor Rudolph Zinn of Unisa believes it could have an influence in the case.
“What it should achieve at least is for the commissioner to look into the merits of what people are saying, to find out if this investigator is not doing what he was supposed to do, if he is not giving feedback to the families, and if found to be reasonable, then he can change the investigator. That is fairly normal practice in the police,” said Zinn.
The creator of the petition said she planned to send it to Cele once there were enough signatures.
She did not say how many signatures needed to be collected before the decision would be made to forward the petition.
Zinn added that while the SAPS did not have dedicated cold case investigative units, as in some other countries, the procedure was for older cases to be reviewed periodically.
“A murder case that is not solved remains open forever. These open cases are supposed to be brought forward, and this is usually done on a year basis, but in practice it is a three- to five-year period. The investigator will then look at the case docket again and follow up new leads,” said Zinn.
Van Rooyen is believed to have abducted the girls between August 1, 1988 and November 3, 1989. The builder is believed to have used Haarhoff to approach the girls.
On January11, 1990 Haarhoff abducted 16-year-old Joan Booysen and took her to Van Rooyen’s house in Pretoria. Booysen was later able to escape and alert the police, and when Van Rooyen discovered Booysen had escaped he shot and killed Haarhoff and then killed himself.
Since then the search has focused on finding where Van Rooyen dumped the bodies of his victims. In June 2017, SAPS forensic investigators excavated a number of sites around Blythedale Beach, north of Durban, as it was suspected that the victims were buried there. Van Rooyen was known to have spent his final holiday close by.
As decades pass, the chances of locating the girls grow slimmer. But some believe there is still hope that the case can be solved. A private investigator who has solved cold cases believes old-fashioned detective work could point to where the girls are.
“You have to start from scratch. You'd start with getting the dockets, getting the statements taken back then. You'd build up a timeline and organogram on each child,” said the PI, who wanted to remain anonymous.
He said the investigation would include detailed examinations of the lives of Van Rooyen and Haarhoff.
“Van Rooyen was a builder, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to (determine) where to start with the investigation. Those girls have to be somewhere.”