Trial to Resume in British Couple’s Brutal Murder

Trial
Trial
Courtesy of Margaret E Parker (Wikimedia CC0)

The trial of a British couple’s alleged killers could resume on Oct. 25, 2022. Botanists Rachel and Rodney (Rod) Saunders’ lives ended while searching for rare seeds in South Africa four years ago. Suspects Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, and his wife, Fatima Bibi Patel, 28, appeared in a Durban court on October 4. Trial prosecutors also charged a third person, Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, with the Saunders’ kidnapping, robbery, and murder.

Prosecutors told the Durbin High Court: “Around Feb. 10, [2018] the investigating officer received information that [the couple] from Cape Town had been kidnapped in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region,” according to the Daily Mail.

Judge Sharmane Balton recused herself in the Saunders murder trial due to a conflict of interest. The National Prosecutor’s Association (NPA) told everyone involved the judge stepped down from the case after learning she had previously dealt with a related case.

The court set aside the case to allow time to appoint another judge. Durbin High Court plans to restart the trial on the last Tuesday in August.

Events Leading to Couple’s Murder Trial

The Saunders met with the film crew of BBC’s “Gardner’s World” in the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal in February 2018. The couple searched for rare gladioli during the filming. The TV series segment was part of the botanists’ annual six-month trip to secure stock (seeds) for their Cape Town-based worldwide mail-order business, Silverhill Seeds and Books.

Nick Bailey posed with the Saunders, who had been married 30 during the BBC interview. He later posted it on Twitter.

Trial
Courtesy of Bernard Spragg (Flickr PDM)

Authorities believe the photo is the last one of the Saunders alive. The botanists headed off to camp at a dam near the Ngoye Forest Reserve after finishing filming the “Gardner’s World” segment.

A Silverhill Seeds employee said they contacted the company on February 8. Additionally, the trial attendees learned no one had heard from the couple again.

They learned that the botanists’ company raised the alarm two days later.

Prosecutors told the court the accused savagely beat and brutally murdered Rachel and Rodney Saunders sometime between February 10 and 15. The Daily Mail reported Del Vecchio, his wife, and their then-roommate targeted the British botanists. The accused placed the murdered couple’s bodies into sleeping bags and fed them to the crocodiles in the river.

Fishermen recovered their partially eaten and badly decomposed unrecognizable bodies. Trial lawyers said police ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be DNA tested after not finding any trace of the British couple. The lab finally identified the Saunders several months later using DNA tests.

Official reports reveal that the local fishermen spotted remnants of the botanists’ sleeping bags in crocodiles’ teeth months after recovering the victims’ bodies.

About the Suspects

Trial
Courtesy of Azimbek Assarov (Unsplash)

Police initially arrested four suspects. Trial lawyers said the fourth person purchased the murdered botanists’ phones. However, the court suspended the sentence since they returned the vital evidence and were not involved in the kidnapping and killing.

Authorities arrested Del Vecchio and Patel at their home in Endlovini on February 15 after investigators traced a link to their cell phones from the victims. Detectives arrested their roommate, Jackson, a month later.

Investigators discovered WhatsApp and Telegram messages on the defendants’ phones, which added an unexpected twist to the murders. Messages posted on February 9 revealed the suspects’ preparation.

The Times reported the suspects discussed getting ready to “kill the kuffar [non-believer] and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and to put fear in the heart of the kuffar.” They also referred to the Saunders as prey. Moreover, the accused murderers believed the couple “were ripe for a good ‘hunt.'”

ISIS Ties Not Submitted During Trial…Yet

During their arrests, detectives found Islamic State terrorist group pamphlets and an ISIS flag at the defendants’ home.

However, prosecutors have not submitted charges about the suspects’ links to Islamic State. Del Vecchio, an Islamic convert, and Patel, the daughter of a Muslim cleric, were added to the South African security force’s watchlist after their arrests.

Del Vecchio, Patel, and Jackson deny charges of kidnapping, murder, robbery, and theft.

Written by Cathy Milne-Ware

Sources:

Silverhill Seeds and Books: Meet the Team
Independent Online (IOL): Judge recuses herself in Saunders murder trial; by Jolene Marriah-Maharaj
The Times: Globe-trotting botanists beaten to death and fed to crocodiles; by Jane Flanagan and Richard Assheton
Daily Mail: ISIS link of ‘killers who murdered British couple and fed them to crocodiles’: Suspects accused of South Africa horror ‘had Islamic State leaflets’ and texted about ‘killing the kuffar;’ by Chris Jewers and Jamie Pyatt
Independent: British couple murdered in South Africa before being thrown to crocodiles; by Eleanor Sly

Featured and Top Image by Margaret E Parker Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Bernard Spragg’s Flickr Page – Public Domain License
Second Inset Image by Azimbek Assarov Courtesy of Unsplash

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