'Prophet' flees after bizarre cave deaths
Cops scour vast Magaliesburg cave network amid fears the bodies of other church members will be found
For nearly a month a self-proclaimed prophet – now a wanted murder suspect – has hidden out in a cave outside Pretoria with the bodies of what is believed to be two congregants of the Zion Christan Church.
Police recovered the badly decomposed bodies on Tuesday, folded around each other, from a tunnel linking a series of caves in the Hennops River Valley, near Erasmia. By Tuesday afternoon the rescue team predicted it would take eight more hours to retrieve the remains. They began the recovery process late on Monday.
The discoveries came as police search-and-rescue members followed up on information that there might be other ZCC members, who apparently disappeared while performing religious ceremonies, at the cave.
The caves, which are a natural heritage site, are among dozens in the Magaliesburg mountain range, and are of religious importance to the church and its congregants.
Police have mounted a huge search for the so-called prophet and an accomplice, who are believed to be hiding in out in the extensive cave network, which stretches for kilometres.
For four months the prophet has allegedly terrorised the owners of a farm where the cave in which the bodies were found, is located.Police have been accused of refusing to help Tina Vanezis and her family, with officers telling her they don't deal with people who “meddle in magic”.
“It’s been impossible to get any assistance,” says Vanezis, who had to take firemen to the bodies on Tuesday because police officers would initially not enter the cave.
“For a long time we have had an arrangement with the ZCC members so that they could use our farm. We are religious ourselves and understand the importance and significance of certain places. We allowed the church members to come here and pray,” she said.
But, she said, four months ago a man – who claimed to be a prophet – moved into the cave.“He came with two other people, who he said were his assistants. He started living in the cave and damaging it with fire. We tried to get him to leave the cave, which the Gauteng government has declared a heritage site, but he refused. He would go crazy and threatened to kill us and slit our throats.
“He said this was Jehovah’s house, that the house belonged to God, that the only law was God and not the police and that no one could stop him. He told us the caves would allow him to connect with his ancestors and help him to help his fellow church members and that he would never leave.”
She said that three weeks ago police came to them with the families of two missing ZCC members, asking if they had seen them on their property.
“I told them to look in the caves. I told them again of the ‘prophet’ who was living there, but they didn’t go to the caves. I don’t know why, but if they had maybe they could have caught this man.”
But police spokesperson Captain Augustinah Selepe said police removed the man from the property last week. She said they would investigate the allegations that officers did not respond to previous calls for intervention.Vanezis said the cave network was extensive, with multiple rooms and tunnels that ran throughout the hills in the area.
She said that when police refused to help them they turned to local residents for assistance.
“But they would not go anywhere near the caves.”
They eventually received help from the fire brigade on Wednesday after they reported that there were fires being lit in the cave, she said.
Vanezis said that firemen, who were threatened by the man, summoned the police.
“The officers managed to get the man and one of his accomplices out of the cave. They told us they would take the prophet to Weskoppies hospital for observation. We however learnt they handed him over to community workers in Atteridgeville instead.
“We wanted to open trespassing charges, but the police would not help us to.”She said on Thursday the man was back, threatening them.
“We were terrified.”
Throughout the weekend they had seen smoke coming from the cave, but it had stopped on Monday: “We thought he had finally left. One of our workers and I went to the cave hoping to clean it up.”
It was while crawling in the dark through a 200m long tunnel, which links two caves, that the bodies were discovered. Vanezis said the caves were the size of a large school hall.
A police source said one of the bodies, both men, had a khaki ZCC jacket on, with a ZCC cap lying next to them.He said it was impossible to tell from the scene how the men had died.
Another police officer said they were following up on information that there were other bodies in the caves.
“We have heard reports that at least three other ZCC members have disappeared while praying in the area. We are focused now on getting these bodies out. Once done we will start the search for any others who may be in the caves. It’s going to be difficult because of how extensive these caves are. If there are more bodies they could be anywhere. These bodies were hundreds of metres into the hills.”ZCC spokesman Reverend Emmanuel Motollo said they had been in contact with the police about the discoveries.
“We are waiting for more information.”
He said that through their member registration list they would be able to establish whether any of those murdered, or the alleged prophet, were ZCC members.
“We do not just have random members. Every parish must register their members with our church’s headquarters in Moria.”
Motollo said all religious practices were governed by the church, with each ZCC centre having to follow the church’s rules.
Asked about a ZCC member possibly being behind the deaths, Motollo said: “We have 15-million members, you cannot expect them all to be perfect. Just because clothing that has been found is ZCC you cannot expect those people, including this man claiming to be a prophet, to be among our members. There are people who masquerade as ZCC members who try to bring our church into disrepute. There may be some members who are not of good standing.”
He said that, “hypothetically speaking”, it was possible that there were members from the Hennops River area who were not in good standing.Motollo criticised the police for not acting sooner.
“Why wait until someone is murdered to act? Surely if there were complaints laid the police should have gone to investigate.”
Police spokesperson Selepe said the causes of death are unknown: “Evidence has been recovered, including certain clothing items. We need forensic officers to complete their investigation before we know exactly what happened and who is responsible.”As soon as detectives had finished at the scene they would look into reports of other missing people from the area.
“The investigation has only just begun, and is fluid. The search-and-recovery operation is still going on.”
Selepe said that no arrests had been made yet.
“We are still looking for the ‘prophet’ and his accomplice for questioning in relation to the deaths.”