'I didn't kill my wife ... I haven't even been able to grieve her death'
Murder accused Jason Rohde tells court how shame and guilt over his affair makes him sick to the stomach
A secret rendezvous with his mistress, dreams of his dead wife and more protestations of guilt and shame.
These were some of the key aspects of Jason Rohde’s evidence in his murder trial at the Cape Town High Court on Wednesday, 22 months after his wife Susan was found dead in the couple’s hotel bathroom at Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch.
Rohde’s time in the witness box, which began on Monday, will continue on Thursday after prosecutor Louis van Niekerk said he needed time to investigate a “crucial aspect” of the case.
Van Niekerk’s request for an adjournment followed his repeated questioning of Rohde about how the cord of a hair iron was wrapped around Susan's neck when he found her body.
Rohde has pleaded not guilty to murdering Susan on July 24, 2016, after a blazing row over his affair with Cape Town estate agent Jolene Alterskye. He says she committed suicide by hanging herself with the cord from a hook inside the bathroom door.
The state says Rohde strangled his wife and then covered up his crime by staging the suicide.
Cross-examined on Wednesday by Van Niekerk, Rohde said he had a secret meeting with Alterskye at the Lew Geffen International Realty Franchises conference they were both attending, and where he was sharing a hotel room with his wife.
He admitted that he deliberately kept his distance from Alterskye during the conference because he was worried about how Susan would react if she knew they were in contact.
In the midst of furtive texting, “on the Friday or the Saturday, Jolene and I met up briefly around the corner for 10 minutes; we said hello to each other”, Rohde told Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe.The Johannesburg father of three admitted that after rekindling his affair with Alterskye – it had briefly ended after Susan discovered the relationship that February – his plan was to live a double life. “I wanted to have it both ways, but leading up to Spier I had seriously started thinking about divorce as being the way forward,” he said.
“I had mentioned it to Susan ... but I had never taken concrete steps in the sense of going to see a divorce attorney or working out financially what the implications would be.”
He admitted that he raised the possibility of divorce in the couple’s daily rows. “But it was more out of an anger; it was to hurt her, to spite her. I knew that Susan wouldn’t want to hear the term and it would escalate the matter.”But Van Niekerk accused him of deliberately avoiding the ultimate confrontation that would end the marriage. “Susan was led to believe by you that you were working on the marriage. That was a complete lie,” he said.
“You stated that you don’t like confrontation, you shy away. You try and avoid things hoping that they are going to go away. That’s how you approach life in general.”
Rohde replied: “On emotional issues, yes. In business, I can confront things and sort them out.”
Van Niekerk: “You deceived her, you were lying all the time, you were covering up your tracks, you were ducking and diving. Confronted with an emotional issue like this, that’s your first and only way of coping.”
Rohde: “When you have an affair, the bottom line is you’ve got to be deceitful, otherwise it’s not an affair.”
Van Niekerk: “You wanted to continue that double life into that conference, and your uppermost thought was that you didn’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your colleagues.”
Rohde: “That’s partially correct. But I knew that by Susan coming [to the conference] it would put her under more stress than she already was, and that’s why I didn’t want her to come. I’m not denying the fact that I had a selfish motive, but I also didn’t want to hurt Susan more, as silly as that sounds. I didn’t want to rub it in her face.”Describing how he rekindled his relationship with Alterskye, while seeing marriage counsellor Carol Nader with Susan, Rohde said he started communicating with his mistress by phone.
“When I next went down to Cape Town, I saw her physically. I don’t know if I slept over with her, but I would have had a physical encounter with her I’m sure. I’m 99% sure I would have.”
Pressed by Van Niekerk on whether he had sex with Alterskye, he said: “I would have had intercourse with her, absolutely correct.”
But since Susan’s death, the affair had ended. “I haven’t resumed that relationship. I am not seeing her. She messaged me to ask how I was but other than that I’m not seeing her,” said Rohde.
He confirmed that the elder of the couple’s twins — a girl her referred to as their “middle daughter” — had discovered a letter that her mother had sent to Alterskye.
“Our kids are always on our cellphones, and when I received the letter to Jolene, my middle daughter was always looking through the photographs and had come across that letter from Jolene,” said Rohde.
“I was devastated that she would read that. We discussed it with Carol Nader, and because Susan and I were communicating with each other on WhatsApp a lot, we agreed that we would always delete communications between the two of us.
“Susan had a discussion with our middle daughter about that. I only learnt after the fact. The way Susan explained it was that she had told her that we were having some difficulties but we’re going to try and work it out. It must have upset her greatly.”Van Niekerk questioned Rohde about the couple’s final row, hours before Susan’s death. Rohde said Susan found him texting in the Spier bathroom in the early hours of Sunday. “There could only be one person I was messaging at that time of the morning,” said Rohde.
“We moved out of the bathroom. Obviously now we were having a major verbal argument. We argued in the bedroom, I told Susan I wanted to leave the room. I put my green jersey on and we argued, we had a major, major row.
“It was a loud conversation. We weren’t talking to each other, we were verbally shouting at each other and using ugly words. It was back and forth, we were screaming at each other, both using vulgar language.
“I moved towards the door, Susan stood in front of the door, and there was a physical altercation where a series of events took place where I was trying to move her.
“It culminated in me taking my right hand and moving her away. It continued for 30 seconds, a minute maybe. While this was happening we were still verbally shouting at each other. I was telling her to leave me alone and she was obviously responding.
“I eventually managed to get past her, I moved her with my right hand, and I got through the door.” Rohde indicated that his hand was on the side of Susan's neck, with his thumb at the front.Earlier in the day, as defence counsel Graham van der Spuy wrapped up his questioning, Rohde said he had recently dreamt of Susan.
“The other night I dreamt that she was standing next to me holding my hand. There’s a lady in the gallery now who reminds me of Susan‚” he said.
In a statement to the court that ended his evidence-in-chief, Rohde again admitted committing adultery. “In doing so‚ I destroyed the life of my three children‚ Susan’s mom and dad‚ her brother‚ her sister‚ their children‚ and I take full responsibility. I have to live with the shame of that for the rest of my life.
“But the option for me was divorce‚ not murder. With all my faults‚ I’m not a murderer‚ I’m not a murderer. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I’m not a murderer.
“When I look at my children today‚ I know I’m guilty of driving their mom to the point of her taking her life. But I didn’t kill their mom or inflict death on their mom in a physical sense.
“I’ve destroyed so many people’s lives but I did not kill my wife‚ I didn’t kill my wife.
“I already have a life sentence ... I can never get rid of that shame and guilt‚ and every time I look at my kids I’m reminded of that. It makes me sick to my stomach.
“I’m so ashamed of what I did that I don’t know if you can understand when I say this‚ and it might come out the wrong way‚ but it’s felt like I haven’t been able to even grieve Susan.
“From 24‚ 48 hours after the 24th (of July in 2016) I’ve just been fighting for my life.”