Susan Rohde behaved 'out of character' before death
She took up smoking and started drinking more in the months before she died, forensic psychiatrist tells murder trial
Shortly before her death Susan Rohde started smoking and displayed “out of character” behaviour, including travelling to the remote AfrikaBurn festival in the Karoo.
This was revealed by specialist forensic psychiatrist Dr Larissa Panieri-Peter during the murder trial of Susan’s businessman husband Jason Rohde in the High Court in Cape Town on Monday.
Susan had detested smoking for most of her life and surprised many when she took up the habit in 2016, according to Panieri-Peter, who presented a 43-page psychiatric report in court on Monday. Susan also had “no known history of recreational drug use although she did attend AfrikaBurn for the first time in the months before her death”, Panieri-Peter said in her report.
On its website, AfrikaBurn is billed as a “community of participants who come together to create art, burning structures, costume, performance, theme camps, music, mutant vehicles and much, much more”.
Jason Rohde, former chief executive of Lew Geffen/Sotheby’s International Realty, is accused of killing Susan at the Spier wine estate outside Stellenbosch in July 2016. She was found dead with the cord of a hair iron around her neck behind the locked bathroom door of the couple’s room.
Rohde is also charged with obstructing the administration of justice by making her death look like a suicide.
They have three daughters.
After Susan’s death, Rohde was referred to Panieri-Peter in September 2016 for an independent psychiatric evaluation. Panieri-Peter, now a defence witness, was also tasked with conducting a “retrospective independent psychiatric assessment (‘psychological autopsy’) of the deceased” and to “comment specifically on features that may or may not (in psychiatric terms) be congruent or incongruent with suicide”.
In her report, Panieri-Peter said it appeared there had been “a significant change in (Susan’s) appearance and behaviour prior to her death.
“She was a non-smoker, and in fact was against smoking for most of her life. Friends expressed shock that she had started to smoke in the months before her death. There is a photograph of her on the day before her death posing with a cigarette; and this was considered to be most out of character. She drank alcohol on social occasions. Despite a strict upbringing regarding alcohol, in the months before her death she drank more ... ”Earlier in the trial the court heard testimony about Rohde’s extramarital affair with Jolene Alterskye, a colleague. WhatsApp messages submitted to court in November told a story of Rohde’s sizzling love for the mistress and hatred for his wife.
Panieri-Peter also relied on the WhatsApp messages for her assessment as well as interviews with Rohde, their housekeeper and the couple’s friends. She said Susan’s family refused to be interviewed. Panieri-Peter said she also interviewed the couple’s marriage counsellor who was “very concerned about (Susan’s) mental health and recommended admission to hospital”.
“The community around Mrs Rohde was first confronted by the news of suicide,” reads the report.
“Soon thereafter, various rumours began in the community and then Mr Rohde was arrested. A deluge of media speculation and sensationalism followed. Family and the community then faced the possibility of homicide. Comparisons were made at a time, with comments such as, ‘another death in a bathroom’. The ‘story’ has elements of scandal, secrets, lies and death.”
Panieri-Peter concluded that Susan had “insecurities and was a perfectionist”.
“I would say she had major depression ... and that this alone increased the risk of suicide very significantly,” said Panieri-Peter.
The indictment against Rohde accuses him of placing the cord around Susan’s neck “in a double strand around the clothing/towel hook at the back of the bathroom door”. He then supplied false information to police‚ it says.
“The postmortem examination conducted on the body of the deceased shows the cause of death as consistent with asphyxia following manual strangulation and external airway obstruction‚” says the indictment. “The features of the ligature imprint abrasion mark are consistent with postmortem application to the neck.”
The trial continues.