Mom’s comfort for Hannah Cornelius’s friend as he relives nightmare
Cop also describes his courageous pursuit of the four suspects
On Thursday, Marilyn Marsh did what mothers do.
The day after her son, Cheslin, repeatedly collapsed sobbing as he relived the evening that ended in the murder of his university friend Hannah Cornelius, Marsh stepped in.
Before her 22-year-old son resumed his testimony in the High Court in Cape Town, Marsh placed herself between the four men in the dock and the court 3 witness box.
The previous day the defendants stared relentlessly at Cheslin, the first witness for the prosecution, but on Thursday Marsh was in the way. Her son looked steadfastly at the SA flag at the front of the court, avoiding the defendants’ gaze.
When he broke down again, as he recounted being left for dead, Marsh leapt to her feet, embracing him and wiping away his tears.
Only two of the four defence advocates briefly cross-examined Cheslin before he left with his mother and brother. He will now resume his attempt to live a normal life after an attack that left him scarred, physically and psychologically, as well as permanently deaf in one ear.
His trauma was so great, he told the court on Thursday, that he had been unable to resume his studies at Stellenbosch.
Prosecutor Lenro Badenhorst showed Judge Rosheni Allie footage from a security camera at Battery Centre on Jan Celliers Road, Stellenbosch, shot at 3.30am on Saturday May 27, 2017.
It showed Cornelius’s car arriving to drop Cheslin off at his flat a few metres away. Then, four men – allegedly Vernon Witbooi, Geraldo Parsons, Eben van Niekerk and Nashville Julius – walk past the car where Cornelius and Cheslin were chatting, before returning to rob and abduct them.
Cheslin described how the men drove to Kraaifontein to buy drugs and attempted to use his bank card to withdraw cash from an Absa ATM at a Caltex garage on Bottelary Road.
He testified that Witbooi and Parsons took him out of the car to some bushes, angry because he had given them the wrong PIN code.
They told him to lie down with his head on a brick. “I closed my eyes and I prayed,” he told the court. “The two men were standing with a half-brick in their hands. I then lost consciousness.” When he woke up it was morning. He was in “horrible pain”, “everywhere pain”.
Bloodied and shocked, Cheslin looked for help, and was taken to the Kraaifontein day hospital for treatment to head wounds and a broken arm. After weeks in Tygerberg and Paarl hospitals, he was declared permanently deaf in his left ear as a result of his injuries.
By the time Cheslin recovered consciousness, police were attending a crime scene a few kilometres away, where Cornelius’s body had been found at the edge of a vineyard. Her skull was crushed and blood was leaking from her eyes.
The first policeman on the scene was Detective Constable Bulelani Siko, who followed Cheslin into the witness box on Thursday. He told Allie that after securing the scene, he and his partner began searching for Cornelius’s blue and white VW Citi Golf.
They saw a vehicle matching the description driving towards Stellenbosch, with two men inside. They followed it and were soon joined by a police bakkie, but when blue lights were activated the Citi Golf sped off and a chase began.
“We weren’t sure if they had a gun and I didn’t have a bulletproof vest on, so I hung back,” said Siko. “But as the suspects increased their speed, I had to speed up too.
“We gave chase along Adam Tas Road, turning right towards Devon Valley. We must have been going 160km/h just to keep up.
“Suddenly the suspects turned sharply at Dwars-in-die-Weg farm. Their car stalled so I jumped out to give chase on foot but the two men started the car again and continued driving to the gate further down the gravel road. But the gate to the farm was locked so they couldn’t go any further.
“The Golf’s doors opened and the two men jumped out and started running towards the farm. I thought they had a weapon so I fired a warning shot, but they didn’t stop.
“The suspects got to a river and they split up. I gave chase but there was a lot of mud and difficult terrain and it was difficult for the suspect to cross. I also found it difficult and my gun got covered in mud as I had to use my hands to get through.
“Eventually the guy I was chasing became panicked and tired. I told him to stop and if he didn’t I would shoot. He sat down on the ground and lay down on his right side. I told him to lie down on his stomach.
“He asked me: ‘Wat soek jy van my? [What are you chasing me for?]’ I told him they were driving a stolen vehicle and the person who the car belonged to had been murdered.
“He begged me not to shoot. The man was not aware that my firearm could not fire due to the mud affecting the gun. More police officers arrived and I arrested the suspect. His name was Vernon Witbooi.”
Witbooi would later testify how the four of them hijacked the two friends, how his three mates raped Cornelius and then later dropped her off next to the road. Her body was found by farmworkers the following day, bludgeoned to death.
Her father and disabled brother have not been in court since the trial started. Her mother, Anna, drowned earlier this year when she went for a morning swim in the ocean at Scarborough in Cape Town.
The trial continues next week. The four defendants have pleaded not guilty to a range of charges including murder, kidnapping, robbery and rape.