Hit or hijack? Why was Odette Barkhuizen killed?
As closing arguments in husband's trial continue, with only circumstantial evidence the full truth may never be revealed
Almost four years have passed since Odette Barkhuizen was murdered near her offices in Moffat View, Johannesburg, shot twice by an assailant, her car stolen and abandoned a short distance away. These are some of the only facts not in dispute about the day she died, with two distinct versions of the movements of her alleged killer.
While her husband George has been accused of forging Odette’s last will and testament, and taking out three multimillion-rand life insurance policies on her, the state has had to rely entirely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove to the High Court in Johannesburg that he was the one responsible not only for the fraud, but the shooting itself.
This week, both prosecutor Riegal du Toit and defence advocate Sita Kolbe continued their closing arguments, constructing opposing versions of the events of June 11 2015, the day Odette was killed.
Life insurance policies worth R7.5m
According to the state’s written heads of argument, George first approached a broker regarding life insurance for himself and his wife just a few months before her death and, after numerous interactions was given a series of options, eventually applying with three companies. For Odette, he took out a R3.5m policy from Presidio Insurance, R2m from Old Mutual, and a further R2m from Sanlam. He took out similar amounts for himself.
The state pointed out that George had specifically asked for policies that did not require medical examinations, and none that covered death from natural causes, while only his contact details were provided on each application.
Odette was insured only for accidental death.
In all of the applications he filled in the wrong postal address, which the state alleges was to ensure Odette did not receive any written correspondence about the policies.
While George claims they both signed the applications, it is alleged that Odette was never consulted, and that a handwriting expert had confirmed that the signatures on the applications were forged.
The policies came into effect on June 1 2015, and 10 days later, Odette was killed.
The state alleges that Odette, who had a son with George, had asked him for a divorce.
The day of the killing
On this day, Odette arrived at the couple’s mutual business, an autoglass shop, in Oakdene, sometime after noon, following a visit by George at 9am.
According to the only employee, Robert Kenga, George arrived and told him he was going to visit a broker in Pretoria, before leaving. At about 1.15pm Kenga heard a gunshot, ran out to the business’s first-floor balcony and noticed a figure next to Odette’s vehicle. He said the shooter was wearing a black hoodie. He was unable to give a description as he did not have a clear view of the business’s driveway where the car was parked.
When he heard a second gunshot Kenga ran into his office and hid. He was unable to reach George telephonically and immediately called the police.
He then went down to the driveway and saw Odette’s body, but she was unresponsive. As he turned to move back into the office, he noticed that the downstairs storeroom was open and unlocked, despite being certain that the door had been locked earlier in the day.
“The reason or motive behind this robbery seems to be unclear. The argument by the state is that it was more about the killing of the deceased than a robbery,” Du Toit wrote.
He argued that it was less likely that a 10-year-old station wagon was the prime target for the criminal, especially considering the car was abandoned near the crime scene.
“It is suggested as more probable that (George) opened the storeroom with the key in his possession and waited there for the deceased. It is also more probable that he would wait there because of the means, opportunity and so that he could not be seen by Kenga.
“A further motive could have been that the deceased had a large amount of cash on her and that her killing was just a side-effect of the robbery of the money. If this was indeed so, the only other person that would have known whether she had such monies with her and for what reason would have been the accused,” he continued.
Cellphone records as evidence
The state also alleged that cellphone records show that George was in the vicinity of the crime scene at all times before and after the murder, showing that he had possibly lied to Kenga about his trip to Pretoria.
Kolbe’s heads of argument, while focusing mainly on where the state had failed to provide direct evidence of their timeline, also insists that the prosecution never cross-examined George’s denial of personally committing the murder.
Kolbe argued that the state failed to provide a shred of direct evidence regarding the claims that George had conducted the shooting, nor were they able to prove he was on the scene between 1.30pm and 1.40pm on the day of the murder.
She acknowledges that while testifying, George had said he was unsure of his exact movements that day, but insisted that if he was trying to create a false alibi, he would have had the details of his movements “worked out to the T”.
In her heads of argument, Kolbe deals with George apparently contradicting himself about his whereabouts. In an interview with the police, he said he was near the scene of the shooting an hour before his wife was killed. Later, however, he said he was not there, and could not remember his exact whereabouts.
His lawyer said this apparent contradiction in fact showed he was not lying, because he would never place himself near the crime scene if he were indeed guilty.
The state and the defence have different interpretations of what the cellphone records show about where he was at the time of the shooting. The state says it proves he was within a 2km radius of the crime scene, while the defence says he could have been as far as 5km away.
The defence is arguing that even though records show he was in the vicinity, he was not at the actual spot where the shooting took place.
She recalled the evidence of a cellphone expert which definitively proved George was in another area at the time. Initially, she said her client had told investigators he had been in Rosettenville in the early morning, and that during the interview had claimed he was on nearby Vickers Road, not at the reception area of the business, as alleged by the state.
“In fact, according to the disclosed data the accused and deceased’s phones were never in the same area during the relevant period,” Kolbe wrote.
“His inability to correctly recollect his exact movements or incorrect recollection can never form the basis of a conviction.”
She then insists that the state refused to present further evidence that could have helped determine George’s exact movements on the day, including video footage from a Café Bembon, where he allegedly went twice on the day of the incident, or Xavier Motors, where he had also allegedly visited.
However, what was presented was video footage of George parking his car on Erongo Avenue, fairly close to the business, an hour before the crime took place.
“It is significant that the entire morning’s video footage was not viewed to determine exactly when the accused arrived at the business premises in his car and when he left,” Kolbe argued.
Could George Barkhuizen have been the shooter?
Kolbe’s heads of argument, while focusing mainly on where the state had failed to provide direct evidence of their timeline, insists that the prosecution never cross-examined George’s denial of personally committing the murder.
Kolbe was also deeply critical of Kenga’s evidence, since the employee had initially made a statement to police investigators in which he described the assailant as a “slender ... unknown black male”, a statement he later decided to disavow.
In his later statement Kenga said he was unable to determine the race of the assailant.
The initial statement also set an earlier time frame for the killing.
Earlier this week, Times Select reported on how the defence accused police investigators of a compromised investigation, using conjecture to link George to the crime, and misinterpretation of evidence.
Chief among the claims was that because forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan became involved in the investigation, police investigators immediately assumed George’s guilt from the start of the probe.
The trial continues.