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Inside the homeless Pretoria community being hunted by a serial killer

2019-06-26 00:00

A black figure stood crouched underneath the Magnolia Dell sign in the darkened park.

Given Masekela, a 28-year-old homeless person, struggles to get the image out of his head, describing him as a big, dark figure with a hoodie pulled over his head and carrying a backpack.

It happened when Masekela and one of his friends were walking towards the park over the bridge on Sunday June 9.

When the figure saw them approaching, he became startled and ran away. It was all strange and they went closer to inspect. What greeted their eyes was not what they had expected.

“There was a person lying completely covered under a blanket, sleeping under the sign. Then we saw blood trickling … first on the blanket and soon there was a puddle,” Masekela said.

“We lifted the blanket and there he was; Uncle [also a homeless person] was full of deep wounds everywhere on his head, neck and chest. He was broken. It looked as if he’d been attacked with a panga. He was dead.”

It was then that they realised they might have seen the killer. Masekela believes it could be “the one who had come to kill ‘Rasta’”.

The smell of mould, urine, dried blood, chopped meat and fear hits you at the scene. The smell of magnolias is gone at the park.

The body of “Rasta”, the “crazy loner”, was found, just the previous day, under a tree. He was the “magnolia murderer’s” second victim. Uncle was his third.

A fourth body was found on Tuesday at the corner of Justice Mahomed and Troye streets in Sunnyside, Pretoria.

A fifth was found on Wednesday at a bus stop near Unisa.

It was here where, late on Friday afternoon, Gugulethu Matshoboza stood with his eyes fixed on the bus stop while saying out loud: “It could have been me who was stabbed to death.”

As with many others, Matshoboza believes the killing of five homeless people in the city in fewer than three weeks “is a clear indication the homeless are being targeted”, which is the reason he said he “would not disagree with those who believe there is a serial killer out there”.

What gives him the biggest scare, however, is the thought that he could possibly have come face to face with the alleged killer.

Matshoboza (28) said it was just after the third body was discovered at Magnolia Dell Park in Muckleneuk that most homeless people decided to start sleeping in groups of two or more.

“I was with another man on a concrete embankment close to Sunnyside Police Station that night, when, at about 2am, we found a man standing there towering over us. He asked for matches. I extended a hand to give him matches, but instead he went on a furious search of his pockets for a cigarette,” Matshoboza said.

“Then, suddenly, he asked why we were sleeping in groups, saying we must sleep one person per spot. We asked: ‘Why do you want to know? Actually, who the hell are you?’

“As we sprung from our blankets, he took steps back and walked away, and it was at that point that we both said: ‘I hope it is not that person [the killer]; what if it’s him?’ We woke up in the morning to news that one man known as ‘China’, who sleeps a short distance from us, was stabbed twice in the face and upper body by an unknown man, but survived. Only then, I thought it could have been me.”

He said the man was “speaking fluent Pretoria Sotho, wore a stripped white shirt, blue pants and a black jacket … he is light in complexion and you would not really think any bad of him”.

A few days later – after Matshoboza’s encounter with the unknown man – he was walking down the street close to Unisa’s main collecting waste area for recycling when he came across a murder scene at a bus stop.

“The body was lying there and I learnt that the killer had struck again; killing another homeless man last night. I was shaken and, from then, nightfall in Pretoria has become the most undesirable time for homeless people … we go to sleep not knowing if we will wake up alive the following day,” he said.

The first body was found on May 25 at the Mears Park train station in Sunnyside. One of the victims still had money and his cellphone on him.

“Why is he doing it?” asked Masekela. He pauses and takes a drag of his cigarette.

Masekela believes he could have seen the alleged killer again.

“This week. I only realised it was him too late,” he said, shaking his head.

He can’t remember the exact day, but said it was in the evening while he was at the shelter for homeless people in Sunnyside – the White House – where he sleeps.

Masekela said more people had been coming to seek shelter at White House recently because they feared for their safety.

That evening, he said, they saw a man – “drunk and looking for trouble” – a short distance away from the shelter and he was told to leave.

“He then stood on the corner of the street staring at us and, a short while later, he was just gone,” Masekela said.

He later realised the figure looked similar to the one he saw at the park; with a hood on and a backpack on his back. They went out to look for him, but he was gone.

Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant General Elias Mawela has cautioned the public to be vigilant of what he describes as a “nocturnal prowler preying on the vulnerable”.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters this week said that they were concerned about the murders and assured the public that efforts were under way to make a breakthrough in the case as quickly as possible.

At present, there are still no suspects and a special task force has been set up to look for the murderer. Although scores of homeless people allege there are more victims, Peters confirmed that the police had found only five bodies so far.

A source close to the police, who preferred to remain anonymous, said their biggest challenge was that they were working with people who “preferred to stay anonymous, undocumented and/or have no families. Usually the person guilty of a murder is somebody close to the victim, but, in this case, we have no records,” the source said.

Mohau Helone Malebye (30), a documentary film producer from Pretoria Street Photography, has been living in Sunnyside since 1994. He grew up with homeless people and played soccer with them. He is worried because one of the guys he saw regularly has disappeared.

“I’m afraid he’s also been attacked. People see these guys as bad people who are dangerous and, even though a lot of them are criminals, they are not murderers,” said Malebye.

Now everything has changed and people are sleeping with one eye open.

Gérard Labuschagne, former head of the police’s investigative psychology unit, suspects a serial killer could be on the loose.

“There are many options and, at present, the motive is still unclear. It could be revenge, as many homeless people suspect. No murderer will ever murder somebody they like,” he said.

Labuschagne said it seemed clear that the suspect wanted to commit “successful” murders.

“In all the cases so far, he waited until it was dark before he struck. He wants to make sure they can’t fight back. It’s difficult to predict what will happen next.

“I have been involved in cases in which serial killers simply disappear when it gets dangerous and the murders get too much attention; striking again only when the dust has settled. Sometimes they also just disappear or move to another area,” said Labuschagne.

And, while the police are fighting against time, the homeless continue to live in fear and wonder where the night dweller who stole the sweet scent of the magnolias comes from.

Now they must work quickly during the day to get enough together to eat something before they sleep together or in turns.

The thing that bothers them most is: “What does he want? What did we do to him? When is he coming again? There is nothing for him to steal from us. Just our lives,” said Masekela, taking another look over his shoulder.

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January 19 2020