By Kotie Geldenhuys
One of the most familiar cold cases, which still boggles South Africans’ minds after all these years, is the Gert van Rooyen and Joey Haarhoff case, when at least six young girls mysteriously disappeared in the late 1980s. Although Gert and Joey committed suicide, since then the girls’ whereabouts are still unknown. This is one of many cold cases the police have been unable to solve. Other cases that remain unsolved is that of Inge Lotz, who was allegedly murdered in her Stellenbosch apartment. And Tracey Thompson’s body that was dumped on a piece of agricultural land just outside Benoni remains a mystery as well. The murderer who had sexually assaulted and chopped off Anika Smit’s hands in her father’s house in Pretoria North in 2010 is yet to be brought to book. Who raped and murdered Aviwe Wellem in her bedroom in Gxarha village in Dutywa in the Eastern Cape? What happened to Amahle Thabethe, an eight-year-old girl who went missing outside her home in Tsakane, Ekurhuleni in 2019 or Natascha Viljoen who disappeared in May 2010, five days after giving birth to her daughter? Where is six-year-old Asheeqah Noordien who went missing in 2005 while playing at a park in Scheldt Walk, Manenberg?
None of these families have received any answers about what had happened to their loved ones, but they hope and pray that one day these cases, along with hundreds of other cold cases will be solved and that justice will be served.
The term “cold case” creates the perception that it only refers to an old, unsolved murder. But the term “cold case” not only pertains to murder as it includes missing persons, unidentified deceased persons, undetermined deaths and criminal sexual assault cases. Every unresolved case represents a person, the victim’s family, friends and community.
There is no universal definition of a cold case. Oxford Languages defines a cold case as “an unsolved criminal investigation which remains open pending the discovery of new evidence”. The National Police Foundation (2020) in Washington defines cold cases as “unsolved murders, long-term missing persons/unidentified persons, undetermined deaths and open sexual assault cases”. A criminal case that goes to trial and does not result in a conviction can also be evaluated as a cold case and be “kept on the books pending the delivery of new evidence” (Laws.com, 2019). It seems clear from these definitions that a cold case is an unsolved criminal or suspected criminal case (in the case of missing persons).
A large number of serious crimes, such as murders, remain unsolved (or are going cold) in many countries, including developed countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. “In the USA, one in three murders is never solved. Only if there is hard evidence linking an individual to a murder can the police solve the case. If a body is found and there are no witnesses or any indications of who committed the murder, it can be very difficult for the police to identify a suspect,” says Gareth Newham from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) (Mkhuma, 2015). Sadly, the situation in South Africa is not much different as the majority of serious crimes remain unsolved. The latest SAPS Annual Report for the 2019/2020 financial year indicate that only 36.17% of suspects (751 720 from a total of 2 078 225) are detected in serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder and rape (SAPS, 2020a).
When are case dockets “closed”?
A case can become cold when there is a lack of evidence, strained resources, ineffective investigation (such as contaminated crime scenes and evidence) and initial efforts to solve a case prove ineffective (Davis, Jensen and Kitchens, 2012). These cases are typically closed, but can be reopened at any time when new evidence surfaces.
According to the South African Police Service Standing Order (General) 325, a case can be closed as “withdrawn” where the police “considers a prosecution undesirable” and the docket has been sent to the public prosecutor who declines to prosecute. A case can also be withdrawn where the complainant requests the charges to be withdrawn. This only applies to cases “of no consequence” and “... shall not be permitted in a serious case, or in any other case if the circumstances are such that, in the interests of public justice, the charge should be proceeded with”. The complainant must request the withdrawal in writing and provide reasons for this request. The Standing Order makes it clear that “on no account should the police suggest to a complainant that he or she should withdraw a charge” (Smythe, 2015).