Hannah Cornelius's last hours... by one of the men accused of killing her
The craving for a cigarette allegedly led Vernon Witbooi and three other men on a murderous path that ended with the death of 20-year-old Hannah Cornelius.
A 113-minute video-recorded interview between Witbooi and Stellenbosch police in May 2017 played out like a slow‚ gut-wrenching train crash in the high court in Cape Town on Wednesday.
In it‚ Witbooi laid the blame for Cornelius’s murder and rape on his co-defendants‚ Geraldo Parsons‚ Eben van Niekerk and Nashville Julius. All the men have pleaded not guilty to murdering and raping Cornelius‚ and to attempting to murder her university friend Cheslin Marsh.
In the video‚ Witbooi related how his “taste for a smoke” led to him visiting his friends Parsons and Van Niekerk‚ also known as “Ses”‚ on Friday May 26.
As the three friends smoked‚ they had the idea to go to town to “see what they could find”‚ picking up another man named “Pikes” on their way.
While patrolling the streets of Stellenbosch they saw Cornelius chatting to Marsh in her blue VW Citi Golf‚ which she had inherited from her grandmother.
Witbooi said they approached the car with the idea of robbing the occupants of their cellphones and wallets. Parsons dived in through the window and seized Marsh while Witbooi got in the front and took out the keys.
Pikes took Marsh’s cellphone and wallet and left‚ and the other men put Marsh in the car boot. Witbooi said Cornelius sat next to him as they drove the car to Kraaifontein‚ planning to sell it to Van Niekerk.
Once there‚ Witbooi said he noticed Parsons had a firearm. They then left to meet Julius‚ whom Witbooi referred to as “Kaffertjie”‚ from whom they brought tik and dagga.
Witbooi‚ Parsons‚ Julius and Van Niekerk then set off in the car again‚ with Cornelius in the front and Marsh in the boot‚ and started smoking the drugs.
After a short distance‚ Parsons stopped and took Marsh into some bushes with Julius and Van Niekerk. When they came back‚ Parsons said they had tied Marsh up and dumped him.
Marsh was badly beaten but he survived and later raised the alarm with Kraaifontein residents.
According to Witbooi‚ the men then stopped at a house in Kraaifontein before heading back to Stellenbosch. “Somewhere along the road we stopped at a bush again. While we drove we smoked again‚” he said.
“At the bushes Geraldo said that we were now going to have sex with the girl. I said that I was not here for that and that I was just here for the money.
“Geraldo‚ Ses‚ and Kaffertjie took the girl into the bushes and I stayed in the car and smoked. After a while they came back and I saw that the girl was still busy putting her jacket back on.
“While we were driving‚ Geraldo said that I missed out and that he was first and Ses was second and Kaffertjie was third.”
At the edge of a vineyard‚ Parsons and the other men took Cornelius out of the car and returned without her. Parsons told him they had tied her up and left her for farm workers to find the next day.
During this part of his interview Witbooi broke down and cried. Marsh‚ who listened to the interview‚ was due to give evidence later on Wednesday.
As the suspects were led down to the cells for an adjournment‚ Parsons turned to Witbooi behind him‚ made a sucking sound through his teeth and pulled a face of disgust and disappointment. He also glanced at Marsh.
Cornelius was found dead with blunt-force trauma to the head and stab wounds. The men were arrested after they robbed another woman at gunpoint later that morning.
Marsh struggled to testify in the trial on Wednesday. The 22-year-old took his time to recall memories from the night he clearly would rather have wanted to forget for the rest of his life.
After sitting in court and listening to an hour and a half of testimony by one of the men accused of kidnapping him and murdering and raping his friend‚ it was up to him to give a first-hand account of the night.
His eyes kept flitting to Witbooi‚ Parsons‚ Van Niekerk and Julius as he was questioned by the state. Swallowing and sighing deeply before almost every answer‚ Marsh said he met Cornelius at the Bohemia student bar in Stellenbosch on May 26. They were students at the university and went dancing after having a few drinks at the Eendracht men's residence.
Just after midnight Marsh said that he wanted to go home. He walked Cornelius to the Irene women's residence and when he wanted to walk home to his flat on the other side of town Cornelius offered him a lift in her blue Golf.
"She always put other people's interests before her own. She was good-hearted‚" he said when asked to describe her.
She insisted on taking him home because it was late. They drove to Jan Cilliers street to a parking lot next to his flat and chatted until he opened the door to leave the car.
Suddenly a hand came through Cornelius's half open window‚ holding a screwdriver with the sharp end pointed at her chest. A second person came from the passenger side‚ opening his door and pointed a knife at him saying‚ "Sit still or she dies".
Two other men then got into the car. One of them robbed Marsh of his cellphone and cash. Cornelius was also put in the backseat while the men in the front of the car searched for the car keys.
He testified that Cornelius asked the driver what they were going to do to which he responded: "We just want to go home and then you'll get your car back."
Court proceedings were postponed until 2pm when Marsh will continue with his testimony.