Three years ago, former Perth schoolgirl Marli van Breda was the only survivor of an axe attack that killed her parents and brother. Now her only remaining brother has been convicted of their murders.
In a Cape Town court, Henri van Breda, now 23, had denied three counts of murder, one of attempted murder for the attack on Marli and another of obstructing justice.
Judge Siraj Desai delivered a stinging five-hour summary of the events of January 27, 2015, finding van Breda “unimpressive as a witness” during his 66-day trial and that “the result is inescapable” (South Africa has no jury system).
Van Breda – one of only two surviving members of a wealthy South African family who lived in Australia for eight years – faces the likelihood of three life sentences. After a trial that has gripped and divided South Africa, he will be sentenced on June 5.
It is a mighty fall from grace for a boy who once attended prestigious Scotch College in Perth and went on to study physics at Melbourne University.
Marli and brother Rudi also attended top schools in Australia. Rudi had graduated from Melbourne’s Trinity College and was studying a master of engineering at the University of Melbourne when he was killed in 2015.
Their parents, Martin and Teresa, initially moved to the Sunshine Coast to be closer to their sons studying in Melbourne. Last year, their Buderim home was for sale for $2.49 million (the family apparently had a wealth estimated at $17 million).
The van Bredas returned to South Africa in 2014. Mr van Breda was reportedly a director of at least 25 companies and owned the Australian subsidiary of international property group Engel & Volkers. He developed a private school in Pretoria, and founded a company that tracks and recovers stolen vehicles.
The family had a luxury house in the gated De Zalze golf estate in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. It is there that Henri told police and the court that his family was attacked early on the morning of January 27, 2015, by a black intruder wearing gloves, dark clothes and a balaclava.
His trial heard that he shouted for help and his father came in and accosted the attacker. Henri said there might have been at least two attackers, and he suffered minor injuries while wrestling with one.
He did not call emergency services for more than two hours after the attack, saying he had lost consciousness.
Police found him sitting outside the house, his clothing stained with the blood of the victims. Inside the house were a bloodstained axe and kitchen knife – and the bodies of Martin, 54, Teresa, 55, and Rudi, 22.
Marli, then only 16, had suffered head injuries and had her jugular vein severed. She spent months in hospital, and reportedly has no memory of the day.
Senior counsel Louise Buikman was appointed her curator (the South African equivalent of a legal guardian) after her parents’ deaths. That appointment was extended in October 2016 – after Marli had turned 18.
Earlier in May, a High Court hearing into Marli’s future care arrangements was postponed until June 11.
— Times LIVE (@TimesLIVE) October 10, 2016
Marli and Henri were largely kept apart following the killings, and did not see each other for five months.
Marli lived with a maternal aunt and uncle and eventually returned to school, where she was said to be doing well. Henri moved 140 kilometres away to live with Janse van Rensburg, a girlfriend he met several months after his family’s deaths.
Following his arrest in June 2016, Ms van Rensburg said she believed in his innocence.
“Anyone who spends a day with him will realise he couldn’t do such a thing. I believe in his innocence 100 per cent,” she told South Africa’s You magazine.
“When he talks about his family he gets emotional but he’s doing well. He’s strong – really very strong. He’ll often bring up his family and talk about his brother especially. He remembers only the good.”
Ms Buikman said Henri’s arrest was “very distressing” to Marli, and pleaded for privacy for her charge. Marli did not give evidence during the trial, and was not seen in court.
Judge Desai had told the media she was not to be photographed or recorded if she did attend.
After Henri’s conviction, Ms Buikman told South Africa’s TimesLIVE: “I do not believe that it is in Marli’s best interests to comment.”
Marli’s disappearance from public view has led to questions about her wellbeing. Her Instagram page, on which she initially posted tributes to her deceased family, is now private. Its tagline reads “loving all of life”.
A Support Marli Van Breda Facebook page has 6750 likes, but the person behind it has not met Marli.
Henri, who was on bail throughout his trial, was taken into custody following his conviction. Said to suffer epilepsy, he will be held in the hospital quarters of notorious Pollsmoor Prison until his sentencing.