Catching a killer one step at a time

2014-11-18 00:00

BOOTS pound dry earth as heavily armed police officers encircle a nondescript house in Oshabeni.

Moments later policemen crack and splinter the front door as they charge inside.

There, asleep on a threadbare mattress is Mhlonishwa Mathebula, a serial rapist who had led police on a five-year pursuit.

As the dust settles, Detective Alexander Ngcobo approaches a thin and sickly Mathebula who sits slumped against a cracked wall.

Ngcobo raises Mathebula’s shirt to reveal a long scar on his stomach which, along with his arm which was amputated above the wrist, had been etched into the memory of the 18 women he brutally raped.

“That is when I knew this was the man I had been chasing for five years. I can’t describe how happy I was; it was like the birth of a child. I was elated I was finally able to catch him,” Ngcobo said.

Last month Mathebula was convicted on 18 counts of rape on a five-year spree on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast and will spend the rest of his days in a maximum security prison.

Mathebula had stalked the streets of rural villages, preying on women and girls who crossed his path.

With a cocked revolver, Mathebula dragged his victims into the bushes and repeatedly raped them.

Ngcobo reflected on the case he said defined his career.

“The first case which landed on my desk was of a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Cabhane Ward near Umzinto.

“Mathebula had pulled her into a sugar cane field as she was walking home and raped her.

“DNA from a rape kit was added to a national database and a link emerged to another rape a month before. That case had fallen cold and had been filed away. It was then I knew I was looking for the same man,” he said.

His teenage victim knew her rapist and pointed Ngcobo to his family home near Ntwalume.

“I went and spoke to his mother and sister and at first they both tried to convince me he had died many years ago. When they became more cooperative, they told me how he lost his arm when he was 13 years old while making an illegal electricity connection, an accident that had killed his friend. They said the loss of his arm made him violent and he dropped out of school to herd cattle.”

As the hunt for Mathebula wore on, more and more DNA links from fresh rapes cropped up.

“The forensic lab was in touch with me with more and more dockets from his rape spree,” Ngcobo said.

The veteran detective said he twice came within touching distance of Mathebula.

“He is a very cunning man and on both occasions when we thought he had him surrounded, he managed to escape. It was so frustrating.”

“We flooded the townships with flyers with his picture and I wanted him to know we were fishing with a huge net. We used the taxi ranks to disseminate them and got them out into the community.”

The police dragnet forced Mathebula to the brink and, because of the attention, he began living in the bush near Oshabeni.

He had begun to starve and when hunger had taken its toll, he wandered into the house where he would eventually be caught.

“He asked the people there for food and they recognised him. The people called me and we rushed to the home where he had been so weak, he fell asleep,” Ngcobo said.

• jeff.wicks@witness.co.za

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