Murder by invitation

2013-04-21 14:03

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Charl Blignaut has been investigating the string of brutal murders of gay men in Johannesburg.

Asudden autumn shower has turned the Hillbrow night cold and misty.

The fried-chicken joints fill up.

The churches with their pop-star prophets are closing up shop alongside megastore betting totes.

We pass a strip joint where I hear the senior management of a parastatal were out partying the other night.

We’re heading to a bar called emaXhoseni (Place of the Xhosas).

“There’s also a bar called emaVhendeni,” says my companion. Many blocks of flats here are forged along cultural lines.

“That block’s Xhosa,” he says. “There’s a taxi rank to the Eastern Cape outside it. That one’s Zulu. There are Nigerian blocks, Zimbabwean blocks...”

We’re here because I’m trying to track down a blackmailer, a young man who slept with an affluent gay executive and tried to extort R10 000 from him.

But the boy has gone to ground.

For weeks he hasn’t been in his usual place, selling merchandise near Wits University and cruising men in expensive cars by rubbing his crotch suggestively.

I have a suspicion he’s linked to a crowd of largely straight rent boys and down-and-out extortionists preying on gay men in Joburg.

It appears they hook up online, become casual sex acquaintances, offer a threesome, or bring friends over.

Their victims are overpowered, bound with shoelaces or a cellphone charger cord.

Their mouths are stuffed with socks or paper and they are strangled.

Afterwards, their homes are robbed of particular items.

Laptops, cellphones, cameras – all of which could’ve provided clues about online hook-ups or sex.

Wallets are taken and in some cases there are attempts to use the bank cards. In some cases, notebooks and financial documents are also missing.

There’s no sign of a break-in. The victims open their doors to their murderers and invite them in.

Working through the cases, I don’t believe all nine are linked, but five or six are suspiciously similar. Some are sketchy.

Families don’t want to talk because of the stigma – the same fear that allows blackmail to breed, I will discover.

There’s no sign at the door, but everyone knows emaXhoseni in Hillbrow and the traditional food that’s served from its dive of a kitchen.

The tiles on the floor are broken, the walls covered in beer adverts, and old-school R&B is cranking from the speakers.

On the weekends, the place is packed with a largely gay clientele and the sex activity in the toilets is legendary.

“There’s this idea that gay men have money,” says my companion. “It’s in the media and the fashionable image that gays put out.

“Lots of struggling straight boys will come to a place like this and hope to hook up with a gay guy who’ll pay for stuff.”

Earlier, we’d been to Buffalo Bills at Park Station, another well-known hook-up joint, where waiters don cowboy hats and Native American chiefs adorn the walls.

Well-off gay men of all races can be found at tables in the smoking section checking out the young men in for a drink or waiting for their ride. At least two of the victims visited here.

Men are being murdered and one should not mince words. The victims are generally successful, respected middle-aged white men who prefer to sleep with younger black men, in some cases with more than one partner at a time. Three men were arrested for Barney van Heerden’s murder.

Three Zimbabwean suspects fled home to avoid arrest in the murder of Jim Cathels in Berea.

Three men were seen at the home where Oscar O’Hara was murdered in Kensington. Two men are captured on camera leaving Rulov Senekal’s apartment in Braamfontein.

Two men were arrested for Carl Mischke’s murder.

Still, openly gay activity at bars like this is not the norm.

“As gay black men, we tend to meet other men online – to make friends or get laid. You can’t just nje go out there and be gay. We rather use Facebook,” says my companion.

This week, Talk Radio 702 broke news of a new murder, this time a stabbing.

Dr Carl Mischke, a prominent gay labour law expert, lived in Norwood just a few streets from where Van Heerden’s naked, bound corpse was found.

Working with friends of the victims, we have trawled the dating sites.

One of the victims was registered on 11 of them.

Dating sites now offer matches based on the men closest to your location.

There are phone apps like Grindr, sites designed for mobiles like Hookups.

Some location-based services like Manhunt are free.

We discover a nest of rent boys working in the Orange Grove and Norwood area. Some are students making extra money.

Some are – after a long chat – willing to have sex just for taxi fare in order to meet a potential sugar daddy.

Many advertise to arrange more men – “well-endowed Nigerians” – to join in.

In the Norwood murders alone, four suspects have been arrested.

It’s put paid to the theory that a serial killer is at work and bred the theory that a serial-killing gang is operating, masterminded by central characters.

The problem has been motive. Early reports suggested theft was not a significant factor, giving rise to speculation of hate crimes.

But theft is a definite issue – yet it’s selective.

It’s possibly geared at milking bank accounts after a killing.

Interviewing the people who knew Senekal, I stumble on to something else.

The gentle, kind and slightly neurotic head of wardrobe at the Joburg Theatre was being extorted.

A colleague was concerned about the stress caused by him constantly having to pay up. She says it was going on for six months before his death.

“Especially that last week, he was not himself. He was sad and would go quiet. Sometimes he was very angry.”

Senekal was afraid of walking to the bank alone and so she’d go with him.

“He deposited money once and also used to draw money for them. He didn’t want to. They’d phone, especially at the end of the month. Later, he’d just sit there and say, ‘I won’t answer it’. He was buying expensive clothes for this person on his Edgars account.”

His niece Lizelle Bright says: “Rulov phoned me a heck of a lot those last few months, intensely telling me he loves us and that I must be sure to tell the family that.”

He received several visits from a young man who signed the register at his block.

A love note was found in his apartment from the same man. Senekal had presumably met him online.

He dated cautiously, first meeting potential boyfriends at Killarney Mall for coffee.

On the day he died, he ordered pizza ahead of the visit. The man arrived with a friend.

After they had strangled him in cold blood – with no signs of a sexual liaison – they strolled out eating the pizza.

A blue-and-white shirt was placed over his head. Van Heerden’s face was covered by a jacket, Mischke’s by a pillow, O’Hara’s by a tea towel.

Pursuing stories of extortion, I meet James (not his real name). He’d picked up the 23-year-old Zimbabwean blackmailer I’ve been tracking at a traffic light and taken him to his office for what he says was mutually consensual sex.

“It was stupid to take him there. I lost my job?…” says James. The blackmailer returned to his workplace and managed to get his phone number.

It’s a long story, summed up by an SMS after a year of attempts to see James again: “I will tell the world that you infected me with HIV ... I will drag your name in the dirt … You will be in Daily Sun.”

He sent messages saying he was printing out flyers that he’d hand to cars entering the office. Panicked, James paid him R4?000, but the blackmailer wanted more. James opened a case of extortion. The man opened a case of rape.

Suffering panic attacks, James took leave. While he was away, the man arrived at his office with police.

James, working in a homophobic environment, lost his job even though the police declined to prosecute.

The young man’s story was full of holes. He said he was raped on one of the days he received money, but James could prove he was in a meeting at the time.

“In a sense he’s achieved what he wanted,” he says. “He’s destroyed my life, a career built up over years … It was my stupidity. I was horny, simple as that.”

The laying of extortive rape charges is more common than I thought. I hear of cases where the blackmailers also claim to be underage. I hear about white rent boys searching bathroom cabinets for ARV medication and threatening to out HIV-positive men. About photos and videos of drug taking and sex used in blackmails.

It was assumed that extortion of this kind wasn’t as prevalent in South Africa as in countries where homosexuality is a crime.

There are entire studies from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ghana. But the stakes are just different here.

Extortion provides motive, but I haven’t yet been able to prove it in any of the other murders.

Working online, we’ve found new leads in the Senekal case and handed them to the police.

They haven’t followed the online clues because detectives don’t have internet access.

Despite a gay-murder task team being established, I have found no proof that it’s active.

Yet police moved swiftly this week to make an arrest in the Mischke case and I’ve found no reluctance to investigate, nor any homophobia.

What there is, is a lack of resources.

It’s one of the reasons that the murders are so difficult to solve – coupled with the fact that gay men continue to be reckless enough to let strangers into their beds.

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