Henri van Breda's aunt: Could my sister have raised a killer?

2018-05-21 14:32
PHOTO: Getty Images

PHOTO: Getty Images

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WATCH: Here's everything you need to know ahead of the Van Breda judgment

2018-05-21 09:00

Triple murder accused Henri van Breda will hear his fate in the Western Cape High Court on Monday. Here's everything you need to know ahead of proceedings.WATCH

Could my sister have raised a killer?

Of course, this thought has crossed her mind, she says – how could it not have?

It’s a question many people have asked, and one that will be answered when judgment is handed down in the trial of multiple murder accused Henri van Breda (22) in the Western Cape High Court on Monday.

But for this woman, there’s a lot more at stake than just curiosity and intrigue: the woman murdered alongside her husband and son that day was her sister.

Leenta Nel (63) now lives in Canada but was in South Africa for a few weeks to attend her nephew’s trial in 2017.

The state alleges Henri axed his parents, Martin (54) and Teresa (55), and his brother, Rudi (22), to death and tried to kill his younger sister, Marli (then 16).

She has often been told she looks and sounds like Teresa and it moves her every time she hears it. She misses her gentle-natured, cheerful younger sister more than words can express.

“Although I may wonder if Henri could be responsible for murdering my sister as well as his dad and brother, I do know the person who did that definitely wasn’t the Henri I know.

“If it was him, something must have happened in his brain that night to make him act totally differently. Because the next morning, when my brother André [du Toit] saw Henri, he was his normal self. He was the Henri we’ve all known since he was little.”

Leenta, a theatre sister, and her husband, Chris, an IT manager, have lived in Victoria, Canada, for the past 20 years.

The couple have two grown-up daughters – Rika, who’s studying in Nashville in the USA, and Susanne, a teacher in Victoria.

Leenta and her family have followed her nephew’s trial closely via the internet.

Every time Henri entered the dock at the high court in Cape Town, Leenta’s alarm clock would ring on her bedside table. Canada is nine hours behind South Africa and Leenta planned her days, so she wouldn’t miss a moment of the sensational family-murder trial.

The Henri standing trial is incongruous to the little boy she used to know.

“He was so soft-natured he immediately touched your heart,” Leenta says.

“The Henri I knew wasn’t capable of murdering his family.”

She explained that Henri didn’t want family members in court. But that day she decided to go.

“When he walked in he looked up towards me. I couldn’t help raising my hand in a little wave and he nodded in my direction. It was quite a touching moment.”

Leenta was accompanied by a friend from university, Jaap Rabie, who’s writing a book on the De Zalze murders titled The De Zalze Murders: The Story behind the Story.

Leenta is helping him to write the book for several reasons – among others because she had a dream in which Teresa said she’d like to document her life. The book, which Jaap claims has a lot of

Exclusive information about the family and the murders, is expected to be released once Judge Siraj Desai has delivered his verdict.

When we ask Leenta about the day her sister was murdered, pain is still evident in her voice.

Her phone rang at 2am that day, she recalls. A family member from South Africa was on the line with news that beggared belief.

“She told me that Teresa, Martin and Rudi were dead. I heard her saying Marli was in hospital. First, I thought there’d been a car accident but then she said they’d been murdered . . . It was terrible news,” Leenta says.

She went into shock. And Henri? She asked. Where was Henri? Why had no one said anything about him?

“Henri was also in the attack,” the relative said.

“Whether he did it or whether there were other attackers – he needs help and support,” said Leenta.  

The next day she called her brother André, who’s Henri and Marli’s guardian.

“What was the first thing Henri said to you?” Leenta asked him.

And then she asked the question anyone with knowledge of the case would repeat over and over: what exactly happened?

“Henri told my brother there were men wearing balaclavas in the house. They were very angry and attacked the family.

“You wouldn’t think up that kind of thing before the time,” she said, almost as if she was thinking out loud.

The Du Toits, Teresa’s side of the family, immediately closed ranks around Henri. They decided to protect him by maintaining their silence as far as possible and not disclosing information about the investigation to anyone but family members and close friends of the murder victims.

“Henri stutters. He’s an introvert and very shy and when he doesn’t know someone he stutters. He’s been like that since he was very young. That’s why people thought he was laughing when he called emergency services after the murders – but he wasn’t,” Leenta says.

Leenta rejects rumours that Henri was jealous of Rudi and there was a major family row before all hell broke loose under the Van Breda roof.

It’s nonsense, she says. Judging from what Teresa often told her on the phone, there wasn’t any rivalry between the brothers – except once when they argued about whose beard was longer, and Henri won.

“Rudi would’ve flown back to Australia [where the family used to live] to continue his studies and Martin had booked a diving course for Henri in Mozambique.

“What I do know is that Henri didn’t want to do that and also wanted to go back to Australia.”

Marli has suffered from retrograde amnesia since the attack and still can’t remember anything about that night, Leenta confirmed.

She recalls a particular day in 2014, which strengthens her belief that the boy she knew couldn’t have slaughtered his family.

Her mom, Rika du Toit (now 93), had arrived from Kempton Park to visit the family in Cape Town and had taken a fall.

“She cut her elbow and Teresa asked Henri to help tend to the wound. He wouldn’t because blood made him feel queasy,” Leenta says.

Jaap interjects: would someone who gets queasy about a little blood take an axe and attack a whole family?

“Everybody already thinks he’s guilty. But what if he’s actually innocent? Can you imagine what absolute hell he must be going through?” Leenta says.

“We’re holding our breath for the verdict.”

And she’s hoping beyond hope that this question she’s asked herself over and over – did her sister raise a murderer? – will give her the answered she wants to hear. She’s hoping Henri will be found innocent.

Because apart from Marli, he’s all she has left of her little sister.

Read more on:    henri van breda  |  van breda trial  |  van breda murders

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