Detective ‘Diehard’ retires after 37 years and 26 bullets

2018-02-16 20:36
PHOTO: Getty Images/ Gallo Images

PHOTO: Getty Images/ Gallo Images

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Detective Captain Jan van der Merwe (55) from Bethlehem in the Free State was shot 26 times in  his 37 year, serving his country and its people in the South African Police Service.

The first time it happened was in 1993, while on call as a member of the dog unit. A farmer was attacked at Clarens and Jan and his dog had to track down the suspects, who’d fled on foot.

Having been on their trail for about 10 km, Jan found himself on a koppie facing a shotgun.

“There was no turning back because I’d have fallen down the koppie and two of my group members were left behind me. The next moment the gun went off.”

“You stop dead in your tracks. Probably for five to 10 seconds, and when you look again you see the blood running all over you.”

The man wielding the shotgun was about 30 metres from Jan. Altogether 24 bullets found their target, wounding him in his legs, arms, on the side of his face and neck as well as his chest.

Jan was able to return fire and the shooter fell down behind the bush where he’d been hiding and surrendered to the police.

Jan’s partner, armed with a .357 Magnum revolver, also shot the suspect, who sustained a flesh wound in his left leg.  

“He tried running away but I hit him in his right calf and he fell.” 

Police reinforcements arrived and both thugs were arrested. Jan was carried down the koppie in a blanket and waited at the bottom for medical help.

Later that day, removing his packet of Chesterfield cigarettes from his shirt pocket, he was amazed to discover several shells in the small box, which it turns out prevented the lethal projectiles from penetrating his chest.   

Jan says he felt deeply grateful for that packet of cigarettes – probably the first time smoking had ever benefitted someone’s health.

 Doctors couldn’t remove all the shot from his body and today about eight pellets still remain lodged in his flesh.

“When I pass through the metal detectors at the airport you can clearly see the shot that’s still in my body.”

The second incident happened six months later when Jan was patrolling with a narcotics unit in the vicinity of Qwaqwa.

They were overtaken by a suspicious vehicle and Jan thought the occupants might be drug runners.

Little did he know that the five men in the car executed a taxi owner and his family at his home and were now fleeing. They belonged to a rival taxi association in Johannesburg and had been hired to make the hit.

About 10 km from Kestell the suspicious vehicle suddenly came to a dead halt and Jan and his colleague crashed into it. As Jan was about to climb out, an AK47 open fire on their vehicle.

The tibia and fibula in his right leg were ripped off in the hail of the bullets. Jan returned fired before he collapsed but the suspects were able to get away.

Two more AK47s and 800 rounds of ammunition later were found in the boot of the suspects’ vehicle. “That evening they were really set on killing.”

Some of the bone splinters from his shattered leg were removed and later joined again using screws and plates.

Jan and his colleague were awarded the Silver Cross for Bravery – because he fought back so fiercely despite being wounded, and because his colleague rushed to his assistance.

Although the challenges were enormous Jan says he never once considered quitting as a policeman as he enjoyed his work very much.

“You realise you’re a policeman. You have to risk danger so law and order can be maintained.”

In addition, he’d always aspired to be a policeman like his dad. “I never thought running away was an option, because I loved my job.

“Somebody had to do it,” he says, laughing

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