Gruesome details of post-mortem on Kuga driver's body revealed at inquest

2019-03-20 21:08
Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Tonkin (Jenni Evans, News24)

Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Tonkin (Jenni Evans, News24)

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Gruesome details of the post-mortem conducted on Reshall Jimmy who was found dead in a burnt Ford Kuga were revealed at the inquest into his death being heard in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday.

Advocate Andre Bezuidenhout, for the Ford Motor Company, has questioned the quality of the police's investigation into Jimmy's death on December 4, 2015, in Wilderness, near George, and contends that they focused on the vehicle instead of pursuing alternatives presented by witnesses near the scene.

These included a claim of the appearance and then disappearance of a vehicle with "coloured males" in it near the burning vehicle, the sound of a gunshot as related by another witness, and the discovery of what may be spent bullet casings found near the vehicle. 

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Tonkin, who oversaw the investigation into the fire after the discovery of Jimmy's body inside the vehicle, defended his team's investigation. 

He said they started to turn to the vehicle itself as the possible cause of the fire by a process of elimination.

He said that this was partly because at the time there were reports of Ford vehicles burning out. 

Ford welcomes inquest

At that time Jimmy's was the only death and after eliminating claims that Jimmy had been at a casino, or in an altercation at a casino, they started to wonder whether the fire was the result of a technical fault on the vehicle. He conceded that some of the witnesses whose contact numbers had been taken on the night the car went up in flames had not been interviewed, but also said that some leads had led to a dead end.

Ford has said it also wants answers to Jimmy's death and welcomed the inquest.

The company said while there has been much media speculation about his death, it does not agree with Jimmy's sister, Renisha, that it was caused by a defect on the Kuga. It also believes Jimmy's failure to leave the vehicle when it was burning was not attributable to Ford in any way.

The company has already submitted that after the death of Jimmy, there were 52 incidents of fires in Kuga vehicles, but nobody was injured. 

The fires led to a major recall by Ford of 4 670 vehicles in South Africa in January 2017. This was to rectify an engine cooling deficiency. 

One of the points of contention in the investigation was that the police have not been able to get a copy of Ford's first investigation report. 

First investigator 'was wrong'

This report, according to Constable Thembekile Matwa of the Eden police, had concluded that the fire was caused by two wires near the front of the vehicle that had caused an arc. 

However, subsequent reports from Ford had found differently – that the fire started at the back of the car, that there were flammable items in the car such as a braai lighter, or simply that the cause was "undetermined".

However, on Wednesday, Bezuidenhout announced that the Ford investigator who compiled the first report got it wrong. 

"Ford's view is that (investigator Andrew) Young was wrong in his opinion," Bezuidenhout told presiding officer Judge Robert Henney. Henney had spoken at length about the police's right to collect evidence, including documents during an investigation, and sought to determine why they had not been able to get a copy of the first Ford report even though Matwa had been part of the delegation inspecting the vehicle.

Young is expected to testify at a later date in the inquest. 

However, Tonkin said that another reason the police turned to the vehicle as a possible cause of death was that pathologist Dr Mariette Hurst told him informally that Jimmy's lungs had smoke in them. 

Fire at least 1 000°C

She had found that he had died of asphyxiation, with "no foul play" detected. 

He said that he was told that the fire's temperature would have been at least 1 000°C, which was higher than the 700°C at which copper melts.

Bezuidenhout took him to task on this, saying that Hurst's remarks to him were not official and that her post-mortem does not state "no foul play".

He said that according to Hurst's official post-mortem report, she had been given some background notes to consider when Jimmy's body arrived. 

These were that he had been found in a burnt vehicle, that he had not been identified yet, and that there was the possibility that he had been shot. 

The possibility that he had been shot stemmed from a mark behind one of his ears, with a splatter of brain on his skull.

Bezuidenhout proceeded to provide distressing details of Jimmy's post-mortem.

He said Jimmy's trachea was filled with soot and his body was charred.

Speculation over seat belt

The matter found behind his ear was due to his body's response to the excessive heat causing a "pop" in that region of his skull. 

Bezuidenhout said the report found "no evidence of shooting" and that Hurst concluded that the cause of death was "unknown/charring". 

The inquest is also trying to establish why Jimmy did not remove his seat belt and get out of the car when it was burning.

On Tuesday the first officer on the scene, Constable Ryan Petersen, said the fire had been so fierce that he only saw there was a person in the vehicle once the fire brigade had put the flames out.

Tonkin had earlier opined that the vehicle's technology may be set for the doors to not open while it is moving, or he may have been overcome by fumes, but he was stopped short by Bezuidenhout. 

"You are not a technical expert," submitted Bezuidenhout. 

The inquest will resume on Monday.   

Read more on:    kuga  |  kuga fire

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