Missing passwords, a mystery unburnt water bottle: Ford Kuga fire case heats up

2019-05-20 20:49
Witness John Loud in a model of Reshall Jimmy's Kuga in the Western Cape High Court. (Jenni Evans, News24)

Witness John Loud in a model of Reshall Jimmy's Kuga in the Western Cape High Court. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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A fire expert from the US claimed some of the contents of the late Reshall Jimmy's Ford Kuga had been manipulated after it burnt out, sparking a heated exchange in the Western Cape High Court on Monday. 

John Loud spent most of the morning of the inquest into Jimmy's death going through the technical intricacies of the vehicle, with half of a replica Kuga assembled near where he stood in the witness box.

With a board containing the various wiring systems mounted to it opposite him, Loud painstakingly took the court through the inner workings of a modern vehicle. Loud is a principal engineer for Exponent Incorporated.

Judge Robert Henney stopped him frequently to make sure he understood the systems correctly, taking notes as Loud explained the wiring of a vehicle, and software upgrades to vehicle systems.

The cubby had also been dismounted to display the wiring nearest the engine on the passenger side of the vehicle, which would be at the tip of the toes of somebody stretching their legs in the footwell.

Loud said that when he inspected the vehicle in March he found a lot of evidence the original investigators appeared to have missed, and this included "competent ignition sources" and accelerants. 

This included a gate remote control which he called a "fob", leading the court to digress to figure out what the local equivalent of a "fob" is, until Henney produced his own blue gate remote from his pocket.

Loud said he also found a long braai lighter, a second cellphone under the passenger seat, a lithium ion foil from a cellphone battery, a vaping product, a flashlight and a normal lighter. 

He said he also found a bottle of hand sanitiser, also an accelerant due to its alcohol content, that had not burnt out in the fire, and an empty plastic bottle of water with its lid on which was also intact although it was under a piece of melted plastic from the vehicle. 

"I was shocked," he said of these discoveries in the vehicle's ruins which he sifted through in March.  

Jimmy was found dead in his Kuga on the night of December 4, 2015 after the George fire brigade had put the flames out. He was in the Wilderness area for a paragliding trip and the fire started after he had left the hotel he had checked into.

His family believes he died because the vehicle was defective. Ford has already submitted that after Jimmy's death, there were 52 incidents of fires in Kuga vehicles, but nobody was injured in those.

It recalled 4 670 vehicles in South Africa in January 2017 to rectify an engine cooling deficiency but has stated that Jimmy's vehicle did not cause his death. Ford has also questioned why Jimmy did not get out of the vehicle when the fire started.

On Monday the court heard that Jimmy had already complained about the car he bought in 2014 to the Consumer Commission, and had repeatedly taken it in to a dealer complaining about problems, which were not pin-pointed. 

The family has the backing of lobby group AfriForum which is handling the legal aspect of the inquest through former National Prosecuting Authority advocate Gerrie Nel. If the court finds that there was something wrong with the vehicle that caused Jimmy's death, the company might be prosecuted.

On Monday, Loud said what made the least sense to him about Jimmy's vehicle was that the top pile of clothing in his boot was uncharred. 

He found this strange because close to the clothes there were globules of melted copper from wiring. 

He explained that copper melts at 1080 degrees Celsius, so it made no sense that the copper would be melted, but the top layer of clothing would be uncharred. 

In his view, as he considered all of his hypotheses, this was very unusual and led him to conclude that something was amiss.

"The boot had been disturbed, turned over, and manipulated," said Loud.

Judge Henney stopped him in his tracks, and cautioned him against making assumptions.

"No, you can't say that," said Judge Henney, adding that evidence would be needed for Loud to make such a statement.

Loud said it would have been appropriate for any investigators to move things to examine the scene, but pictures should have been taken before anything was moved, for context, and he had never received any, which led him to say that. 

In the absence of these, he could not say what other conclusion he could come to regarding the uncharred top layer of clothing in the boot.

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

Nel dropped a bombshell when he said they actually did have photographs that were taken before the investigators started inspecting the vehicle's contents, and had withheld them for a reason to be revealed later.

Nel also complained that he had asked Ford repeatedly for the 2800 photographs that Loud and an associate had taken during their own investigation, but had not received them yet.

In the dying minutes of the court day, a sudden spat broke out between Nel and Ford's counsel Andre Bezuidenhout. Bezuidenhout insisted he had sent Nel the pictures, and Nel produced two devices purportedly containing the photographs, but said they were password protected. 

"Just give them the password," said Judge Henney.

The parties eventually agreed to hand over pictures that they had with the necessary passwords. 

The inquest was postponed to Tuesday where Loud is expected to continue with his testimony.

Read more on:    ford  |  reshall jimmy
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