What he’d done seemed unforgivable – and yet he found forgiveness.
During his long years in prison he dreamt of being a free man, riding his bike in the open air with the wind in his face. He dreamt of cycling thousands of kilometres, all along the coast of South Africa and the northern borders.
But Theo Fourie never thought his dream journey would come true. Nor that it’d turn out to be a honeymoon trip with a woman who loved him despite the appalling deed that landed him in prison.
Theo and his wife Colleen were married in April in Strand in the Western Cape. A few days after their wedding, they set off on their 7 000km trip. They’ve since managed to raise more than R20 000 for Meals on Wheels in the Northern Cape.
And that’s just the beginning. With Colleen (54) at his side, Theo (47) is determined to make a positive contribution to the world to make up for his horror crime all those years ago.
“I was this Rambo guy,” he says of his younger self. About the murder, for which he spent 18 years in jail, he says, “A life of arrogance led to that.”
Theo isn’t the same person who killed a business acquaintance 19 years ago, then set the body alight, say those who know him.
The widow of the murder victim, Ken Diepraam (59), who doesn’t want to be named, has also forgiven Theo.
In a letter to the Department of Correctional Services, she wrote that she supported Theo’s parole application because he’s shown true remorse, and that he “can contribute positively to society”.
Theo has told his story as a rehabilitated killer at schools and churches.
“Each time he has more than half the audience in tears,” Colleen says, chatting to us at their home in Rayton, near Pretoria.
“He has such a good heart. His faith is strong and he adores me.”
She says her husband’s past doesn’t bother her.
“To me Theo is a living example of grace, hope and love. I can’t associate this man in front of me with the one from 20 years ago.”
She knew of Theo’s past before their first meeting in April last year at a church in nearby Cullinan. Theo’s mother, Elba, is a member of the congregation and Colleen had been told her son was serving a prison sentence.
One Sunday when Colleen arrived in church, someone else’s Bible was lying on her usual seat. She moved it aside and sat down. A while later someone came looking for it.
“I won’t bite,” she said cheekily to the man, motioning to him to sit down next to her. But he chose to sit nearer the front of the church.
That morning, she struggled to focus on the sermon, Colleen says. She couldn’t stop thinking about the man with the blue eyes. Because it’s a small congregation, she suspected it was Elba’s son, out on parole.
After the service, she introduced herself to Theo. When he told her he was struggling to find a job, having been paroled three months earlier, she took his cellphone number. Shortly after that, she offered him a job on the guest farm she was running for her ex-husband at the time.
She didn’t ask Theo about his past, waiting for him to volunteer information. He told her about the shocking murder he committed in October 2000. He’d turned himself in to the police the next morning.
“I knew what I’d done and that I needed to pay for it,” Theo told Colleen.
He’s was sentenced to a life term. But in prison he picked up the Bible again for the first time in years. He completed a BA degree in counselling and hosted sessions for fellow prisoners due for parole, to make their integration into society easier.
Colleen had many questions but, she says, “he answered everything honestly and openly”.
“Colleen and I worked side by side every day – fixing geysers, doing maintenance . . . I developed feelings for her but kept it to myself,” Theo recalls.
In September last year, he couldn’t keep it to himself any longer and told her he was in love with her. And, “thank goodness”, she said she felt the same. Two months later they started a business, doing renovations and maintenance work.
“God sent me this man,” Colleen says, adding that her previous relationships hadn’t been healthy.
“I always had to be subordinate. My self-image was in tatters. But then Theo came.”
Colleen, who has two adult children, recently became a grandmother. At first, her family and friends were sceptical about Theo but she says once they got to know him, they accepted him.
After their 111-day cycle trip around the country, the couple are already planning their next adventure for charity.
Theo takes Colleen’s hand in his and kisses it.
“If the death penalty still applied SA, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says.
“Rehabilitation is possible. Forgiveness is possible. And of course, there’s love . . .”