It was his best friend’s birthday and there were treats galore and even a little lamb to pet and play with. Seven-year-old Dylan Neethling was in his element as he joined in the festivities in the shadow of Paarl Mountain.
No one could have predicted that magical spring morning in the Salem Biblical Garden near Paarl in the Western Cape would mark the start of the little boy’s final day.
In the early hours of the following morning he was shot dead in his bedroom. And the person who took his life was the man he saw as his protector – his father, Johann Neethling (69).
After pulling the trigger Johann called the police to report a shooting before lying down on the bed beside his son’s body and shooting himself. His estranged wife, Nandia (38), wipes away tears with the back of her hand – she’s barely stopped crying since receiving the terrible news that her only child would never be coming back to her.
Then she manages a brave smile. “You can’t just cry constantly,” says Nandia, who’s talking to us in her brother Rudi Visser’s flat in Bellville, Cape Town.
Although the pain of her loss is still so raw, she’s agreed to speak to YOU in the hope that some good can come from this senseless tragedy. “If I can help only one person, it’ll be enough. I want to warn parents who are in the midst of a divorce: make sure there are no weapons in the house.”
It’s the day after Dylan’s funeral. His friends at PanoramaPrimary School showed up dressed as superheroes, while mourners said farewell outside the church clutching brightly coloured balloons.
“There was a candle in church with a picture of his face on it,” she says. “Those eyes . . . It felt as if he was looking at me the whole time.” Nandia believes Johann, who was a microbiologist and did consulting work from home, had planned the murder-suicide to precede the signing of the divorce papers the following week.
“What goes through a father’s mind?” she says.“Dylan had his whole life ahead of him. Johann couldn’t even look him in the face. “He shot Dylan in the back of the head.
At 2.30pm that Saturday afternoon – a few hours after the children’s party – Nandia dropped Dylan off at the Panorama home she’d lived in during her eight-year marriage to Johann.
After the couple separated earlier this year, their lawyers had agreed Dylan would stay with Johann every second weekend and would visit him every Thursday.
“That day I’d bought him a khaki T-shirt, underwear and a packet of chips – he loved the sweet chilli flavour and called them ‘hot chips’.
“When we stopped at the house he asked me if I’d keep the T-shirt and underwear with me – he didn’t want to take them, he said. Then he gave me a hug and went inside.” After driving away she noticed Dylan had also left his chips in the car.
“He left his special things for me,” she says tearfully. On Sunday morning her phone rang. It was the police – and what they told her would shatter her life in an instant. “There are all these questions. Why my child? You see this kind of thing in movies but you don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you.”
Johann wanted to give Nandia heartache for the rest of her days, Rudi says.
“Dylan was a gem and Nandia’s whole life revolved around him.”Nandia decided to have Dylan cremated wearing his new khaki T-shirt and the green pants he often wore to church. “I put the elf my mom had given him for Christmas next to his shoulder, rubbed some lip balm on his lips and gelled his hair.
“He had a smile on his face.” This is how she wants to remember him.
Nandia says she’d tried to protect Dylan from the hostility that had developedbetween his mom and dad. A few days after she left Johann in July he laid charges of assault against her and her parents, Gerda and Kobus Visser, and got a restraining order against her.
Nandia countered by telling police about the weapons in his house.
“I was specific about where he kept the gun and told them it wasn’t locked away. But he lied to the police and told them it was a pellet gun. In the end, he used that same gun to shoot my child.”
She denies that there’d ever been an assault incident and claims Johann’s statement was based on lies. Nevertheless, the interdict against her was granted, prohibiting her from setting foot on the Panorama property.
Nandia and Johann met through Rudi, who works in the food industry, and despite their 31-year age gap there was an instant connection. They dated for about a year before their wedding in 2011 and Nandia had Dylan not long afterwards.
“I’d always wanted to be mom,” she says. “Dylan really was my bundle of joy.” The first signs of Johann’s strange behaviour surfaced before her son was born.
“Johann sulked for about two months when he found out I was pregnant. He didn’t want me to buy any baby clothes. When he found out it was a boy things improved a bit.”
But the marriage had deteriorated and derailed over the past two years.
“He wanted to control me,” she says. “He put up cameras all over the house so he could watch me from his stud y .”
Johann didn’t want Nandia to work, so she sold cosmetics part-time. Eventually she and Dylan moved out and went to live with family in Bellville.
“There was no more love left and I couldn’t raise my child in those circumstances. When we moved out Dylan became a different child. He used to spend hours playing computer games or watching TV but now he suddenly enjoyed playing outside.”
She recalls how one day he drew pictures in the condensation on a window. “One picture was of him and me with smiles on our faces and a heart next to us. He drew his dad a small distance away with an upside-down mouth. ‘Daddy is always angry’ Dylan said .”
Nandia will keep her son’s ashes for the time being – it’s all she has left of the boy who was her everything and it’s too soon to even consider letting them go. When she feels ready she’ll place them in a remembrance wall, she says. Although her heart is broken she’s determined not to allow the tragedy to destroy her.
“I’m not going to shrivel up and die – that’s what Johann wanted.”
She and Dylan’s menagerie of beloved pets – Sonic the hedgehog, Billy the spaniel, Moemfie the rabbit and Ghatu the cat – will be spending some time with her parents in Ceres.
She’ll decide the course for her life later, she says.
“But I know I’m going to live for my son. I have to find something positive in all of this.”