:: Article

The Sunrise Murder

By Eugène Marais. Translated from Afrikaans by Christo Snyman.

In certain respects the Sunrise murder was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary events in South African criminology. So much so that some of our senior detectives still refer to it as being — quite literally — the most accomplished of murders.

The case is also of interest because it shows us how sheer luck and coincidence in similar cases are sometimes of greater value to the detective than all of his skill. However, these days it’s generally accepted that skill also played a substantial role in this particular case.

The small bushveld town of Sunrise lies so far from the main roads, is so removed from the hustle and bustle of the big wide world that most city-dwellers haven’t even heard of it. There is a small train station three miles from the town which is the village’s only connection with the outside world. Every so often a lost motor-car finds its way to Sunrise. And then the driver and passengers are usually surprised to come across a village in such a lonely spot.

All the original inhabitants of Sunrise agree that the arrival of Lenie le Roux immediately brought about a marked change to the town’s atmosphere. Miss le Roux was twenty-five years old when she arrived as head teacher of the new school. She was a very pretty girl. She was full of life and it soon became her heart’s desire to liven up the sleepy old town with its single train station. The first project she set herself was to establish a town hall. And despite the general pessimism with which her plan was greeted, she achieved it with much confidence in an astonishingly short period of time. She established a dramatic society, arranged concerts and bazaars, and had no qualms whatsoever about asking the wealthy poultry farmers to part with their money for the overall benefit of the town. Within a few months the town became the proud owner of its own thatch-roofed building, big enough to provide seating for most people. Then she established a band and taught the young folk to dance. Miss le Roux’s latest endeavour did not go unchallenged. Many of the older folk wanted to have nothing to do with dancing, but the young minister of religion who visited Sunrise once a month wasn’t concerned. He was convinced that the young people would behave themselves so he allowed them to go ahead. Even when a church elder complained, the Reverend made it clear that “he saw no evil in dancing,” provided there was nothing excessive about it. Ultimately it provided young folk with exercise and promoted mutual social interaction. In this way Lenie saw to it that, at least once a month, a dance social was held in the hall which rapidly became extremely popular amongst the young folk of the town and the surrounding areas.

The terrible event which gave Sunrise a high profile in the outside world for several weeks took place on the day after once of these monthly socials.

Upon her arrival, Lenie le Roux had taken up residence in the house of a relatively elderly couple, Willem and Betta van Staden, known as Uncle Willem and Aunt Betta. They had no children so were only too pleased to have such a lively, happy young girl in their quiet, rather lonely home. Their house was on the edge of the village, half hidden behind the outposts of the surrounding dense bushveld trees. Only one house lay even further from the centre of the town. It was that of Wouter de Leeuw, an Afrikaner of Belgian extraction. He was a trader in wild animals, animal skins, horns — practically everything that the bushveld provided. His house, which was approximately one mile from that of the Van Stadens, was encircled by big cages in which he kept a large number of monkeys, apes, snakes, and all the other kinds of small animal found in the region. It was his habit to transport his animals personally to one of the big cities, about two or three times a year, where he would sell them. He was an unmarried man of about forty years and, at the time of the murder, he’d already lived in the town for about five years. He was a quiet, withdrawn man, and he gave the impression that there had been a great tragedy in his past. We mention him here because he was the Van Staden’s closest neighbour. Besides the Van Stadens, he was also first to hear of the terrible tragedy and to become acquainted with the immediate circumstances.

It was a Saturday night. The Van Stadens had an early supper, as they usually did, after which Aunt Betta and Lenie le Roux relaxed in some armchairs outside to enjoy the blissful coolness of the evening. There was an indescribable magic about the dark, lustrous shadows of the massive thorn trees, just visible in the soft glow of the full moon. By now the moon was high above the tree tops where it dominated the eastern heavens. It was quiet as it always was at night in Sunrise. Occasionally there was the howling of a jackal from the outskirts of the village, the sound of a barking dog, or the mournful hoot of a horned owl but, aside from that, silence reigned.

“What a glorious evening!” Lenie said and, after a while, “I was expecting Jan Foster and Willie Serfontein to come round to apologize for their behaviour yesterday evening. Both of them promised to do so and I really think they owe it to me.”

Aunt Betta heaved a sigh. She had never really cared for the dance parties. “Lenie, I’ve told you that nothing good would ever come of it. Why not put an end to the parties?”
“Rubbish!” Uncle Willem grunted. “It’s not the dance that caused the ruckus. It could have happened as easily during church communion…”. He wanted to continue and Aunt Betta stood by to soften the blows of his argument. But Lenie didn’t want to be a part of this conversation. She stood up suddenly saying: “It’s such a glorious evening, Aunt Betta. I’m going for a little walk. If one of them arrives, please tell him I’ve taken the Rooikrans footpath. He can come and meet me.” Laughing cheerfully she left through the front gate to disappear quickly between the dark shadows of the trees.

And that was the last time that anybody ever heard her voice or saw her alive. The elderly Van Staden couple continued to sit in silence for about half an hour. They too felt unwilling to discuss the behaviour of Jan Foster and Willie Serfontein any further. Besides, either one or both of these gentlemen could make their appearance at any moment. And then things would certainly be uncomfortable.

And then, through the great silence, the old couple suddenly heard a sound — a gruesome sound that plucked them both upright at once.

“What’s that?” Aunt Betta cried, a hand over her heart.

“Bring my rifle, Betta — hurry!” Uncle Willem commanded while moving towards the front gate.

The sound came from the direction of the Rooikrans footpath. It was a shriek, a scream, suddenly deadened as if a great, burly hand had been clasped over the mouth of the person screaming. That at least is what the old couple would later tell the investigators, over and over again.

Then there was dead quiet again.

It was a while before Uncle Willem had his loaded rifle in his hands. As he made off his wife continued to shout instructions after him, and then suddenly she called: “There she is!”

Both saw her almost at the same time. She emerged from the trees which marked the way to the footpath, stumbling in the moonlight. She was clothed in ghostly white. She stumbled as she walked, and every few moments, just as they expected her to collapse, she would trip. Even at this distance Uncle Willem could see that she kept her head up, like someone walking and looking at the stars. He was already moving towards her with his heavy rifle, Aunt Betta a short way behind him, when the expected happened. One moment Lenie was standing still in the footpath, both hands folded over her stomach. The next, she fell over in the long grass like someone who had been shot. They knelt beside her but could see that any human effort for Lenie le Roux would be too late. She was dead and her face wore an expression of painful struggle.

“Stay here, Betta. I’ll call Wouter de Leeuw … he has a phone in his house.”

Uncle Willem found Wouter at home. Within a few minutes, the police office at the railway station and the district surgeon, Dr Oosterryk, were aware of the facts.

Wouter de Leeuw immediately offered his assistance and that of his servants and, no sooner were they back on the porch, when they saw the lights of two motor cars through the rows of trees.

Of course it was too late. Lenie was dead. She was practically dead before the old couple reached her where she lay in the long grass. They placed her on the bed in her bedroom. It was here where Dr Oosterryk was kept busy with the post-mortem examination for many hours afterwards. When he emerged, still with his thick rubber gloves on and a knife and scissors in his hands, his face wore an expression of astonishment which rendered words unnecessary.

“We need to use your telephone at once, De Leeuw. We must call the police.”

The following day three detectives arrived from the capital city as well as two young doctors from the department of medical investigation.

And the next day they departed for Johannesburg, together with the body, leaving the Bushveld town of Sunrise in a condition of shock never experienced before.

The young detective, Noël Marchand, stayed behind on the instructions of the commissioner to do further investigations.

When he phoned the commissioner the following day he could hear at once that his chief was deeply upset and dissatisfied.

“This is not a case for investigation, Noël. I don’t think this was a crime at all or that a second person was involved. If the doctors cannot tell us how someone died, how can they expect us to figure it out? But go ahead as if it were a murder. Regard each inhabitant of the village as a possible culprit. I’ll send you the result of the medical investigation but I doubt it will help.”

The doctor’s report read as follows: “The deceased, Lenie le Roux, was a young, healthy girl of 25. Externally there is no wound or any disturbance of the clothing. There was no assault or attempted assault. There are no head wounds or wounds to any other part of the body except for three parallel cuts on the inside of the left arm, one inch below the elbow. These wounds are half an inch deep and there was reasonable bleeding. The ridges of the wound were torn, as if made by a saw instead of a knife or other sharp instrument. The girl died as a result of asphyxiation, but there are no signs on the throat of violent strangling, or any areas surrounding the throat. Neither is there any injury on the mouth or surrounding areas. There is no indication of poisoning. There is no evidence at all of how the strangulation or suffocation was caused.”

“There you have it,” thought Noël Marchand, “she died of lack of air and our medical colleagues don’t go any further than that.”

Although the Detective-Sergeant made no attempt to hide his rank or the purpose of his visit, it was already well known. He immediately began his investigation from when Uncle Willem and Aunt Betta had last seen the girl alive. From them he heard about her remarks about the behaviour of Jan Foster and Willie Serfontein the night before her death. Jan Foster was the station’s postmaster and Willie Serfontein the manager of the small bank. It was no secret that both were in love with Lenie and extremely jealous of each other.
The previous evening there’d been a serious quarrel between the two about a dance promised to Foster which Serfontein insisted on having. He simply refused to let Lenie go. The result was that Foster could not find Lenie and so — infuriated — he finished the dance with another girl. When he later got the truth from Lenie, he gave Willie Serfontein a blow, there and then, which made Serfontein stumble back on his heels. A fist fight would have ensued if others had not stepped in and put an end to the matter.

One of the more noteworthy participants in the role of peace-maker was Wouter de Leeuw. He immediately offered his arm to Lenie and said: “We live close to each other. I’ll make sure I hand you over to Uncle Willem, safe and sound”. Despite the earliness of the hour, Lenie left with him. But before they were out the front door, Foster shouted after them: “This is your fault, Lenie! It’s because you’re untrue and your promises can’t be trusted. This isn’t the end of it!” At least twenty people witnessed this outburst.
“How does this help me,” Marchand asked of himself, “even if I could prove that he made this threat and that he was in the vicinity when the girl met her death. Did a murder occur and, if so, how did he commit it? So far we don’t have the least evidence of it.”

His first task was to summon the two young men to the police station and to put them under strict cross-examination. They did not try to defend their behaviour or beat about the bush. Both acknowledged, with chests thrust out, what had happened, and each of them had a watertight alibi. At the time of Lenie le Roux’s death Foster and Serfontein were both in the Sunrise bar where they had mended their broken friendship and toasted it all night long. They decided not to visit the town again that night. Instead they played cards at the hotel until midnight. There were dozens of witnesses to place their alibi beyond question.

Thereafter Marchand went through the whole of the town with a fine tooth comb. He engaged every inhabitant and, when he had finished, had to admit to the Commissioner that he was no step closer than when he started. There was one person whose name came up time and again but who Marchand was never able to question. It was Wouter de Leeuw. He had arrived first after the Van Stadens and had done much to help. Marchand always kept coming back to him in his mind, but De Leeuw was away with a contingent of animals. Marchand would have to wait until he returned.

In the meantime, however, he found out everything about De Leeuw that was to be known in Sunrise. All was very much in favour of him. And yet there was something which made him feel uneasy when he thought about De Leeuw. One afternoon he decided to take a walk to his house; he had never been there before. He found it just after a dense border of high thorn trees. In the flower garden in front of the house an old gardener worked with a fork. He immediately recognised Marchand as the new policeman and greeted him with fearful politeness.

“Is the boss not home yet?”

“No, Master, but I expect him at any time. I heard the train whistle and this is the one on which he will be. He’ll be here in an hour.”

“Open the front door,” Marchand ordered. “I’ll wait for him in his work room.”

“The door is open, Master,” the old man answered.

Years later Marchnd would never be able to explain why he decided to go into the house. To the right of the passage was an open door. Upon entering Marchand saw the apparatus of a small laboratory. There were chemical tubes and flasks, spirit lamps, chemical scales, and so forth. What would a trader in animals need with these things? He stood dead still to get an overview of the whole room and suddenly his eyes fell upon a small flask on the second shelf to his right. On the flask was a label with three thick red crosses: XXX. Suddenly everything made sense. Many years before he had visited the Department of Medical Investigation in Johannesburg in connection with some blood spatters in a particular murder case. His interview had been with a young Afrikaans doctor, nearly as young as he was. While he had stood listening, his eyes had rested upon a small bottle on the desk with three red crosses on the label. Absentmindedly he had picked up the bottle to take a closer look.

“Careful how you handle that, Sergeant; it’s deadly!” the young doctor had warned. “If you were to open that and there was a sore on your hand — the size of the point of a needle — we’d have to work quickly to save your life if even the cork were to touch the sore!”

Marchand asked what it was. He was very much interested.

“We’re performing experiments to prepare a serum against the poison of mamba snakes. We have to obtain stocks of fresh poison on a continuous basis and it costs rather a lot. We get almost all of our mamba poison, highly concentrated, from a chap in the small town of Sunrise in the Bushveld, and he always marks it that way. With three red crosses.”

It now all became crystal clear again to Marchand as he hesitantly touched the flask. Suddenly he started to work at lightning speed. With his revolver in his hand he was out in the flower garden to drag the surprised gardener roughly indoors and without a word.

“I want the saw. Your master’s saw!” When the man eventually understood the instruction, he bent over and took from under the long wall table a small saw like the kind used by surgeons. One glance was enough for Marchand. It had blood spots on it. Between the teeth were pieces of skin. And then he remembered the final words that the young doctor had spoken: “It must be a terrible death. It causes paralysis of a site in the spine which is responsible for the lungs. The victim would show all the signs of strangulation, internally and externally … the face would be dark, almost black …”.

He hastily put the flask with the saw on the table in front of him and he pushed the old man behind the door saying to him: “If you move or make a noise, I’ll shoot you.”

Outside was the sound of a motor vehicle coming to a stop. A few minutes later Wouter de Leeuw walked into the room, a big, well-built man with dark eyes and hair. When his eyes fell upon the flask and the saw, he got a fright — as if someone had hit him. He became deathly pale but, before he could move, the sound of a click could be heard and the restraints were on his wrists.

Later Marchand searched Lenie le Roux’s desk where there was enough evidence that De Leeuw had already been bothering her for months with written declarations of his love. Her civil refusals to De Leeuw’s advances were found in De Leeuw’s house. There was enough evidence of a bitter jealousy. But this evidence was not necessary because De Leeuw admitted everything.

Eugène Marais (above) was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1871. Much of his early education was in English and he matriculated at the age of 16. After leaving school he worked as a legal clerk and a journalist. He is generally considered to be a giant of Afrikaans letters in South Africa, having written not only stories and poems, but also works of naturalist science. Marais discovered the Waterberg cycad — a type of plant indigenous to South Africa — which was named after him. He died in Pelindaba in the northern reaches of South Africa in 1936.

Christo Snyman lives in northern New Jersey, USA, where he works as a freelance translator. Previously he worked at a national non-profit organisation in the financial services industry of his native South Africa. He has had two short stories published in New Contrast — a South African literary journal for original writing. He was also a runner-up in the 2008 Commonwealth Short Story competition. Christo has a BA Hons degree in Translation from Wits University in Johannesburg.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 19th, 2017.