Cold case justice

Andrea Muller
Andrea Muller

Johannesburg has no shortage of real-life crime stories, but few will restore your faith in the system or in people’s relentless quest for truth and justice, quite like the story of Betty Ketani. This week saw the launch of the book, Cold Case Confession, by local journalist Alex Eliseev. Cold Case Confession sets out one of the most perplexing crime stories of the decade.

It all started back in 2012, when the owners of a house in Kenilworth ripped up the old carpets in their home to complete some renovations.  A simple, typed letter, which could easily have been tossed aside, began with the following chilling words: “If you are reading this, then I am dead.”  What follows is a confession that details the kidnapping, torture and murder of single mother of three, Betty Ketani. Like thousands of other mothers around this country, Betty had made her way to the so-called bright lights of Johannesburg, all the way from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape.

She became a chef at Cranks, a restaurant well-known to locals. In her quest to send wages home and provide for her family, Betty spent her life at work. Time with loved ones was restricted to Christmas and Easter.  Then in 1999 all contact between Betty and her children ceased. The bewildered Queenstown family were filled with anguish as their beloved mother, daughter and sister had seemingly disappeared without a trace. A haphazard police investigation offered no peace or comfort, and Betty’s story was shelved in the abyss of the criminal justice system for nearly 13 years until that fateful day when the letter was found.

In 2012, Eyewitness news reporter, Alex Eliseev was tipped off about a peculiar cold case, and the mystery letter, shortly after the first murder suspects were arrested.  Just this week and almost two decades from the time that the murder was committed, Betty Ketani’s killers were finally brought to justice, when the judge handed down sentencing, most notably 30 years to Carrington Laughton, who it turned out was the author of the three-page typed confession.

So, what’s the big deal about the Betty Ketani case? It’s the fact that against all odds and despite the best efforts of a few heartless criminals – the story of a little-known woman from a small town captured the attention of a group of dedicated and relentlessly committed individuals. From the police who re-opened the case, including investigating officer, Captain Gerhard Van Wyk to lead prosecutor, Herman Broodryk SC (who described the case as the most difficult in his 34-year career) together with his partner, Advocate Namika Kowlas.

Without a body and with no motive provided, this entire case was built on circumstantial evidence and DNA samples sent across the continents for testing. Then there’s Alex Eliseev, who gave Betty and her family a voice. While Oscar and Dewani captured the attention of millions around the world, Alex remained quietly committed to Betty’s case. He kept a photo of her above his desk at his home office. So, when free time with his wife and son were sacrificed, when he faced teasing from colleagues about the never-ending cold case, and when the trial seemed to drag on without an end, he would think about the young mother from Queenstown and how desperately her family needed closure.

So, while the wheels of justice turned slowly, this time they turned in the right direction. To this day Betty Ketani’s killers have never provided a reason for why she was murdered. However, Cold Case Confession does much to restore your faith in our system, and some of the stellar individuals who still do everything they can for the ordinary South African. To quote Thuli Madonsela’s words about Eliseev’s book, it just goes to show that – “we are all equal before the law”.
Andrea Müller

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