March 05, 2014

The Bitter Truth about Reeva Steenkamp's Death

For 13 months I have refrained from voicing any public opinion or passing judgement on the killing in South Africa of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius. As is known, he shot his girlfriend around 3 a.m. on the morning of Valentine's Day 2013 with four bullets fired at a toilet door behind which she had been. Three of the four bullets hit her and led to her death.

From the morning of February 14 when the news broke that the famous 'blade-runner' had killed his girlfriend, a well known model and reality TV celebrity of her own in South Africa, the speculations about what happened in the night at the Silver Woods Estate where Pistorius has his house went wild. Had he shot her deliberately after a quarrel or, as he described it, had there been a terrible mistake on his part? Pistorius gave a statement to the effect that he had thought there was an intruder in his bathroom, had grabbed for his gun, which he always has at his bedside, went to the bathroom, panicked and shot at the door while believing his girlfriend Reeva was lying in bed sleeping.

The story, with which Pistorius managed to achieve bail and thus freedom, sounded incredulous for many reasons, yet as a jurist I know that only facts laid down in proven evidence can lead to truth and justice needed in a criminal case. And for that reason I thought it wise to not publicly voice my opinion on his version of the story but wait for the trial to show what really might have happened that night between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.

Two days have now gone into the long awaited trial that is taking place in Pretoria's High Court, and the two days with three witnesses testifying to what they heard that night have been nothing less than a shock. For never would I have thought that the hard to bear truth of that night would be exposed so quickly in what has been planned to be a several weeks long trial.

Pistorius account of the night

The story Pistorius had almost immediately told to the police after his arrest had been that he had woken up and gotten out of bed to close the sliding glass balcony doors. It was then – in pitch darkness of the bedroom as he says – that he had heard noises from the bathroom area, had – again in total darkness – grabbed his gun next to his bed, had run on his stumps to the bathroom, had felt vulnerable as he did not have his blades attached, and for that reason started to fire at the toilet door, not enquiring who was behind it. Since it had been, according to his account, so dark in the bedroom, he could not see if his girlfriend was lying in bed but simply took it for granted that she was sleeping and thus not expecting it to be her behind the toilet door. Killing her was thus not intended and when, after the shots were fired, he called out to her in bed and got no reaction he realised it must be her in the toilet, got a baseball bat and bashed in the locked door to find Reeva seriously wounded. He then screamed for help, called security, family and a friend and carried his girlfriend downstairs to the hall where she died. The police were on the scene shortly after and the known events took their course.

There were many aspects of this story that seemed hard to believe.

It had to be noted with surprise that while Pistorius – living in a gated community with almost zero crime incidents – said he thought there was an intruder in his bathroom and because he was on his stumps felt vulnerable and in panic shot at the toilet door, the same man that so lost his head in the fear of a possible intruder slept peacefully without closing the sliding glass doors of his balcony. After all he had said he had gotten out of bed to shut them before allegedly hearing a noise.

The argument of Pistorius that South Africa was a troubled country with many burglaries – "I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering the home with a view to commit crime, including violent crime." – which according to him explained his irrational, fear-stricken, immediate shooting reaction, seemed odd at best coming from a man who, instilled with such fear, at the same time saw no problem in sleeping with the balcony wide open – which he hardly would have done had he truly been afraid of burglars climbing into his home.

The narrative that in the pitch darkness of the bedroom he never once thought of waking and alerting his girlfriend to the alleged intruder, and thus the imminent danger lurking only metres away in the bathroom, again was hard to take.

The door leading to the stairways to the hall, down which, after the shooting, Pistorius immediately carried the dying Reeva, was just adjacent to the bed. Any man with normal reactions on apparently hearing an intruder in the bathroom would have immediately and quietly woken up his girlfriend, probably holding his hand over her mouth so she would not make any noise, would have whispered to her that there was an intruder in the bathroom and told her to silently slip out the door down to the hall and call security and police. Only then, after knowing the girlfriend to be out and safe, would any normal person have taken the gun and walked off to the bathroom area, normally not to randomly shoot at a closed door not knowing who was behind it and what injuries such a shooting could cause, but to ward off the apparent intruder until the police would arrive.

After all, there was only the one door as exit out of the toilet cubicle. The intruder could not have stepped into the bathroom area other than by opening that door. Covering it with a loaded gun and voicing the willingness to make use of it should the intruder dare to open the door would have been a unfailing safe way to keep the intruder at bay until the upcoming arrest by the arriving police.

None of this, according to Pistorius account, however happened. Not one of these normal reactions one would have expected were part of his story. Instead he said he let Reeva continue sleeping while walking on his stumps with his gun to the bathroom area where he immediately opened fire at the locked toilet door – as he felt so vulnerable on his stumps that he lost his head.

What, besides everything else, one wondered at the time, kept him from putting on his blades before tackling an unknown, supposedly deadly dangerous intruder, when being on stumps scared him so massively? Something he surely must have known after decades of living with this disability?

Pistorius, confronted with interpretations of what really might have happened that night, rejected that any argument between him and Reeva had preceded the shooting. The blade-runner had a reputation of turning aggressive at times, both in speech and with guns, so the accusation of the prosecution ran that Pistorius and Reeva had quarrelled that night, that Pistorius had run into a temper and grabbed for his gun, that Reeva had fled into the bathroom and locked herself in the toilet cubicle at which Pistorius in rage then shot, killing her with three bullets to her side, her shoulder and her head.

Pistorius denied that anything like this had happened. Yet next to the fact that his version to the story seemed hardly believable, there were other questions arising to which he could not give a satisfactory answer. Because in the bathroom on the floor, in front of the shower next to the toilet door, the cell phones both of Reeva and him were found lying, when the police entered the house.

Why would Reeva, had she, as Pistorius alleged, gone to the toilet at night, have taken her cell phone with her and then dumped it on the bathroom floor? At 3 a.m. in the morning? And why, if no quarrel or fight had taken place, had his phone too fallen to the floor?

It remains one of the unsolved questions so far what those cell phones were doing on the bathroom floor as it also still has to be seen whether the bullet trajectories will show if Pistorius indeed was on his stumps when shooting – which would have led to the bullets going up into the toilet door – or, as the prosecution believes was in fact on his blades – which would have led to the bullets going down into the toilet door. These questions the trial on the second day has not tackled yet. But after what one has had to listen to in these two days makes these questions almost irrelevant.

The witness testimonies that crush Pistorius' story

On day one of the trial, Monday, March 3, the first witness, neighbour Michelle Burger, testified to what she heard the night Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead. According to Burger she and her husband woke up around 3 a.m. to terrified screams of a woman clearly in fear. "I sat upright in bed." Her husband rushed to the balcony while the screams of the woman continued.

Burger: "She called for help. She screamed terribly and shouted for help. Then I heard a man also call for help. He called for help three times."

Burger said she had believed she was hearing the sounds of a robbery next door, had taken her cell phone and dialled for security, then her husband had talked security guards and asked them to investigate.

"Then I heard her screams again," said Burger. "It was like a climax. I heard her anxiety. She was very scared."

Then she heard the shots, with a pause between the first and second shot, rapidly followed by two more.

"It was bang... bang, bang, bang," Burger said.

Then she heard a voice and all went silent.

On being aggressively cross-examined by Pistorius' defence lawyer Barry Roux, who tried hard to get Burger confused or tarnish her credibility, the witness remained unshaken, even when Burger insinuated she could not know if she had heard a woman scream or a man.

Burger insisted that it had been a woman she heard and that it was the "fear from her voice that startled" her, and added: "It was very traumatic for me. You could hear blood curdling screams. It is something that leaves you cold."

On day two, Tuesday, March 4, Roux once more cross-examined Burger and questioned her testimony with regard to the alleged help screams of a man, which in Roux's eyes made no sense. Burger insisted that she had heard a man also scream three times for help – "perhaps out of mockery? I don't know. You must ask Mr. Pistorius why, not me." – and again did not deviate from her previous testimony. She insisted on having heard the petrified screams of a woman clearly in fear and said to the presiding judge: "My lady, you only shout like that when your life is in danger."

When asked what impact on her life this experience had, Burger, who had defied four hours of grilling by the Pistorius' defence lawyer, got emotional for the first time.

"When I'm in the shower I relieve her shouts," Burger said battling with tears, "her terrifying screams."

Her husband confirms her statement

Later in the day, Charl Johnson, husband to Michelle Burger, confirmed her version of events of the fateful night.

According to him he too woke up to the screams of a woman. He got out of bed and walked out onto the balcony and heard clearly the screams of a woman in "extreme distress". The woman was at one point shouting for help and then afterwards a man too was shouting three times "Help!"

Johnson went back in, took the phone from his wife who had dialled security, and he related to two different guards that apparently a couple nearby was under attack and needed help. Then he discovered that his wife had mistakenly called the wrong number of guards at the security complex where they had lived previously. He therefore ended the call as he realised he was speaking to the wrong persons.

Johnson said he ran back to the balcony where he heard the woman scream again. He said the intensity and fear in her voice escalated, making it clear to him that her life was in danger.

Then he heard gunshots, some more screaming with the last screams fading after the last shot. Then silence set it.

A first conclusion

After these two statements of Michelle Burger and Charl Johnson, whose bedroom was only 177 metres away from the scene of the crime, the shock set in that indeed Pistorius could not have told the truth with his statement.

No matter what Roux tried, he could not erase the fact that both, husband and wife, were awoken by horrific screaming of a woman clearly in death fear, that the screaming went on and on, turned into help calls and then went silent when four gun shots rang out.

From this it is clear that prior to Pistorius shooting at the bathroom door, Reeva Steenkamp had been screaming in fear for her life, something that Pistorius could not possibly have missed, seeing that even neighbours 177 metres further down the road heard it clearly.

Especially Johnson's account gives a time impression to the event that can easily been reconstructed:

Waking up to the screaming of a woman in itself takes about one or two minutes until a person is able to understand at 3 a.m. what exactly woke him or her up.

Then Johnson went out onto the balcony to listen to more screaming, which easily must have taken up at least another two minutes.

On getting back in he took the cell phone from his wife and then talked to two different guards one after the other – only to discover that he was talking to the wrong people at another complex. Such a conversation is expected to again take up two, perhaps even three minutes.

Johnson then terminated the call and rushed back to the balcony to hear even worse screams from the woman.

By this time, from waking up to her screams to entering the balcony once more, anywhere between five to seven minutes would have passed, in which the woman – Reeva Steenkamp – could be heard screaming.

Then the gun shots rang out – and the screaming stopped.

This course of events can not be disputed anymore after these very clear cut, unwavering testimonies of two adults who would have no reason to give such detailed accounts of something that had not taken place and who were so consistent in their testimony even under the most heavy questioning in the cross-examination. The story makes sense in every way – but in confirming Pistorius incredulous version.

How could Pistorius say he believed Reeva had been silently asleep in bed when he went on his stumps with a gun to the bathroom area when clearly his girlfriend had screamed for at least five to seven minutes, as the neighbours clearly heard? It is impossible and leads to the frightening conclusion that Pistorius is not telling the truth about the course of events that night when saying there was no quarrel and he thought his girlfriend was quietly sleeping when he shot through the toilet door.

But if Pistorius lies about what really happened, why would he? And why had Reeva Steenkamp been in such death fear that night that she screamed in the most terrifying way?

The final clue

The answer to this last open question too came far quicker than could be expected. Witness number three – testifying in the morning after Burger's repeated cross-examination as testimony number two in the courts run – another neighbour, Estelle van der Merwe, told the court what she heard that night.

According to her, Mrs. van der Merwe was awoken already at 1:56 a.m. – an hour prior to the killing – by loud voices of a man and a woman clearly having a serious argument. The voice of the woman was signalling distress, going "up and down". While van der Merwe could not make out the content of the dispute, it was clear that it was heated. At one point, she said, she pulled the cushion over her ears in the hope of getting some sleep, as her son was writing an exam the next morning and she badly needed to rest. But the quarrel was too loud to be dampened by the cushion and went on "for about an hour". Then four gun shots could be heard and ended the argument.

The bitter truth to face

With this third testimony in only two days, the question burning on the minds of family and friends for 13 long months as to what really happened that night at the house of Oscar Pistorius and why Reeva Steenkamp, a bright, young woman and in short to be lawyer, was killed, was answered in the most bitter form. A quarrel between the two for reasons unknown, lasting an hour, ended in a fatal shooting of Reeva by her boyfriend Pistorius who, again for unknown reasons, was so tempered up that he drew his gun on her. Reeva, fearing for her live, was petrified and screamed for help, then must have rushed to the bathroom perhaps in the hope to still call help via her phone, and then, when seeing Pistorius approaching with a gun, locked herself in the toilet in the hope of evading his wrath. It was then that the bullets penetrated the door and hit her as she was crouching behind it. She had no chance.

For the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp this disclosure of the events of the fateful morning of Valentine's Day 2013 only two days into the trial must be a shock. The hope, albeit slim, that Oscar Pistorius would somehow come up with a version that was credible and make it possible to believe Reeva had lost her life due to a tragic, panic instilled mistake on his part, has not been fulfilled. The accounts of three witnesses to the happenings of that night at the Silver Woods Estate have given a consistent insight into the course of events that led to Reeva's death. A mistake on his part can not only not be deducted from it, on the contrary the accounts show clearly that Pistorius, in the hope to get off the hook and bail out to temporary freedom, gave a narrative that in no way possibly could be the truth. And the fact that the blade-runner lied as to the quarrel and the subsequent screaming of his girlfriend just prior to him shooting at her through the toilet door leaves no room for interpretation other than that he lost once more his nerves in high-tempered rage and shot her dead. The tragedy in this revelation for Reeva's family and friends can not be described in words.

The last hope

Perhaps one day, in realising that his story does not hold after these witnesses testified, Oscar Pistorius will have the courage to tell those who intensely loved Reeva Steenkamp what the cause was for this deadly argument – the suspicion that they fought over his jealous believe she had been untrue to him with a mutual friend had already made the rounds immediately after his arrest, as he had shown such traits before – and why he lost his control so much that he got a gun and shot at Reeva behind the toilet door. For the family and friends of Reeva had wanted nothing more from this trial than to learn the truth about what really happened to their daughter, sister, niece and friend, who held so much love for life, carried a warming smile and a compassionate heart.

Ironically, the witnesses Burger and Johnson, who gave such a clear account of the happenings that night, confided to the court that initially they had not wanted to get involved once they found out who had been shot that night and by whom. They kept quiet hoping other neighbours would step forward who must also have heard the screaming. But when the bail hearing took place, the couple realised this was not so and the description of the night given by Pistorius in no way fitted with what they had witnessed. It was then that they contacted the police via a lawyer friend and testified to what they had heard.

Had Burger and Johnson not waited but contacted the police right after the killing and informed on the real course of events it can be safely assumed that Oscar Pistorius would not have come free on bail at the hearing, would not have been able to live in the plush home of his uncle in Pretoria and enjoy the freedom of living that Reeva Steenkamp was robbed off by him on February 14, 2013.

Undoubtedly, due to the timid reaction of the witnesses, Pistorius was once lucky. As the trial develops in only two days, the chances luck will come his way a second time seem more than slim. If only in the interest of Reeva's family and friends he might find the strength to now tell the truth, this might have an effect on the verdict. Contemplating however on how consistently he lied for 13 long – and for her family and friends gruelling – months, it is hard to see him fulfil the hope that the truth and nothing but the truth will be finally known at the end of this trial.

May the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp have the strength to see this through. Next to the terrible loss they endured and feel to this day, the continued silence of Oscar Pistorius might be the worst yet for them to have to bear. Whether they suffer more still or not is now entirely up to him.

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