Botanist’s body found in Tugela River

Rachel and Rob Saunders went missing in rural KwaZulu-Natal in February. A body found in the Tugela River was confirmed to be that of Mr Saunders.

DNA tests have confirmed that the body found in the Tugela River in February is that of missing botanist Rodney Saunders, of Kenilworth.

Mr Saunders and his wife, Rachel, went missing while they were in rural KwaZulu-Natal on a work assignment.

Hawks spokesman Captain Lloyd Ramovha said the first set of forensic results was released on Wednesday April 25. Mr Saunders’s body was found on February 17 by a local fisherman.

“Four suspects appeared in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday. The Hawks’ intensive investigation led to the arrest of a couple, Sayfydeen del Vecchio and Fatima Patel, 38 and 27, respectively, on February 16, following a raid at their dwelling. The pair has been in custody ever since they were arrested, and they have appeared in court a few times,” he said.

Themba Xulu, 19, was arrested late in February after he was also linked to the couple’s disappearance when he was found with their cellphones. His bail application has since been denied.

Further investigations led to the arrest of a Malawian national, Ahmad Mussa, 36, on March 22, He is the fourth accused in this case.

The matter was adjourned until April 25 and 26 for a formal bail application for Ms Patel and Mr Del Vecchio, respectively, who previously abandoned their bail bid.

The group face charges of kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances, two counts of murder, possession of stolen property.

Additionally, Mr Del Vecchio, who originates from neighbouring Mozambique, and Ms Patel face charges of arson and possession of a terror group flag.

During their court appearance, Mr Xulu has been separated from his co-accused as the charges that he faces are of a less serious nature. He is due back in court on Thursday. He is believed to be negotiating with the State.

Captain Ramovha said a dedicated team remained on the ground, searching for Ms Saunders.

“The focus includes the mortuaries where unidentified bodies found within the search period are currently being subjected to forensic analysis and DNA tests. Further results are awaited in this regard,” he said.

The Saunderses were well-known horticulturists who ran the Silverhill Seeds business from their Kenilworth home.

According to media reports, they were in KwaZulu-Natal in search of a rare plant species. Their vehicle was recovered by police shortly after their disappearance and blood was found in the back of it. An amount of R700 000 was siphoned from their bank accounts after their disappearance. Jewellery, electronics and camping gear were also bought using their stolen credit cards.

The Hawks say the Saunderses were kidnapped on February 12 near Bivane Dam, Vryheid.

Four days later, following an alert that two suspects on a terror watch list had gone on a spending spree with the couple’s credit cards, police swooped on a Ngoye homestead about 20km outside Mtunzini and arrested Mr Del Vecchio and Ms Patel.

The Saunderses’ neighbours either hadn’t heard the latest news or were reluctant to comment to the Tatler last week.

But Amy Swanson, who used to live in Kenilworth and commented on social media about the case, said she still held out hope that Ms Saunders would be found. She described her as “the sweet old woman who always carried such a beautiful smile”.

She added: “I once had her at my home as she assisted me with my garden. We sat for hours chatting and she is such a lovely woman. When I heard about the couple’s disappearance, I actually drove to their house to knock on their door just so that I could believe what I was hearing.” — Additional reporting by The Mercury