Botanist’s body identified

Rachel and Rodney Saunders are pictured during a BBC shoot shortly before their disappearance.

The body of missing Kenilworth botanist Rachel Saunders, 63, has been positively identified following a lengthy investigation.

Ms Saunders and her husband, Rodney, 72, went missing while they were in rural KwaZulu-Natal on a work assignment in February (“Abduction mystery,” Tatler, March 22).

According to media reports, they were 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 couple were kidnapped on February 12 near Bivane Dam, Vryheid.

Rodney’s body was identified in April after investigations led to the arrest of four suspects: Sayfudeen Aslam Del Vecchio ,38, Fatima Patel,27, Jackson Ahmad Mussa,36, and Thembamandla Kwanele Xulu,19.

His body was found by fishermen south of Tugela River (“Botanist’s body found in Tugela River,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, May 3) .

Hawks spokesman Captain Lloyd Ramovha said DNA results had positively identified the body after an extensive search was done at mortuaries around the province to test for a match.

Captain Ramovha said Xulu had subsequently entered into a plea bargain with the state and been convicted and sentenced on Friday May 25 to three years’ imprisonment, suspended for five years for illegal possession the couple’s cell phones.

The other three accused remain in custody, and they are expected to appear at the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on Friday August 24, to face a raft of charges, including kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances two counts of murder, possession of stolen property.

Captain Ramovha said a multi-pronged investigation by the Hawks and the police’s Forensic Science Laboratory had earlier this month led to the positive identification of Rachel’s remains.

Her elder sister, Judith Buchanan, said she had never stopped hoping that Ms Saunders would be found alive – even though police had told her three months ago they were searching for her body.

“Before this, I kept thinking, well maybe Rachel is still alive even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be. The police found so much blood in their car they said she couldn’t possibly be alive. But in my head there was still hope,” she said.

“I suppose that’s just human nature. You hope for some miracle. Well in this case, there wasn’t a miracle. There was hope, but now there is none.”

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

The day before their kidnapping, the couple had just wrapped shooting in the Drakensberg mountains with award-winning BBC Gardener’s World host Nick Bailey.

– Additional reporting by Sunday Tribune

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