When three women went missing in Pine Valley in the Western Cape late last year, their families struggled to get the police to investigate their disappearance.
It was only when the residents of the picturesque farming village in the Breede River Valley near Ceres witnessed a man dragging what appeared to be a heavy object from his trailer home into the bushes on the outskirts of the Pine Valley area that they would find out what happened to the missing women.
The neighbourhood watch confronted Siyamcela Sombambela, 33, late one Saturday night in 2020. In one hand he carried a spade and in the other he was dragging the body of 21-year-old Bernadine Frans, who was destined for a makeshift burial site. The bodies of two other women already lay there, women she had known well: Gizella Minnaar, 32, and Miche Pienaar, 25.
Enraged men from the neighbourhood watch say they held on to Sombambela and summoned the police. But before the police van could reach the scene, frustrated residents had set Sombambela’s trailer on fire, destroying most of the evidence.
Soon after the arrest, Western Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Yolisa Matakata visited Pine Valley. But residents say the police paid little attention to the area before this visit, and they haven’t seen much of them since.
Family members of two of the three victims say police officers from Wolseley refused to open missing person’s cases when they tried to report their disappearances.
In his first court appearance in the Wolseley magistrate’s court, attendees heard that Sombambela had confessed to the murders.
“The police didn’t tell me, but when they dug up the graves I knew she was one of them and I heard from people it was her,” says Francis Pienaar, Miche’s mother, from her turquoise house in the Montana suburb of Wolseley. “When I got there, they already took the bodies away.”
News of the triple murder shook the small town. By November 2020, DNA results had confirmed that the second body was Miche, the mother of five-year-old Wynand.
The night she went missing, likely 5 October, Francis started worrying when she hadn’t heard from her daughter, who usually visited her and Wynand every month after her mother’s social grant paid out. The last time she saw her was on Wynand’s birthday, 16 September. Miche sometimes stayed over for a few days, before returning to her boyfriend in Pine Valley.
Miche didn’t have a phone so Pienaar called Miche’s boyfriend, who said she had left his place in Pine Valley a week ago to visit her family. But she never arrived. “Then I knew something big was amiss,” says Francis.
When she went to the Wolseley police station, an officer refused to open a missing person’s case and she was told her daughter had been spotted in Pine Valley recently. Francis says detectives later told her that Sombambela had confessed to killing Miche on 8 October.
A family member who works at the police station in Barrydale implored the Wolseley police to follow up and a missing person’s case was eventually opened later in October.
Missing at the same time
After the news of Sombambela’s arrest and confession had spread, Francis was unsurprised when DNA results confirmed Miche’s identity in November 2020.
Gizella’s family, though, held out hope for months that she might still be alive. They last saw the mother of three when her eldest daughter Camy-Lee turned 16 on 24 September 2020.
Gizella had stayed over at her aunt’s house, where her children were living, in Montana for three nights before returning to Pine Valley. They live a few blocks from Francis, who says Gizella had visited her shortly before Miche’s murder.
“I implored her to beg Miche to come home, to get out of that place,” says Francis. “They were missing in the same time period. People thought they might be together.”
Gizella’s uncle, Cornelius Minnaar, 58, tried to report her missing in November 2020, two weeks after her body had been found but DNA test results were outstanding.
“The officer at the police station said he saw her two weeks ago, so I can’t report her missing, and he asked me to bring a photo of her. They didn’t want to open the case,” he says.
“The way the officer looked, it was like he didn’t really want to take this seriously and he was well aware the murders had happened. He should’ve followed up and taken statements, but he said he needed a photo or otherwise he wouldn’t open the case.”
‘I failed to protect her’
Cornelius knew that his niece was friends with Bernadine and Miche. He had also heard about Sombambela’s confession and there was no doubt in his mind that the tall body removed from the gravesite was Gizella.
But Gizella’s younger brother Gerswhin, 26, who lives with their aunt Mariaan, 61, and Gizella’s children, Camy-Lee, Nicole, 13, and seven-year-old Mica, says none of them believed Gizella could be dead.
“She always said she would leave here and start a new life somewhere else. Seven years ago, after Mica’s birth, she took the baby to Grabouw and stayed there for a year,” he says. “With the goal to become a better person, to find a better job, to be a better mother for her kids.”
The Minnaar family finally got the news they’d been fearing in March this year. “I was sad and confused. I felt I failed in my job to protect her. I was angry and sad all in one. We hoped it wouldn’t be her,” says her brother.
After the missing person’s case was filed, the family says the police never came to take statements from them.
“When we reported her as missing, they wanted her ID number and I don’t know her ID number but I think the social department should have it. We’ve been waiting for six months and no one has taken a statement. They only came to tell us it was her.”
A detective brought an autopsy report and DNA results to them in March and asked for a phone number, says Gershwin.
He says his family was torn apart when their grandmother’s house in Montana burnt down in 2015, leaving Gizella without a permanent residence. They were raised by their grandmother after their mother, Carmen Berenice, was murdered by her boyfriend in 2006. The man was sentenced to four years in prison and has since been released.
Gizella left school after grade 9 and had four children with a self-confessed criminal and gang member, but they split up after 10 years together. One of their twins, Mickayle, was adopted by another family.
“Things were too much for her as a parent,” Gershwin says. “She started falling into drugs again when things went wrong. Her boyfriend also used drugs.”
Her family had never heard of Sombambela, but apparently Gizella knew him.
The moment of death
The circumstances of Bernadine’s death are threatening to break up the Frans family.
The neighbourhood watch called her stepfather Liaan Marthinus, 38, to the burial site, but Bernadine’s body had already been removed. Neighbours told him they had heard screams from Sombambela’s trailer.
The next morning he phoned her mother Kristien Marthinus, 38, who was visiting family on a farm in Porterville. “All I heard was screaming, screaming, screaming,” he says. Bernadine was Kristien’s eldest child.
“I went to the site to make sure that it was her. I thought they made a mistake and that it was some other girl. For me the scene was nothing, I didn’t think it was my child,” says Liaan.
“When we got to the police, they said I can’t see her now because she’s in Worcester. They never mentioned her name, so I still hoped it was someone one else,” says Kristien, a mother of four.
The Marthinuses travelled to Worcester to identify Bernadine but Kristien didn’t want to see her body at first, so she sent her husband in. “He came out and I knew it was her.”
Kristien says the side of Bernadine’s cheek was blue and swollen, as if she’d been bitten. “She was covered in black and blue bruises, rocks, sand and grass, and her eyes were filled with tears. I asked if it was the refrigeration and the coroner said no, it’s not, that it’s how she was in that moment of her death. She cried and screamed.”
‘A plate and a tupperware’
Although she hasn’t recovered from the shock of her daughter’s murder, Kristien is grateful that she didn’t have to wait in anguish for months like Gizella’s family. “If it weren’t for those two men who came upon her, I wouldn’t have known because sometimes she stayed away for months at a time.”
Kristien last saw her daughter three days before she died. “It was a rainy day and she asked for something to eat and I told Zureida [her younger daughter] to look for warm clothes for her and we gave it to Bernadine. I made food and gave her a plate and a tupperware to take home, and I asked her to come stay at home.”
Liaan last saw his stepdaughter hours before her death. Bernadine came home and said she was hungry, asking for her mother.
Miche and Bernadine were buried next to each other. Kristien often seeks refuge from her family and her thoughts by sitting at her daughter’s grave. “I don’t think about what happened, I only think about our good memories.”
Since Bernadine’s murder, she has been struggling with her mental health and it has affected her marriage. “I have nothing left of her. Just her pictures against the wall that reminds me of my oldest, my first child. With her, we went through a lot.”
Francis says her daughter feared Sombambela and that Miche claimed he had assaulted her in the past, accusing her of owing him money.
“The same man strangled her before and her eyes were red from the pressure. I told her to come back and stay out of Siyamcela’s way,” Francis says. “I used to walk the streets of Pine Valley looking for her, her son is growing up and he’s busy. I’m old. I was struggling to take care of him.”
Miche didn’t want to open a case against Sombambela as she was scared he would be released on bail and hurt her again, or even kill her. In the end, her cause of death was suffocation or strangulation, just like Bernadine.
Kristien says detectives told her that Sombambela confessed that he didn’t know “what came over him” in October 2020, when the women visited him alone.
Cornelius says he doesn’t believe Gizella could’ve been killed by just one man. “Gizella is so big she can take one man, she has fought with men. She was strong,” says her uncle.
It’s been almost a year since Sombambela’s arrest and Miche’s son isn’t talking about her as often as he used to.
“Every time I go to the grave, he wants to go with and he gets excited,” Francis says. “He wants to put a flower on her head. I pulled some of the flowers on the wreath out for him to put a flower on the casket. He wants to go again.”
After several postponements, she doesn’t feel like going to court anymore. “I feel nothing, I just want him to be punished,” says Francis.
Kristien can’t bear to sit in court when Sombambela appears. “The anger just pushes up to the surface. With his first appearance, he didn’t show emotion. He looked around and I sat right behind him as if he knew I’m her mother,” she says.
“He looked around with a smile and while he was standing with his hands bound behind him, I just thought this man is so small, and I checked his hands and I thought he killed my child with those hands and why? Was it necessary? If she did something wrong, was it necessary to take her life? The moments of her murder went through my head. I felt like the Earth could swallow me in that moment. I had to walk out.”
A trial date has been set for 12 November 2021.