An elderly couple searching South Africa for rare seeds to sell online were kidnapped, robbed, murdered and fed to crocodiles in 2018, according to local media a court in South Africa.
Rod Saunders, 74, and his wife Rachel Saunders, 63, had just posed for a selfie with BBC presenter Nick Baily after filming a segment for the BBC. Gardeners World in which they searched for rare Gladioli flower seeds in the Drakensberg Mountain region, before meeting their disastrous fate.
Mr Sanders, a gardener, and Mrs Sanders, a microbiologist, said goodbye to the TV crew in early February 2018 and set up camp at a nearby dam. They told the crew that they were going to collect rare seeds to replenish the stock of the Silverhill Seed store they had as an online store from Cape Town—and which could serve as motivation as locals in the area apparently complained about rare seeds being removed for commercial profit.
On February 10, just two days after they were last seen by a BBC crew, local police received a ransom demand. Three days later, police discovered that someone was using the ATM cards in the Kwa-Zulu Natal National Park area.
On February 15, Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, and his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, were arrested after mobile phones used by the couple were found at their residence.
The two were charged with kidnapping and murdering the couple and face life in prison if convicted. “On February 13, the defendants were found to be withdrawing money from various ATMs, amounting to a theft of $42,000, and their Land Cruiser and camping equipment were robbed,” a court was told on Tuesday. “It is alleged that between February 10 and 15 at Ngoye Forest the defendant unlawfully and willfully killed Rachel Saunders and between the same dates unlawfully and intentionally killed Rodney Sanders.”
A third suspect, Mussa Ahmad Jackson, was also arrested but released after he cooperated with authorities, telling them that the couple charged with the murder had complained that foreigners were stealing seeds.
The remains of the couple, still wrapped in what was left of their sleeping bags, were recovered by fishermen on February 14 and 17 in the river, but due to the mutilation by the carnivorous reptiles – and the frequency bodies found in the river – they were not immediately linked to the missing botanists. Local fishermen reported that remnants of sleeping bags, including zippers, were seen in the crocodiles’ teeth months after the bodies were pulled from the dangerous water.
Police later located the Land Cruiser used by the couple and identified their blood on the vehicle.
Mr Saunders’ remains were positively identified on 25 April 2018 and those of his wife on 6 June after DNA tests could be carried out at the remote mortuary. The court was told the pair were beaten to death with a blunt instrument and then thrown from a bridge into the saffron-infested waters.
Police initially feared the suspects had links to ISIS after messages on their phones used terms often espoused by the terrorists, including the need to “kill the khofars. [non believer] and to hijack their alias, to destroy infrastructure and strike fear into the hearts of the kofari,” the court heard, although prosecutors are not pursuing terrorism as a motive.
The trial is expected to continue for several weeks.