The killing that shook Welkom

‘What’s happening to Welkom?” wrote one friend on the “In Loving Memory of Michael van Eck” page on Facebook. It seems an unlikely forum for the recent tragedy but 7402 people like the page.

It’s a massive number considering the small population of Welkom — 191341 including the surrounding areas of Thabong and Riebeekstad, according to a 2001 census — but it looks as if it has grown smaller in the time I have been away.

This quiet Free State town, tossed off to the side of the R34 between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, was known mostly for being a boring dorpie that grew out of gold mining and agriculture, a town full of traffic circles and dust. But it will never be seen that way again.

In early April Van Eck, a 23-year old electrician, was found brutally killed, his body parts cut up in pieces and spread between the local graveyard and a suburban garden flat. Those accused of the murder, Maartens van der Merwe, a 24-year-old high-school dropout who was reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Chane van Heerden, a former art student, are being held in Kroonstad Prison until their hearing resumes on July 8 at the Welkom Magistrate’s Court.

Welkom began to unravel when, according to police, on Saturday April 2, Van Eck told his mother he was going to pick up a girl he had met on MXit and they were going to the movies. He told his boss at the Beatrix Gold Mine that same day that he was going to the local graveyard to meet a girl he had been talking to on cellphone chat network 2Go. The next morning, when he didn’t show up for work, police were alerted.

Police spokesperson Captain Stephen Thakeng said officers accompanied Van Eck’s parents to the graveyard, where they identified a shirt that belonged to their son. Through the use of a sniffer dog, parts of Van Eck’s remains — his body, without the head, right arm or left foot attached – were found in a shallow grave in the cemetery. Co-operation with experts, including the Hawks in Bloemfontein and Welkom Detective Services, helped police to trace Van Der Merwe and Van Heerden to a flat in the suburb of St Helena, where the rest of the victim’s remains were found.

The victim’s severed arm and foot, his head and the remains of cats, were found buried in the garden of this flat, which was traced back to the couple arrested in connection to the killing. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Police reports revealed the gruesome details: Van Eck’s face had been stripped from his head. It was found in the refrigerator of the accused, with two ears, which were placed in a bottle of water. The victim’s severed arm and foot were found buried in the garden, with his head and the remains of cats, which allegedly belonged to the couple. Inside the house police noted “strange paintings” and said the possibility of satanic rituals was being investigated.

Yet, for all the horror it must have seen, the house in my old neighbourhood was difficult to distinguish from the others around it. With beige walls and a green roof, it has a cactus painted on the wall outside. It is disturbingly similar to other houses in Welkom, like my old house, the house in which I lived for more than 20 years, only four streets away.

It had been 10 years since I had been back. But after reading about the killing I couldn’t stay away. As soon as I pulled into town, the changes were obvious. Where there were once carefully manicured pavements, litter was scattered. The smell of slap chips wafted from fast-food outlets. The high-street clothing shops were now low-cost electronic stores and hair salons — even the once busy mini-golf course looked closed, the plastic edgings of the kiosks were faded and cracked. Amid growing reports of crime and violent attacks, the old Woolworths moved to the flashy new shopping centre up the road, leaving a vacant lot in the centre of town.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed in Welkom continues to rise, with mines scaling back. There are reports of illegal panning, the stripping of old mine buildings and attacks on local residents.

Welkom had become a very different place from the one in which I grew up — the quiet, conservative dorpie seemed to exist only in my memory, where something as heinous as this would not be possible.

Full of life: Michael van Eck was brutally killed and his face stripped from his head, an event that seems incongruous with the sleepy town of Welkom. (Facebook)

I pulled into the peach-coloured building on the main road through the town that houses Vista, the local newspaper, to meet the paper’s editor, Marti Will. Wearing a stonewashed denim jacket and a purple top with slightly tousled dark hair, Will spoke about how the killing has affected Welkom.

“If a violent thing happens in a small community people are going to react more than in a large community because it’s the person you buy this from, it’s the person you go to church with, the person you went to school with,” she said. “There’s just more of a chance that you would have known one of those involved.”

And in the era of Facebook friends, that community is getting even smaller and closer — maybe too close for comfort.

The “strange paintings” found by police in the flat of the accused weren’t hard to find. They were posted on Van Heerden’s Facebook page. There is a photo of a set of six square paintings that make up a carefully rendered skeleton, another image that looks like a lamb or cow foetus and an eerie painting of a yellow and green figure with forceps pulling its mouth askew, which appears to be a self-portrait of Van Heerden.

Her interests: movies such as The Nightstalker and Donnie Darko and the television series Supernatural. She likes the “Serial Killers Ink” fanpage, which offers up items from the most notorious killers in the United States. She has 39 friends.

Van der Merwe’s page shows an illustration of a man holding a gun to another man’s head. Among his likes are some Stephen King books and the Bible, murder movies Perfume and The Lovely Bones and the television shows True Blood and Vampire Diaries. His profile picture features him in a dark suit, kneeling, hands in a praying position and eyes closed. Another photo shows him and Van Heerden embracing happily; it is tagged by him as “The Murderers” and is followed by a picture of a smiley face.

Place of death: Michael van Eck told his boss he was meeting a girl he had met over the cellphone chat network 2Go at the local graveyard. When he did not arrive at work the next day, police were alerted and they found some of his remains in a shallow grave at the graveyard. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

I phoned up a Facebook friend of Van Heerden’s, whose telephone number was posted on Facebook, to ask about her. He was angry. “They are not my friends,” he spat at me. “I don’t want anything to do with them. It’s sick what people do.”

The youth pastor at a local church was a bit more welcoming. She was a Facebook friend of Van der Merwe’s and had gone to school with him. In the wood-panelled church office she told me the two of them had lost touch since he dropped out of school. “He was a very quiet guy, he was a very nice guy,” was all she would say, but she mentioned that she “unfriended” him a few months back.

Not many in Welkom were up for even a casual chat with a stranger about the killing. A couple at the Wimpy and the lady at my guesthouse told me they didn’t even know about it. But even if they aren’t so keen to talk in person there is plenty of activity on Facebook and locals seem to be consuming any kind of information they can get about the killing. The Skinderbekkie Welkom (Gossip Welkom) Facebook page has an impressive friends list of 2356 and the slaying is a popular topic of conversation.

Vista‘s Facebook page has had more than a thousand likes, which Will attributes to its coverage of the case. A website for the Bloemfontein-based radio station Ofm received 10000 hits in 24 hours when it posted an interview with a childhood friend of Van Heerden.

The couple arrested on suspicion of killing the victim, Maartens van der Merwe and Chane van Heerden. (Facebook)

News of the killing has spread across the country. It has featured on SABC’s Special Assignment and in You magazine, which ran an interview with Van Heerden’s father, who told the reporter that the Monday before the suspects were arrested the couple got engaged and went out for drinks with him.

Still, Will believes there is no way anyone could have seen this coming — no matter what was on the social networks. “You can look at a lot of things that were said and done,” said Will. “What I’ve picked up — and this is genuine speculation — is that she had a penchant for it – she liked it and just happened to meet the right person who gelled with her to do it.”

It’s likely that Van Heerden and Van Eck might have known each other from their time at Welkom’s Gimnasium High School, even though they were four grades apart.

I went to see my old biology teacher, who has worked at the school for the past 11 years, to see what she could tell about what happened to my old town. “Things have changed,” said Mrs B, who asked me not to use her name, “maybe everywhere, not just here. Youngsters don’t see a future here. They know they are going to move on. I tolerate things now that I wouldn’t have tolerated in your time. Headphones and cellphones between classes — like there is a fear of silence.”

She said that although Van Heerden didn’t make any “waves” when she was there, most people in the town have made up their minds about what happened. Like many others, she refers to the killing as an act of “pure premeditated evil” — as though, somehow, this removed the event from the realm of real life.

A disturbing self-portrait of Van Heerden was posted on Facebook and is likely one of the paintings found in the flat where the victim’s stripped face was discovered in the refrigerator. (Facebook)

“From what I’ve heard it doesn’t look like reality has kicked in yet,” she said, referring to an article she read that reported that Van Heerden had smirked in court. It was almost as if she knew something no one else could know, said Mrs B, as if this notoriety had somehow elevated her into another dimension, something mere mortals of this forgotten town would never understand.

But what has changed the most since my family left in 2001, Mrs B said, was that the moral fibre seems to have disintegrated. “People are different. Before you would say I will go so far and no further and something would stop you, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”

She walked me to my car, past the dining-room table where I used to sit and do extra biology lessons every Friday afternoon in the first term of matric. I glanced at the “For sale” sign on the front lawn as I got ready to leave and she told me that soon she had to decide what to do, because it looked unlikely someone would buy the house. “And it seems like such a waste just to give it away,” she said, looking down.

Maybe it’s just the recession alongside a shift in values that’s coincided with a freak killing that has finally brought the rest of the world to Welkom. What comes next is anyone’s guess. The only thing that’s certain is that we’ll be able to catch it live on Facebook.

On the memorial page is a picture of Van Eck in front of a graded grey studio background. It might be a school photo. He is smiling and wearing glasses and a grey pinstripe shirt. Posted in Afrikaans on June 26: “Love you Mike. Just miss you more and more every day and my love for you grows by the day. I love you endlessly with my whole heart and soul. Your sis, B.” Seventy-five people like this.

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