As a full-time author specializing in true crime I can guarantee you, the last thing on a writer’s mind after publishing a book is suicide. Writing books is hard, and some books – like Minnie’s – require tremendous resolve and soul-searching. The mood after a book comes out is relief and celebration, even more so when it gets the airing it deserves.
Ironically, I was at the Ramsgate Book and Art Festival on August 5th, a Sunday, doing a presentation on the murder of Vincent van Gogh when I mentioned the cover of that day’s Rapport. I’d come across it on Julian Jansen’s Twitterstream that same morning.
As an introduction to my presentation on the famous Dutch artist, I cited as examples of popularly miscontrued suicides [besides Van Gogh] true crime cases such as Rebecca Zahau, Susan Rohde [still sub judice], and John Wiley [as per the Rapport’s front page that day], to name but a few.
Recently in South Africa there have been a number of additional murders made to look like suicides, including the double murder in Stella, and Natasha Mans, a woman who went missing in Bloemfontein recently, and was found dead under a tree with a gun beside her. The bullet shot through her body didn’t match the gun, and it was found that the body had been refrigerated for a spell to disguise the time of death.
Suicide is poorly understood, in true crime and otherwise. Suicide and murder aren’t very different. Suicide is the murder of oneself, and so in the same way as one investigates a homicide, it’s just as important to have a motive, a means, premeditation etc. when there’s a suicide. Since the “perpetrator” in a suicide is automatically brought to justice, there’s a deplorable tendency to sweep the circumstances surrounding suicides under the carpet. As if someone else’s death doesn’t matter as much if they’re responsible for it.
Because suicide is such a taboo, people tend not to think about these things, let alone investigate them. Given that every 40 seconds somewhere in the world someone commits suicide, compared to a murder committed every minute, we probably ought to be far more serious about suicide than we are – as a society. In effect, we ought to be more serious about how and why people commit suicide than how and why someone is murdered.
Intuitively we know there is no comparison between the two. When people commit suicide, amnesia quickly sets in, and family especially tend to jump up to make face-saving [but inaccurate] pronouncements about their dead relative. Just as often intimate family members are so stung, so injured by a suicide, they’re unable to say anything for years, even a lifetime, which worsens the stigma and perpetuates the ignorance around mental health.
We also need to be far more discerning about when and why a suicide is not a suicide, but perhaps made to look like one.
Van Gogh is a great example of the incentive in perpetuating the suicide myth. In his case, his art is worth more and his legacy somehow more esteemed because a “troubled artist’s” art is somehow seen to be more valuable than an untroubled artist’s art. It’s not for nothing that the iconic martyr for his art, Van Gogh, is one of the world’s most expensive artists. Were his story to be properly redressed by the mainstream media, that may well change, and the implications would be vast: it could cost the owner’s of his works and the museums peddling the famous Tortured Van Gogh brand millions, including in ticket sales.
Before we get to the list of 22 Reasons, one final point on Minnie. I have a huge problem with the media recycling the idea that his son Markus predicted his father’s suicide.
“When dad finished this book he sent me a copy. I got through the first 2 chapters and then stopped, Tears and a heavy heart, knowing my father was about to dive into something that could kill him.”
This was written and posted onto Facebook before Minnie’s death, so his son wasn’t suggesting his father was suicidal, but rather that he was, or may have been, in mortal danger. And it turned out he was.
It’s the media’s job to be more explicit about this, rather than making lazy and misleading allusions to his son’s “creepy” omen.
Now, there are three main areas to test why Minnie’s so-called suicide isn’t genuine: 1) the location of the suicide, 2) Minnie’s demeanour and intentionality at the time and 3) the circumstances and context immediately and generally surrounding the time of death.
- Minnie’s body was found in the veld near a rose plantation on a friend’s farm in Theesecombe, but basically in an isolated area.
- A handwritten “suicide note” was found, presumably on Minnie’s person, perhaps in his pocket. There’s still no information about the contents of the note.
- Minnie’s car and cellphone are still missing from the scene. The cellphone was switched off and Minnie hadn’t responded to emails in the hours before his death.
- The gun found beside Minnie wasn’t his gun, it belonged to Brent Barnes, a lifelong friend Minnie was staying with at the time. Barnes may be charged with neglect in terms of the weapon.
- The bullet wound was said to be between Minnie’s eyes.
- Minnie was based in China, he worked as an English teacher at a university in Guangzhou, China and was on holiday in South Africa at the time of his death. He had been on a 20 month sabbatical because he couldn’t work and write the book. In the end the university said they needed to fill the position, and Minnie – committed to his story – gave it up. While working and living in China Minnie visited his teenage daughter twice annually in South Africa.
- During an interview with Minnie on the last Friday before his death, at 11:00, Minnie was careful to meet Media24 reporters in a public area, the McDonalds parking lot in Cape Road, in the suburb of Linton Grange, Port Elizabeth.
- Minnie was found at the back of Barnes’ farm – near an old greenhouse bordering the end of the property.
In the above map we can see how much effort Minnie went to meet reporters in a public area closer to town. He traveled about eleven minutes by car towards the city of Port Elizabeth, in order to put himself more deeply inside the urban fabric.
When I first heard the story, I assumed from the very thin reporting, that Minnie had gone to visit a friend or neighbour and had been killed there. In fact he was killed on the property where he was staying, but in an isolated part of it, on the border.
It was also Barnes himself who found Minnie, after a female friend [his co-author or perhaps someone at Tafelberg Publishers] alerted him that Minnie wasn’t answering his phone.
The fact that Minnie’s phone and car are gone, but there’s a suicide note, is a huge mismatch. The cellphone data could indicate that Minnie was lured to the boundary of the property by someone pretending to be a journalist or friend.
Jacques Pauw, the author of another controversial book that shook the corridors of power in South Africa, has already suggested that if the handwritten note is found to be Minnie’s handwriting by a forensic analysis of the suicide note, it could still mean Minnie wrote the note under duress, meaning, he was forced to write the note before he was shot dead.
For me the number one indicator that this is a hit just from the above eight points is the bullet between the eyes. While we don’t have the ballistics yet, a key variable will be the angle the bullet entered Minnie’s brain. It’s very difficult to shoot oneself at right-angles with a gun, especially single-handed.
Also, people who commit suicide want to avoid further pain. So looking into the barrel just before firing is unlikely. When people shoot themselves in the head it tends to be from the side, through the temple, or in the mouth. It’s seldom through the forehead, and virtually never between the eyes.
In a peer reviewed study published in March 2012 by the US National Library of Medicine the following statistical correlations were noted:
The retrospective autopsy study was performed for a 10-year period, and it included selected cases of single suicidal gunshot head injury, committed by handguns. We considered only contact or near-contact wounds. The sample included 479 deceased, with average age 47.1 ± 19.1 years (range, 12-89 years): 432 males and 47 females, with 317 right-handed, 25 left-handed, and 137 subjects with unknown dominant hand. In our observed sample, most cases involved the right temple as the site of entrance gunshot wound (about 67%), followed by the mouth (16%), forehead (7%), left temple (6%), submental (2%), and parietal region (1%).
2) DEMEANOUR AND INTENTIONALITY
9. “I spoke with him. He didn’t seem frightened or in a bad space. He was in a good space and he loved his children very much. He was determined to get justice at some point.” – Marianne Thamm [who wrote the foreword to his book]
10. “He was here for a book launch and he was doing some of his investigation with people who have contacted him with more evidence for the book. He met some of these people. He did fear for his life from the day he started this investigation, and that’s why he left the police service.” – Marianne Thamm
11. Tafelberg says that during the last communications with Minnie, he sounded enthusiastic about the book’s publication and to expose the 30-year-old secrets. – EWN
12. According to Maygene de Wee who interviewed Minnie three days before his death, Minnie was “paranoid and didn’t want people to know he’d relocated to South Africa months previously”. The reporter had to promise Minnie that she wouldn’t tell anyone where he was.
13. Minnie also did a thorough background check on the reporter before agreeing to meet.
14. During the interview, Minnie took the reporter to the Tsitsikamma area to search for more victims of the pedophile network.
15. During the visit to the Tsitsikamma area Minnie wanted to identity the house where the rapes took place.
16. Minnie spent eight hours with the reporting team, an indication of his ongoing commitment and investment in his story. He was also constantly on his phone, taking one call after the next. Many messages were to his co-author Chris Steyn. He was also repeatedly contacted by people he’d mentioned in the book who wanted to know what they should say to the media, now that the media were reaching out to them for comment.
17. De Wee describes Minnie’s demeanour during her eight hours with him that Friday as “jovial, friendly and glad to be able to share his suspicions with others who wanted to investigate the story.” He was hoping more victims would come forward and share their stories.
18. Minnie spoke a lot, his blue eyes were alert, and he was described as a loving father of a 24-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. On the Wednesday before his death he attended a hockey match to watch his teenage daughter play.
In the same way that Vincent van Gogh struggled to sell his art his entire life, Minnie had his own struggles from his past. It’s a mistake to conflate lifelong struggle with a suicidal impulse. Van Gogh had accepted his inability to sell his work, just as Minnie had to some extent come to terms with his own past. But if anything, Minnie was more activated and motivated than ever when he was killed, ditto Van Gogh. Van Gogh was painting like a demon, a picture a day. Why would such a motivated artist commit suicide?
Although this isn’t conclusive proof that there was no motive to commit suicide, it certainly casts reasonable doubt on the notion. The fact that Minnie expressed joy and hope and interest in his story, reflects a will to live. His paranoia about his safety, his interest in his children and his chatty communications with those around him sketch a portrait of a man on a mission, a man with a reason to live, not a man without one.
3) TIMING AND CONTEXT
19. The crime took place on a Monday. Barnes’ left Minnie alone from 09:00 that morning. Minnie’s body was discovered at 20:50 that same night by Brent Barnes.
20. According to Jacques Pauw: “Minnie said while he was investigating the allegations of the young boys who were taken to Bird Island his docket was taken away from him by senior officers in the security branch.” Minnie and his co-author had received threats following the publication of their book. There had also been a number of anonymous inquiries about their whereabouts.
21. Minnie had told his publishers that he had successfully followed up leads in Port Elizabeth in the past week which would allow him to reveal further evidence. He told the media the book was “only the beginning”.
22. Minnie admitted to the reporters that as a young man he was sodomised by two other boys. He said this caused instability in his life.
The timing and context is perhaps the most crucial and obvious evidence in this case. We know what Minnie did on the Friday before his death, where he went and what he wished to find that day. If this was a hit, it’s possible the book itself didn’t ruffle as many feathers as the prospect that it was “only the beginning”.
The fact that the crime took place on a Monday, suggests the killer waited for Barnes to go to work, or to exit his smallholding so that Minnie could be dealt with alone, and with no witnesses.
This strategy also meant Barnes’ gun could be taken and/or used, and planted at the scene. If the suicide note didn’t sell, Barnes’ might be implicated – all part of the plan to distract from the real killer.
It’s likely the crime took place in daylight, and that the rural aspect of the smallholding afforded Minnie’s killer with the privacy and time he needed. According to the Sowetan, a farm worker heard a gunshot during the course of the day and reported it to the owner‚ however [Barnes] “did not think anything of it”.
The suicide note imputes a high degree of planning, premeditation, strategy and stage-craft. The fact that the body was found at the boundary was meant to delay discovery. That the police quickly ruled the incident a suicide and “no sign of foul play” is real cause for concern.
If Minnie was murdered, the murderer had to know the murder itself would draw massive publicity, and indirectly draw attention to himself [the killer] and perhaps the killer’s client or patron. However, for reasons currently unknown, the killer felt it was even more risky to allow Minnie to bring further compromising revelations to light. The timing of the hit, as I see it, just a week after the book was released, suggests a level of threat and impatience. The killer felt he couldn’t afford to wait longer, especially since Minnie seemed to be giving interviews around the clock.
A crucial issue is the fact that although the book was co-authored, the killer chose only Minnie as his target. What did Minnie know, what could Minnie reveal as an ex-Narcotics Bureau detective that his co-author couldn’t? Worth noting from EWN:
Thamm, who worked closely with Minnie during the editing process of the book, says his life was in danger from when he started digging for evidence.
“I am under no illusions that there are still people around who feel very threatened by the re-opening of this investigation.”
She says the information Minnie was working on is safe and will continue to be protected despite his death. Those who worked with him and Steyn say their lives have been in danger from the start [after publishing the book]. But police say they don’t suspect any foul play in Minnie’s death.
Minnie’s publisher has also said he was looking forward to promoting his book in September 2018 at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, with his co-author Chris Steyn and journalist Marianne Thamm.
Finally, Minnie’s admission to reporters he hardly knew about the impact of the rape he experienced as a child is a clear indication that just three days before his death he’d transcended the curse, and had developed the creative capacity to alchemise all that pain – turning it into a healing gift that he could give to a still deeply wounded society.