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The Work of a Police Tracker Dog Explained in an Excerpt from Grave Murder: The Story Behind the Brutal Welkom Killing

Grave MurderZebra Press has shared an excerpt from Grave Murder: The Story Behind the Brutal Welkom Killing by Jana van der Merwe.

The book tells the story of the murder of Michael van Eck, which rocked the sleepy goldmining town of Welkom back in April 2011.

A dismembered, decapitated body was discovered buried in a shallow grave on the outskirts of the local cemetery, and speculation arose that it may have been a “muti murder”, the work of a deranged madman or part of a satanic ritual.

The mystery deepened when a soft-spoken girl-next-door and her intelligent, well-mannered fiancé were arrested.

In this extract, Van der Merwe describes how a police tracker dog named Xander, under control of warrant-officer Fanie du Plessis, aided investigators in finding the deceased man’s body.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * *

Although he could feel the pressure, Du Plessis was not concerned. He needed to give Xander time to settle in, but he did not want him to cross the boundaries and relieve himself, thus contaminating the crime scene. Xander, in turn, was excited and happy to be out of his cage in the vehicle and in the fresh air with a whole bunch of new scents to explore.

Du Plessis took a moment to familiarise himself with his surroundings. He observed the large pool of blood, the colour of which had now turned brown, the drag marks, and the splatters and smears of the bloody struggle that might reveal what had taken place the night before. He was told that the blue rag, which had since dried, allegedly belonged to the missing man.

When required to search for a living individual, Du Plessis would utilise a piece of clothing that bore the scent of the missing person. He would hold it to Xander’s nose and simply instruct him: Soek! (Search!) Xander would then drop his snout to the ground and begin the chase. The dog rarely missed his target. When Du Plessis suspected the victim was dead, he would omit giving Xander the person’s scent. A simple Kry! (Find!) does the trick. The dog was, like Michael, Afrikaans.

In South Africa, where crime is rife and resources limited, police dogs such as Xander have to be skilled for any search-and-rescue scenario – unlike in many first-world countries, where police services can train specialised cadaver-sniffing or tracking dogs who can differentiate between the dead and the living. Under-resourced dog units in South Africa have to train dogs to develop both these skills, but this search would not be an obstacle for Xander, who loved a challenge.

Du Plessis saw the terror in the faces of Michael van Eck’s family and opted to go about his task determinedly. He had seen the vast amounts of blood. Looking at the evidence at hand, and with experience gained over the last two and a half decades, Du Plessis knew exactly how to instruct his dog. He sometimes knew instantly what the outcome would be.

In this case, they were looking for a dead body.

Xander immediately comprehended that playtime was over when his master put on his harness.

‘Time to get to work, Xander,’ Du Plessis said as he fastened Xander’s work gear. Wagging his tail, it was obvious that the dog did not think of this as work.

‘Find!’ Du Plessis prompted. Xander took off with his head in the air, sniffing the soft, warm wind.

The area was vast. Usually Du Plessis would calculate in his head, dividing the area into quarters. Looking towards the open area in the south, he began at a point opposite the Jewish chapel, where more blood and drag marks had been discovered. Against the wind, Xander set off towards the outskirts of the graveyard. Task-driven now, he picked up speed along the worn double track frequented by visitors along the Jewish burial site. Du Plessis kept up, run-walking after his four-legged hunter with another, younger police officer trailing a couple of metres behind.

As Xander approached the pine trees, he picked up momentum. He grew increasingly anxious as he reached the boundary and his handler let Xander run free.

With purpose, Xander came to an abrupt standstill. He began digging decisively, his wet nose brushing a small heap of dry grass and soil. Du Plessis soon heard the distinct, hollow, unsettling sound he had come to know so well over his career. Xander had hit target in less than 10 minutes. Du Plessis knew: the canine’s paws had found the victim’s body.

Du Plessis instructed Xander to stop.

‘That’ll do, boy,’ he said, while rubbing the dog’s furry white head.

He alerted the young police officer who, with a single nod, returned to inform his colleagues. Soon the forensics team gathered at the shallow grave, only covered by grass, leaves and sticks. A number of officers carefully removed the layers to expose pale white skin and what looked like a pair of soiled dark-blue jeans with a metal button.

Du Plessis and Xander did not stay to watch as the police uncovered the shocking discovery. Their work was done.

Du Plessis had stopped sticking around for the sake of his own sanity.

As he neared the end of the cordoned-off area of the crime scene with a panting Xander, he briefly made eye contact with Michael’s parents.

Like a castaway on an island he isolated himself from the others. Focusing on Xander, who was now lapping up some water, he sat and waited, hoping that this would be the end.

It wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

De Ru, camera in hand, accompanied the rest of the forensics team to the cordoned-off area. Only then did he enter to begin strategically contextualising the surroundings of the crime scene and documenting each possible fragment of evidence found at the scene itself.

Using shovels, the police slowly and carefully began to unearth what was hidden underneath.

Shocking even the most hardened police officer, it was difficult to make sense of the scene unfolding before them. The dead man’s blood-soaked blue jeans had been placed on top of his torso. Cautiously, the officials exposed the macabre site, the naked, dismembered and decapitated body of a young adult male gradually emerging with each sweep.

The police had to unpack the grave to take stock of what limbs were present. The head, entire right arm and hand, and left foot were missing. Both legs had been amputated at the knee. Visible pink patches on the victim’s back confirmed that livor mortis had set in. Of course, the police could not know for sure whether this headless body belonged to Michael van Eck, and they hesitated to inform his family of what they had discovered.

De Ru watched as the police put together the parts of the limbs like a puzzle, as though trying to make sense of it. Lying there as if it were a discarded partial plastic mannequin tossed under a tree, De Ru photographed the decapitated torso of the young white male.

The right foot, which was still present, looked superbly clean, almost washed, the toenails neatly clipped and dirt-free. De Ru snapped away as an officer wearing a pair of blue silicone gloves held up the deceased man’s left hand, the palm showing deep cuts, defensive wounds indicating a struggle. Blood had seeped under the neatly cut fingernails and was clearly visible.

De Ru retraced his steps to where the slaughter was probably initiated. He documented the pools of blood at the entrance, the now-dry drag marks, a bloody footprint, the ominous smears of blood on the bright-yellow boom gate, and the crumpled T-shirt. He walked around the Jewish chapel, where he found more blood. Scrutinising the scene around the chapel, De Ru’s trained eye looked beyond the more obvious indications of a disturbance that Ephraim, Daniel and the others had discovered more than six hours before.

He noticed a number of items that could forensically lead the police to the killer or killers and which may potentially link the killer to the crime. After photographing all of the evidence, De Ru dusted the items for fingerprints, as one never knew what might ultimately be relevant. The items included a small, empty condom package, a drinking glass with an elegant black, flowered print, used tissues and a couple of empty glass beer bottles.

The police decided that it would be too traumatic for the family to see the shallow grave. They had to find the missing head first and make sure that they had the ‘right’ body. But what if the head and missing limbs were not in the area? There had to be another way to establish the identity of the victim.

As the Van Ecks were approached by the police, they could tell that the officers had discovered something, although they were not forthcoming with information.

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