By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Police investigating the shooting of model and lawyer Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, had to open another investigation into themselves — over the theft of a valuable watch when only police were present, hours after she died.
The embarrassing revelation that police apparently stole a watch valued at $5,000 to $10,000 came with South African newspapers complaining of police ineptitude.
Former police colonel Schoombie van Rensburg said he was “furious” when he realized the watch had disappeared. But he admitted that earlier, when he first saw the display box with eight watches in Pistorius’ main bedroom, he felt some trepidation because the watches were clearly expensive.
He said the watches were “tempting to anybody.”
One watch was taken by Pistorius’ sister, who was escorted by police to the room to get clothing for her brother, because he had no shirt on. But a second watch disappeared when only the police forensic team and photographer were at the death scene.
Van Rensburg said he ordered a body search of every member of police personnel, as well as their bags. The entire house was searched as well.
“We even searched the vehicles of every expert at the scene,” he said. Nothing was ever found and the case remains unsolved.
The admission that police stole evidence appears to offer defense lawyer Barry Roux an opportunity to cast doubt on the integrity of the scene where the shooting took place.
But that wasn’t the only testimony damaging to the police.
Van Rensburg told the court Friday that he was speaking on his cellphone that night in the bathroom where Pistorius fired the shots, when a police ballistics expert picked up Pistorius’ cocked gun, and removed the magazine — without wearing police gloves.
“I stopped talking and said, ‘What are you doing’ He said sorry and put the magazine back into the firearm,” Van Rensburg said. “Immediately, I was very angry,” he said.
The firearm incident does indicate sloppy police work, but it doesn’t appear to affect the competing versions of events contested by the prosecution and defense. Both sides agree that it was Pistorius who used the pistol to shoot Steenkamp dead.
A police photograph of Oscar Pistorius taken by police shortly after the killing showed him shirtless, with his shorts and prosthetic legs drenched in blood from the waist down.
The muscled athlete, standing with arms slackly by his side. stared at the camera, looking dazed. The photograph was taken in his garage.
Van Rensburg said he realized there was a prima facie case against Pistorius and he warned the athlete he was a suspect.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty, saying he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he opened fire in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
The trial has subjected the athlete to intense international media scrutiny with media reporting minute details of his demeanor and emotions as prosecution evidence is revealed. But it has also subjected South Africa’s police force to similar scrutiny, and at times they have been left wanting.
“The South African justice system is on trial on a global stage,” said an editorial in the Citizen newspaper Friday. “The case has attracted more interest than the 2014 Fifa World Cup. And what does this massive audience see? Police ineptitude.”
Two days ago Roux cross-examined police Lt. Col. JG Vermeulen about how a shoe print got onto the toilet door through which Pistorius fired the shots — and how someone later wiped it off. Roux suggested the shoe was left by police, and was also wiped off by police. Other marks were found on the door, not present when the door was photographed at the scene of the shooting last year.
In a controversial move, the bullet-pierced toilet door — perhaps the most crucial exhibit from the alleged crime scene — was removed by police, wrapped in a large body bag, sealed and taken to the police station, Van Rensburg told the court Friday.
But secure police evidence rooms at the station were crammed with exhibits and there was no room for the door. He said he kept it lying on the floor in the bag in his locked office for a week, insisting that no one tampered with it. He said some people had to use the office to send faxes but no one touched the door.
South African newspaper reports have suggested that Van Rensburg resigned from the police force last year because the door was left unsecured, claims the former police colonel denied in the reports. He is now working as a sports coach and told the court that sports “is my life.”
AFP Photo/Bongiwe Mchunu