Henri van Breda Killed his Family with an Axe

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Henri van Breda, convicted triple axe murderer was sentenced to three life terms plus fifteen years plus 12 months  on 7 June by Judge Sirajh Desai in the Western Cape High Court. He has been found guilty of three counts of murder, one of attempted murder and one for defeating the ends of justice.

On 21 May Judge Sirajh Desai  pronounced the 23 year old guilty for the murder of his mother, Theresa, his father Martin and his brother Rudi at their home at De Zalze Estate in Stellenbosch.

Life for Each Murder

The National Prosecuting authority (NPA) asked for a life sentence for each murder. Van Breda has also been found guilty of the attempted murder of his sister, Marli and for defeating the ends of justice by tampering with the crime scene. The axe attack took place on 27 January 2015 at a gated community golf estate in Stellenbosch.

In testimony a paramedic Christiaan Koegelenberg said it was the worst thing he had seen, “Blood ran like a waterfall down the stairs”.

Van Breda, who was 20 at the time of attack has given no motive for the brutal murders.

His legal team only focused on two aspects during mitigating argument on Tuesday 5 May: his young age, and the fact that he’s a first time offender.

Read: Van Breda STATE Heads of Argument Sentence

In reading his judgment, Judge Desai said: “The result is inescapable.”

He also said Van Breda, who was “unimpressive as a witness”, must have known what he was doing.

The Western Cape High Court agreed that the extent of the injuries meant that the assailant had intended to kill.

Van Breda, who had been out on bail since the murders, was taken into custody to await sentencing on 5 June.

Family Murderer – My View

From the get-go I believed that Henri was the murderer.  It looked like an almost textbook family murder or familicide (also called family annihilation).

On the surface you saw a wealthy white suburban family with three grown children living on a gated estate in the picturesque Stellenbosch.

But what lay underneath? What happened behind closed doors that drove a supposedly normal 20 year old to attempt to wipe out his family? There are stories and rumors of drug abuse and bad teenage behavior from Henri. Others say he did it to inherit his father’s multi-million dollar estate. Nobody knows. But hacking his family to death with an axe?

Although rare, family annihilations take place even in good neighborhoods to nice families. In the United Kingdom we think about the case of Jeremy Bamber. This most infamous of family annihilations in the UK took place in sprawling White House Farm, Essex, on 7 August 1985. Sheila Bamber, her parents Neville and June Bamber, and her sons Nicholas and Daniel, were all killed that fateful day.

Image of the Van Breda Family From Henri van Breda’s Facebook

Why did Henri van Breda Kill his Family?

Missing from this case was any kind of exploration of Henri’s life or his emotions. He was a bit rebellious. He was depressed. He had a form of adult onset epilepsy. But nothing really to account for the horror of family annihilation.

I believe, from research, that a person who methodically plans to kill his family is usually not insane, if he were; he’d be too confused to commit the crime (and in this case, alter the crime scene). The attack also seems to come out of nowhere. It’s shocking and there really aren’t any red flags. Family and relatives are stunned. These killers don’t seem to have a character or personality disorder although they seem to be people who externalize blame. In this case it seems like the whole family was to blame. And it is clear that Henri sees himself as a victim.

There may be a background of mental or physical abuse but almost all these guys (family killers are usually men) seem to have suffered long and cumulative frustrations leading to a prolonged despair which pulverizes their ability to cope with life. The mass murder becomes the result of some final straw.

Also, pretty worrying is that most of these attacks are usually well planned long before the time

Suspicion Falls on Henri

I remember the shock all around when the news first broke of this mass murder. In South Africa we have become a bit numbed to crime, but much of it has to do with poverty and our scarred history. This family murder to wealthy  white people just stood out as an blazing anomaly.

My first clue when I heard about this murder, was that there was a survivor with minor wounds – a young man – Henri van Breda.

As the details became available and we heard about the “masked intruder” it seemed so unlikely that an intruder could get in and out of a heavily secured estate without anybody noticing or breaching the cameras, patrols, beams and fences.

Also, when you allegedly have five people brutally attacked (3 dead and one with serious injuries) in a home and only one emerges with minimal injuries, he must immediately be seen as suspicious.

Henri van Breda’s Testimony

Throughout the trail Van Breda insisted that his family was murdered by one or two intruders and that it was a botched robbery.

Henri van Breda’s testimony was not consistent with evidence or common sense and in this very circumstantial case, he seemed to tell lie after lie.

Five of the Lies that Landed Henri van Breda Behind Bars

TOGDI (The other guy did it). There was an intruder. For Henri, “the other guy” was a masked intruder who laughed. He re-enacted his struggle with this person in court, showing how he sustained the mirror wounds, he got after allegedly watching this man murder his father, brother, mother and sister (she miraculously survived) .

The family members were all in very close proximity in the sleeping areas of the house.

Henri had himself hiding in the shadows while the crazed “intruder” hacked away at his family. He then had himself pushing and pulling both an axe and a knife as the “intruder” who had just brutally attacked the family drew neat‚ superficial parallel lines of blood on his skin

He demonstrated how he disarmed the axe-wielding suspect, who produced a knife and swiped at him, causing the cuts on his forearm, chest and, later, a stab wound to his side.

Prosecutor Susan Galloway told him his wounds, which were parallel and similar in nature and depth, were a textbook case of self-inflicted injuries.

Van Breda denied doing any harm to himself.

This was a robbery gone wrong.  This was a no starter. Who takes an axe to a robbery? And why try to rob a home in a heavily secured gated community with five adult people in the house?  (Desai agreed with the State that both the axe and the knife used in the murders were from the Van Breda Home).

In spite of the violent murder of four family members, it didn’t appear that anything had been taken. When one looks at the victimology, the Van Breda family were low risk victims. There didn’t seem to be any ties to crime or violence in their lives. And the police officers who visited the house said the home was neat and looked nothing like the scene of an attempted robbery.

The call for help. Picture the scenario – you have just seen a laughing man in a balaclava hack and slice your whole family to death. The house is a bloodbath. What would you do? Run to the neighbors? Call the police or emergency services? That is what any reasonable person would assume. Henri van Breda phoned his teenage girlfriend who lived in a school hostel. And then after a delay, at 7 am he called the emergency services.

Henri’s calmness when he called emergency services. For 20 minutes he described how his family had been hacked with an axe‚ and then sat smoking in the kitchen waiting for the ambulances. Judge Desai cited Henri’s “lack of urgency” during the phone call‚ his “demeanour” during that “unduly long conversation”‚ and how “highly unusual it was for a traumatised victim” to behave like that.

His story did not match the physical evidence. Van Breda’s version of how the incident unfolded was inconsistent with the objective evidence found on the scene. He amended material aspects of his version when he became aware of the irreconcilability of his version with material aspects of the evidence.

No Direct Evidence

There was no direct evidence implicating Van Breda.

“Each piece of evidence on its own might not be enough to establish the guilt of the accused but the cumulative effect of all the pieces concludes the puzzle. Independent circumstances point to the same conclusion. This leads to only one reasonable inference,” Desai said in his 103-page summary judgment.

“The court finds that the accused had sufficient time to tamper with the scene and thus portray him to be a victim.”

Mass murders are tragic crimes to begin with, but when a person wipes out their entire family it can be utterly devastating. The motive for the crime may not be clear or not; but the annihilation indicates that the family as a whole is the victim.