Welcome to Unsolved Murders SA, a podcast series where we will be delving into gruesome homicide investigations that, at the time of producing the episodes, were still open.
The objective of this series is to keep the stories of the forgotten alive and, hopefully, help spark a memory for anyone listening in with intimate knowledge of the cases.
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Leslie Van Zyl was born on 17 December 1971 to parents Christine and Arthur Brockbanks. She and her brother Paul were British natives who, along with their parents, moved to South Africa in 1981 and settled in Cape Town’s leafy southern suburbs.
It was very clear to Leslie’s parents that their daughter was unlike children her age. When the family moved to Cape Town in 1981, the Department of Education had determined that her intelligence quotient was above the national average for children her age at the time. Therefore, Leslie progressed to a higher grade and, by the age of 16, she graduated matric at Plumstead High School with flying colours.
Speaking to the media about her daughter, Christine revealed that initially, Leslie’s ambition was to climb the corporate ladder in the banking industry and after testing the waters for a while, it dawned on her that the fast-paced, cut-throat environment was not well-suited for her.
This is when, at the age of 17, she joined Liberty Life’s insurance division, where she excelled for 11 years until her tragic passing.
Leslie was described, by her mother and colleagues, as a fun and friendly soul. She was approachable and, if you managed to break through her protective shell and got to know her, she was loving, caring and a pleasure to be around.
Christine and her daughter were, more than anything, the best of friends. The pair spent a lot of time together. Mid-week shopping dates, lunch and dinner meet-ups populated their respective calendars and, for Christine, these were the most memorable moments of their lives in Cape Town.
Not much is known about Leslie’s love life before she met and married Pierre van Zyl. Pierre, himself, is an enigma of sorts.
Despite our best efforts, we were never able to source information on Leslie’s husband. According to Christine, Leslie accepted Pierre’s hand in marriage early into her career at Liberty Life.
As it is the case with all relationships, the Van Zyl’s were not immune to problems. However, for the most part, the couple forged ahead, making every effort to address the flaws of their romance.
Christine, however, indicated that quite early on in the relationship, the cracks were present.
Before settling in Fish Hoek, Leslie and Pierre had lived across the road from her parents house and, according to Christine, her daughter’s short stays at her house were a common occurrence since the couple butted heads alot.
It remains unclear what the true source of their troubles were. However, one can easily draw assumptions from the trajectory of their respective career paths.
While Pierre was stagnant in his, Leslie’s ascension to team leader in her division could have been one of the reasons behind the wedge that drove the couple apart.
By the year 2000, their marriage had taken too much of a toll and the pair had agreed to a separation.
The entire time, Pierre had maintained communication with Leslie. According to Christine, this was largely due to the fact that Pierre was still financially dependant on his wife.
As a team leader, Leslie was responsible for product development and training, often travelling across the country to manage training programmes at various Liberty branches.
The George branch was one she frequented often, and in August 2000, Leslie was booked for a one-day seminar in the Garden Route town.
On Monday 28 August 2000, Leslie was scheduled for a flight to George to lead a product-focused seminar at the Liberty branch.
As it was the norm, Leslie arrived in George and checked in for a night’s stay at the Protea Hotel situated at King George Park.
The hotel was only a 10-minute drive from the airport and after her training, which was scheduled for Tuesday, the 28-year-old would proceed to catch a flight back to Cape Town.
Hotel records indicate that Leslie checked in at the hotel that day and was allocated Room 205, an outside suite that offered the Liberty Life representative a sense of privacy.
Nobody knows if Leslie left her room at any point after she had checked in.
The last time Christine had heard from Leslie that fateful evening was at approximately 20:00. Recalling the telephonic conversation 21 years later in an article published by the George Herald, Christine revealed a crucial detail about the timeline of events that transpired that fateful evening.
“I spoke to her that evening of the 28th, it was 20:00 and we chatted and she couldn’t decide if she would go down for supper or study. That was the last time I spoke to my darling Leslie.”
Perhaps, her reluctance to make the effort to go down for supper led her to her tragic fate.
That same evening, a phone call was channelled to Leslie’s room. It is unclear, at this stage, if this had come before or after she spoke to her mother.
Considering the fact that Christine and Leslie’s relationship was more of a friendship than a mother-daughter dynamic, it can be reasonably assumed that the 28-year-old would have mentioned the phone call if it was received before 20:00.
This call, made from a public phone situated across the road from an establishment that, at the time, was a Dros restaurant, is, perhaps, the most important piece of the puzzle that’s baffled George investigators for more than two decades.
The phone call came from a booth situated on York Street, only 2.4km away from the Protea Hotel Leslie was booked in.
Whoever made the call had to have been routed from the hotel’s reception to Room 205, meaning, the person on the other end of the phone would have spoken to at least two people that evening, including Leslie.
Here is an interesting factor in the mystery surrounding the phone call.
Whoever made the call must have known that Leslie was in George at the time. They must have known that the 28-year-old would, in all likelihood, pick up on the other end of the line.
The only people with that intimate knowledge were Christine, Arthur, Paul and Leslie’s close-knit group of friends from Cape Town, as well as the colleagues who expected to receive the Liberty Life representative at the seminar the next day.
Pierre, the husband, was also well aware of Leslie’s trip and her routine. After all, Leslie, who was dropped off at the Cape Town International Airport by her father that Monday, was going to be picked up by Pierre when she returned on Tuesday.
That August was a challenging month for the couple. According to Christine, sometime that month, Leslie had showed up to her doorstep with a bag full of her clothes.
She was there on one of her short stays. For her mother, this was a sign of yet another instance of trouble in the marriage.
“Her husband had been out the night before at a function and returned home at 08:00 the following morning. That was the beginning of August 2000. It got worse from there…,” she recalled.
Two days before her work trip to George, Leslie had met up with Pierre for dinner. In statements he made after the murder, Pierre had indicated that the couple were working on rekindling their relationship that was ruptured by his alcohol addiction.
However, Christine understood this dinner differently. According to her knowledge, Leslie had approached the dinner as the first step towards seeking closure. For the 28-year-old, her marriage was at a crossroads and the dinner, in conjunction with her work trip to GeorgEr would provide her with everything she needed to make an informed decision about her future with Pierre.
“On 26 August she went for supper with him and returned, saying she would be in George from Monday until Tuesday and would give the matter [her marriage] a great deal of thought. He [her husband] was to pick her up at Cape Town Airport on her return flight at 14:00. Her father took her to the airport for her flight to George. They spoke about what she was going to do, and she said, ‘I really don’t know Dad!’,” Christine revealed in her interview with the George Herald.
So, who was it that placed the call to her hotel room that fateful evening? Did Leslie have an acquaintance in George that neither her family, colleagues, nor investigators know about?
Based on Christine’s description of the bond she shared with her daughter, it would seem highly unlikely that she would not have been informed of this person.
The Protea Hotel is a 31-min walk from the phone booth on York Street, a 5-minute drive by car.
It’s not known if the Protea Hotel had CCTV cameras installed at the time. Surveillancing was not a popular practice in George back then.
Eyewitnesses who spoke to investigators after the murder recalled seeing a Ford Bantam bakkie parked on a side street, next to the hotel, on that fateful Monday night.
This was an unusual sighting and investigators believe that, in some capacity, whoever drove the bakkie may have crucial information on the tragic events that unfolded at Room 205 that night.
Was this the same person who had made the phone call? For 21 years, George investigators have never been able to establish the crucial link.
Leslie, it’s believed, took the call and, by all accounts, it was a person she knew.
Another crucial cog to this two-decade-old mystery is a hotel guest who walked past Leslie’s room that evening.
The man, whose identity remains unknown, was, at the time, described as a consultant from Kliprivier, a town in Uthukela District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal.
At some time on that Monday evening, he had walked past Room 205, when he noticed something that piqued his attention.
The door to Leslie’s hotel suite was slightly ajar and his heart had dropped when he heard the faint cries of a woman saying “You’re hurting me, leave me. Please let me go.”
Completely mortified, the hotel guest peaked his head inside the hotel suite and saw noone. But he remembered hearing thuds coming from inside the bathroom but that door was closed and so, he was not certain who or what was in there.
Reluctant to investigate further, the hotel guest rushed to the lobby to alert personnel at reception.
A number of hotel staffers, as well as a security guard, were dispatched to Room 205. When they got there, the thuds reported by the hotel guest had stopped. The deathly silence, met by the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign that, when they got there, had been hooked to the door that was shut, introduced a conundrum for the hotel manager.
Then, in a moment that may have cost Leslie her life, the hotel manager decided against entering the room.
Instead, the manager instructed staffers and the security guard to return to their posts and the evening went by with no further checks done on Room 205.
Leslie had a 10:00 appointment at the Liberty Life branch in George, on Tuesday 29 August 2000.
Her colleagues, who reacted to the tragedy, indicated that Leslie’s strongest characteristic was her punctuality.
She was always on time. Everything in her work schedule was well-executed. It all fell in line since the 28-year-old was a stickler for planning and preparation.
Therefore, when she failed to show up to the seminar at 10:00 on Tuesday, without so much as a peep or a notice, colleagues knew something was amiss.
Calls were made to the Protea Hotel that Tuesday morning. Leslie was not picking up and the only alternative was to get one of the hotel staffers to conduct a welfare check on the 28-year-old.
The hotel manager on shift that morning went up to her room and the Do Not Disturb sign was still hooked onto the door.
However, this time around, the manager on duty that morning noticed something strange on the sign.
There was a red smear on it. Was it blood? The hotel manager could not say. But the strange discovery was enough probable cause for the manager to use his universal key to gain entry into the room.
When he opened, the room was neat, with nothing out of place. The manager called out for Leslie but no response came, even from behind the bathroom door that was closed.
This was the only other place to inspect and when the hotel manager opened the door, he was met with images that still haunt him to this day.
One of the investigating officers assigned to the case, Klippies Theron, told the media, at the time, that the bathroom was flooded with the victim’s blood.
Her lifeless body was found sprawled across the floor with several stab wounds to her neck, left arm and chest
Leslie’s killer had also struck her on the head which, at the time her body was discovered, had been covered with a piece of cloth.
This is a very interesting action that holds crucial clues about the killer.
In criminal psychology, the term ‘undoing’ is referred to the act in which an offender conceals the face of their victim after committing murder.
Judith Schröer, MD, and Klaus , MD, wrote extensively about this phenomenon in their book, Special Aspects of Crime Scene Interpretation and Behavioural Analysis.
One of the cases they used to further understand this bizarre behaviour reads as follows:
A 32-year-old man killed his 30-year-old ex-girlfriend because he could not cope with the fact that she had left him. He struck the sleeping woman’s head with a big bottle of red wine and then manually strangled her. After the homicide, the blankets of the bed where the victim had died were found pulled very accurately and straight. Additionally, a towel was placed on the lower part of her face to cover the tongue that was protruding owing to the strangulation
Here is an extract where Schröer and Püschel discuss the ‘undoing’ phenomenon and how it relates to the relationship between victim and offender.
The term “undoing” first appeared in the literature when the FBI started to study and classify offender behaviour systematically in the 1970s. In these systematic studies, it turned out that if forms of undoing behaviour were present at a crime scene, the two most likely constellations were (a) a close association between the offender and the victim or (b) that the victim represented a person of importance to the offender. That is why the definition of undoing is summarised in the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual in the section of “domestic homicide.” Undoing behaviour should be differentiated from acts of staging or posing. Staging is defined as the purposeful alteration of the crime scene to make it appear to be something it is not. Posing means the positioning of a victim’s body—usually in a degrading position—for the offender’s own pleasure or to shock the finder of the body
If we are to follow the ideas noted by Schröer and Püschel, then it can be reasonably assumed that Leslie not only knew her attacker, but that they had a relationship.
This is further corroborated by Christine, who has remained resolute with the fact that Leslie would have never opened her door for a stranger and, thus, the intruder who paid her a visit that night was known to her.
Another interesting fact about the crime scene, investigators revealed, was that Leslie’s wedding ring, a diamond necklace, and her black purse were the only items missing from the room.
Her laptop, cellphone and other valuables had not been touched. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to reasonably conclude that Leslie may not have been the target of an opportunistic crime like robbery.
Whoever it was who went inside the hotel room that night had every intention of murdering the 28-year-old.
In their warped perspective, Leslie represented a danger to their livelihood and the only solution, in their deranged mind, was to do away with her.
But who was this? Apart from her marriage, which was on a downward spiral, Leslie lived a trouble-free life.
Investigators combed through the crime scene and found no traces of the intruder. It was determined that it must have been the killer who placed the ‘Do-Not-Disturb’ sign on the door handle but no fingerprints were ever found.
Reasonably, it can be assumed that the bloody smear on the sign was, perhaps, left by tke killer’s glove, another circumstantial indication that the murder of Leslie was, most probably, premeditated.
The bloody crime scene was also thoroughly tested for forensic traces but only Leslie’s DNA was found.
Investigators were at a loss and faced an uphill battle in piecing together the events that had transpired inside Room 205.
The victim’s cellphone produced no useful leads and her laptop, which she predominantly used for work, held no clues either.
It can also be assumed that a forensic search through Leslie’s emails was conducted. If this was the case, then nothing fruitful was ever found.
Investigators then turned their attention towards the Ford Bantam bakkie that was seen parked on a side street near the hotel.
Whoever the driver was, they made sure to not park the vehicle inside the hotel premises. Perhaps, they would have had to encounter security and compromise their identity?
This question remains part of an exhaustive list of frustrating deadends investigators met in their attempts to solve the case.
Theron also explored a lead that came from several guests and staffers who were on duty that fateful Monday.
Apparently, a man wearing a hooded jacket and tracksuit pants was seen walking out of Room 205 around the time of the murder.
We could not source any information where this figure was confirmed to have appeared on CCTV footage.
This lead, however promising as it was, led investigators nowhere and the case went cold.
As it is with any murder occuring in a marriage, the spouse is often looked at as, at the very least, a person of interest.
Pierre was questioned on his whereabouts at the time of the murder. Remember, his last encounter with Leslie had produced two outcomes.
For Pierre, the dinner date was a step the couple had taken towards reconciliation. According to Christine, however, Leslie had returned from the date with more thinking to do.
Pierre told investigators that on the night Leslie was killed, he was out delivering food to clients of a supplier he worked for.
Whether this alibi was corroborated remains unknown.
Pierre also placed himself at the Cape Town International Airport at 14:00 on Tuesday, the day Leslie was scheduled to arrive from George.
He told investigators that, at the time, he had not been informed of Leslie’s death. He arrived at the pick-up point as expected and waited for Leslie, who never surfaced from the crowds that emerged from the domestic arrivals exit.
Assuming that she had probably gotten a lift from a colleague, Pierre left the airport without Leslie.
We still don’t know if the husband was ever asked if:
- He had attempted to call Leslie;
- He had contacted her family to ascertain her whereabouts;
- He had made any valiant attempt at finding out where she was, since her no-show must have been unusual.
Alas, Pierre was never investigated further.
Christine revealed that following the murder, Pierre was the beneficiary of a R1 million life insurance policy.
Was a cent ever spent on conducting a private investigation into his wife’s murder? This question, unfortunately, joins a long list of others that remain without answers.
Let us, for a second, entertain the suspicion we all have about Pierre. Let us assume, rather cautiously, that, maybe, he was the one who murdered Leslie.
If he was on duty as he claimed he was that night, he would have had to make those deliveries, board a 55-minute flight to George (it is unclear if such a flight was available at that time in 2000), either rent a Ford Bantam bakkie or make his way to York Street and contact Leslie from a public phonebooth, make the short trip to the hotel and, dressed in a hooded jacket and tracksuit pants, slip into the hotel and kill his wife, before slipping out again without leaving a shred of forensic DNA, board a flight back to Cape Town just in time to assume a sense of normalcy before availing himself for a 14:00 pickup at the airport.
The other option is that he, perhaps, may have made the 4+-hour drive to George, committed the murder and drove back to Cape Town.
We were unable to source information on the type of car Pierre drove back then and, to this day, no one has ever come forward to vouch for the husband.
Months would turn into years, and decades, without any movement in the investigation. Investigator Theron pursued the case until his retirement. Leslie’s father, Arthur, developed cancer a few years after her passing and, in 2008, he passed away without finding closure in his daughter’s death.
Christine firmly believes that her husband died of a broken heart.
Christine, albeit incredibly difficult, found a way to move on with her life. She met and fell in love with her second husband Ian Stewart and, along with the rest of her family, moved back to England where she still resides.
Paul, at the time of the murder, lived in the United Kingdom. When he was informed of his sister’s death, he moved to South Africa to provide comfort to his parents.
He would end up marrying his wife Chantal, and the two share a daughter, Jessica Leslie.
All these years later, Christine has not relented in her pursuit of justice. Every year, on the anniversary of Leslie’s death, and on her birthday, she approaches the media, particularly the George Herald, to publish the story.
This, she says, is the only way she knows how to keep the tragedy that befell her daughter alive and, hopefully, help spark a memory from someone who might know something about what happened to Leslie.
Journalist Pauline Lourens and her colleagues from the community newspaper have played a crucial role in keeping the story relevant in the news.
Along with the family’s attorney Dolf Louw, Lourens and her colleagues have made various attempts at getting Leslie’s murder investigation reopened.
The advancement of DNA technology and its use in South Africa over the years, in particular, is what keeps the hope alive for Christine.
In her latest attempt, the mother filed for a DNA examination to be conducted on the clothes Leslie wore the night she was viciously killed.
Another application was made to the director of public prosecutions in Cape Town to reopen the investigation.
However, as things stand, the cold case has not been assigned to a fresh pair of eyes.
“We know we will never get Leslie back into our lives, she lives in our hearts now. But we want to see justice done, and the person responsible for taking away a beautiful person, be put behind bars,” Christine said
Leslie van Zyl, like many victims of violent crime in South Africa, remains unsolved.