Who Is Moses Sithole?
Moses Sithole is considered one of South Africa's worst serial killers. In 1997, Sithole was found guilty of 38 murders and 40 rapes. A significant number of Sithole's victims were never identified.
Sithole, one of five children, was born in Vosloorus, near Boksburg in the Transvaal Province of apartheid (now Gauteng), South Africa, on November 17, 1964, to Simon and Sophie Sithole. His childhood of poverty was exacerbated after his father died and his mother, unable to support the children, abandoned them at a local police station. They were placed in an orphanage in Kwazulu Natal, but systematic abuse provoked the teenage Sithole to run away after three years, seeking refuge first with his older brother Patrick before going to work in the Johannesburg gold mines.
Sithole was sexually precocious from an early age, but his relationships were short-lived. Some have surmised that his mother’s abandonment of her children might have played a role in his aggressive attitudes toward women. He also reportedly told some of his rape victims about his own bad experiences at the hands of a previous girlfriend.
Sithole has been described as a handsome and charming man, and most of his victims were enticed to their assaults, and often deaths, in broad daylight, with promises of employment opportunities that would never materialize. His social ease and intelligent demeanor made the string of brutal assaults even more chilling, and he was eventually charged with 38 murders and 40 rapes. A significant number of Sithole’s victims were never identified.
It is not known when Sithole raped his first victim, but his first recorded incidence of rape occurred in September 1987, involving 29-year-old Patrica Khumalo, who testified at his 1996 trial. Three other known rape victims came forward, including Buyiswa Doris Swakamisa, who was attacked in February 1989. She made a police report at the time that resulted in Sithole’s arrest and trial. In 1989, he was jailed in Boksburg Prison for six years for the rape of Swakamisa. Sithole maintained his innocence throughout the trial and was released early, in 1993, for good behavior.
Perhaps Sithole learned a lesson from his time in jail: that rape victims left alive can produce consequences. It is not known how soon after his release that he began his rape and killing spree, but between January and April 1995 in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, four bodies of young Black women who had been strangled and probably raped were discovered. This began a chain of events that unearthed an appalling litany of brutality and death.
When newspapers became aware of the similarities in the killings of each victim, police were forced to admit that a serial killer might be operating in the area. The discovery of the body of one victim’s 2-year old son incited further media coverage, but in a society inured to violence, media interest was relatively brief.
However, over the next few months in the vicinity of Pretoria, the recovery of several bodies all sharing the same gruesome pattern of having been raped, tied up and strangled with their own underwear gave the public pause. On July 17, 1995, a witness saw Sithole acting suspiciously while in the company of a young woman; the witness then discovered her body when he went to investigate. Unfortunately, the witness had been too far away to identify the killer.
A special investigating team was established within the Pretoria Murder and Robbery Unit to determine whether the murders conformed to a pattern, but the method of attack varied to such an extent that it was impossible to be certain that one killer was responsible. As more victims were identified and as the chronology of deaths, rather than the discovery of their bodies, became apparent, clear evidence showed that the killer was evolving his murder technique to extract the greatest pain from his victims, assumedly increasing his own pleasure. His means of approach was also clarified: In a significant number of cases, the victim had been meeting someone who had promised them employment.
On September 16, 1995, a body was discovered at the Van Dyk Mine near Boksburg. Further investigation revealed mass graves. Forensic experts recovered 10 bodies in varying degrees of decomposition over the next 48 hours. Investigators were certain that the Boksburg bodies were linked with the victims at Atteridgeville. Media attention was intense throughout the recovery operation, and even President Nelson Mandela visited the scene of the grisly discoveries.
Public concern increased with the media coverage, and local authorities sought external help from retired FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who arrived on September 23, 1995. He assisted in developing a profile of the serial killer. The profile indicated that an intelligent, organized individual with a high sex drive was responsible and was operating with a growing sense of confidence, perhaps with the assistance of a second killer.
While the profiling was underway, investigations at the gravesite revealed that one of the victims found, Amelia Rapodile, had last been seen before an appointment to see a man named Moses Sithole on September 7. Investigators found a job application stating she had been offered a position. When a second victim showed a similar connection to Sithole, police were confident they had unearthed a likely suspect. They were unable, however, to locate Sithole, who continued with his killing spree, unfazed by the manhunt and media attention. The body of Agnes Mbuli was discovered near Benoni on October 3, 1995.
That same day, the Star newspaper received a call from a man claiming to be the serial killer. Because he had information not known to the general public, police were inclined to believe it was Sithole. An attempt to set up a meeting with him failed, however, and three more bodies were discovered over the next 10 days, forcing police to release Sithole’s details to the media.
With the manhunt now in the public domain, Sithole tried to seek assistance from family members, but undercover police intercepted him on October 18, 1995. He was unwilling to go quietly, and a police officer shot him in the leg and stomach. Sithole was hospitalized, underwent surgery and was then transferred to the secure Military Hospital in Pretoria, where he admitted to numerous killings in interviews with detectives.
Sithole denied having had an accomplice and believed that copycat murders had been executed using his modus operandi. A police claim that he had waived his right to an attorney while making his confession was later denied in court.
Five days later, on October 23, 1995, Moses Sithole was charged with 29 murders in the magistrates’ court in Brakpan.
On November 3, 1995, Sithole was transported to Boksburg Prison, where he had served his rape sentence two years previously, to await his trial. During this time, press reports stated that he was HIV positive.
By the time Sithole’s trial began on October 21, 1996, mounting evidence saw the total charges against him increase to 38 counts of murder, 40 counts of rape and six counts of robbery. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Building a chronological picture of his crimes, the prosecution introduced harrowing testimony from his earliest rape victims detailing their ordeals at the hands of Sithole before his first conviction for rape.
A detailed examination followed his connection with each of the murdered victims, with testimony about the alleged job offers and the specific techniques used to lure his victims to their deaths. Sithole appeared cool and collected throughout.
On December 3, 1996, the prosecution introduced a video that had been shot during Sithole’s initial incarceration, in which Sithole candidly admitted to 29 murders. He describes his technique in some detail, although he claims that he began killing only in July 1995, selecting his victims for their resemblance to rape victim Buyiswa Doris Swakamisa, whom he regarded as responsible for his first jail sentence. The legality of the admissibility of this tape, recorded illegally in a jail cell, caused the trial to be delayed until January 29, 1997, and the technical issues relating to it, as well as Sithole’s original confession, caused the trial to drag on until July 29, 1997, when the judge finally ruled that the evidence was admissible.
The prosecution rested its case on August 15, 1997. The defense case depended largely on Sithole’s denial of any involvement in the killings when he took the witness box, but his testimony was often rambling and incoherent.
On December 4, 1997, more than a year after the case had commenced, Moses Sithole was found guilty on all charges. It took three hours to read the verdict, with the consequence that sentencing had to be postponed until the next day.
The next morning, the judge made a statement that in view of the abhorrent nature of the crimes, he would have had no hesitation in pronouncing a death sentence on Sithole. However, since the death penalty in South Africa had been declared unconstitutional in 1995, Sithole was sentenced to 2,410 years in prison, with no possibility of parole for at least 930 years. Clearly, the sentence meant to keep Sithole behind bars for the rest of his life.
Sithole was incarcerated in the maximum-security section of Pretoria Central Prison, the highest-security cellblock in South Africa, known as C-Max. Ironically, the medical treatment for his HIV condition in prison far exceeds any treatment available to the average South African citizen and may well secure him a far longer life, albeit in prison.
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