A savage gang that attacked while searching a remote South African nature reserve for rare seeds in 2018 brutally killed a British couple and threw their remains to crocodiles, a court heard.
Rod Saunders, 74, and his wife Rachel, 63, spend six months of the year combing untamed mountains and woods seeking sought-after merchandise for their successful global mail-order business.
However, it was said that while traveling, they were attacked, abducted, beaten to death, and then placed in sleeping bags and dumped into a river inhabited with man-eaters.
Their horribly decayed carcasses, which had been consumed by the reptiles when fisherman hauled them out of the sea days later, were unrecognizable as the missing pair and were sent to mortuaries.
Only months later, when no sign of the British couple could be found, did authorities order that all unidentified or abandoned remains at morgues be DNA tested. Rod and Rachel were recognized at that point.
The large-scale hunt for the seed hunters has already resulted in four arrests, three of whom have been accused with the married couple’s killing, kidnapping, burglary, and stealing.
Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, their lodger at the time, all deny kidnapping, killing, burglary, and theft before Durban High Court.
The fourth suspect, who was discovered to have purchased mobile phones belonging to Saunders but was not engaged in the kidnapping and death, was handed a suspended sentence in exchange for crucial evidence.
The unfortunate pair were avid travellers who established a profitable company in Cape Town selling seeds found in distant regions to customers all over the world, and the court was informed of their final voyage.
On February 5, 2018, they left their home in Cape Town in their Toyota Land Cruiser to meet a BBC TV documentary film team in the Drakensberg Mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal, 900 miles away.
The globally known botanists were interviewed for an episode of Gardeners World by TV host Nick Bailey as they sought the Drakensberg Mountain area for rare Gladioli flower seeds.
Indeed, a selfie shared on Mr Bailey’s Twitter account and a snapshot taken by producer Robin Matthews while production were thought to be the last photos taken of them alive.
After shooting, Rod and his microbiologist wife Rachel, who had been married for almost 30 years, parted ways with the TV host and went to camp at a dam near a lonely forest.
They were last in communication with an employee at their company, Silverhill Seeds, which they run from their home in Cape Town, on February 8, just three days after they left for the BBC meeting.
Dr. Saunders and her husband Rod claimed to be on their way to the Ngoye Forest Reserve, 90 miles north of Durban, but they were never seen or heard from again. The alert was sounded on February 10.
Around February 10, the investigation team obtained details that Rodney Saunders and his wife Dr Rachel Saunders from Cape Town had been abducted in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region, the court was informed.
On February 13, it was revealed that the accused were pulling money from several ATMs, amounting to R734,000 (£37,000), and that their Land Cruiser and camping equipment were robbed.
It is claimed that between February 10 and 15 at the Ngoye Forest, the suspect illegally and purposely killed Rachel Saunders and illegally and purposely killed Rodney Saunders, the statement stated.
On March 23, the third accused, Mussa Ahmad Jackson, was detained and given a statement to the effect that he was roused up by Patel at their residence on February 10 and directed to meet Del Vecchio on the road, the court heard.
Del Vecchio in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson accompanied him to the Tugela River Bridge, where they assisted him in removing sleeping bags from the rear of the Toyota and throwing them into the river with human remains inside.
According to the court, the victims’ Land Cruiser was retrieved on February 19 with a substantial amount of blood in the cargo compartment, which was subsequently proven to match Dr Rachel Saunders.
Local fisherman retrieved Rachel’s body from the crocodile-infested River Tugela on February 14 and Rod’s body on February 17, although neither body was immediately related to the missing persons investigation.
Later DNA tests in morgues revealed a poorly decomposed body in one mortuary on April 25, confirming the male body as Rod, and another DNA test result, obtained on June 6, confirmed Rachel.
Both are said to have perished after being beaten to death with a blunt weapon after being abducted and looted, and their bodies were then thrown from the bridge into the river for crocodiles to consume.
On February 10, Del Vecchio sent a message to his wife and their lodger saying there was an old couple in the forest and that it was a nice ‘hunt’ and he had the ‘prey.’
Del Vecchio reportedly said in a communication to an unknown individual, when the brothers in Kinya go out and accomplish their task, it is absolutely crucial that the bodies of the victims are never located.
It is still a missing person case, the notification read.
Rod and Rachel met when he was a nursery manager at Cape Town’s world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and she was a top microbiologist at a local university.
Rachel was an avid collector of indigenous seeds who traveled to all areas of South Africa in search of various species of Gladioli, and after they married, Rod chose to resign his work to accompany her on her trips.
Rachel, who was born in South Africa, gained dual citizenship after marrying Rod, who was born in the United Kingdom, and the couple traveled the world giving talks on their enthusiasm and knowledge on the Gladioli of South Africa.
In 1995, the pair founded Silverhill Seeds, named after their Silverhill Crescent house, and created a profitable business from home, employing people to distribute their seeds all over the world.
The trial is still ongoing.