A British couple, who spent six months scouting wild mountains and forests for seeds stock, was mercilessly murdered by a ruthless gang in South Africa. Rachel and her husband Rodney Saunders were beaten to death, their bodies stuffed into sleeping bags and thrown into a crocodile-infested river in a remote nature reserve in South Africa.
The gang was angry at the botanist couple for taking the rare seeds from the nature reserves to sell in a worldwide mail-order business. Rachel and Rodney were murdered days after recording a BBC gardening show Gardeners World.
Rachel, 63, and Rodney Saunders, 74, were respected botanists. Rodney was a keen collector of indigenous seeds and travelled to all corners of South Africa to find different types of gladioli. Rachel was a leading microbiologist. She was born in South Africa and had dual British citizenship. Rodney and Rachel were married for 30 years and ran a successful worldwide mail-order business.
The couple was said to be trekking through wild mountains and forests, hunting for stock for their business, based in Cape Town. They disappeared in February 2018 just days after being interviewed by BBC TV series Gardeners' World presenter Nick Bailey, who later posted a selfie of them on his Twitter account. This is believed to be the last photograph of Rachel and Rodney which was taken when they were alive.
After the interview, the couple headed off to camp at a dam by a remote forest. Alarm over their disappearance was raised on February 10, 2018. Their last contact was with an employee at their workplace Silverhill Seeds.
An investigating officer received information that Rodney and Rachel from Cape Town had been kidnapped in the KwaZulu-Natal region. The police launched a full-scale search and found that money had been drained from the couple's account. There were fears that the British couple had been kidnapped by ISIS terrorists. But the elite Hawks organized crime unit linked Rodney and Rachel's phones to local suspects who had shared extremist messages.
One such message which was sent a day before the kidnapping discussed how they must "kill the kuffar (non-believer) and abduct their alias, destroy infrastructure and put fear in the heart of the kuffar". A Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio is said to have sent a message, on the day of the British couple's deaths, to his wife and his then-lodger saying there was an elderly couple in the forest and that it is a good hunt and he has the target. The suspect also sent a message to an unknown person stating that "It is very important the body of the victims is never found, it remains a missing person case."
Investigators found Rodney's Land Cruiser on February 19 with a large amount of Rachel's blood in the cargo area. The couple's decomposed bodies were discovered by fishermen days after they were murdered; the bodies were only identified in April.
The police arrested four suspects – three in South Africa around 30 miles from the reserve and one in the Netherlands. This week, three suspects, Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39; his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28; and the lodger Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, went on trial at the Durban High Court. They have denied the charges of kidnap, murder, robbery and theft. Del Vecchio and Patel were arrested on February 15, 2018 at their home in Endlovini in connection with the couple's disappearance.
The court heard that the defendants were drawing money from various ATMs which amounted to the theft of 734,000 rand, and there was also the robbery of the Land Cruiser, and camping equipment. Investigators revealed that they found receipts in Bibi Patel's handbag corresponded with the purchases made with Rachel Saunders' bank card. The court was informed that Jackson was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and instructed to meet Del Vecchio on the road. Del Vecchio, in the Land Cruiser, Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove the sleeping bags stuffed with bodies from the back of the vehicle and threw into the river.
The fourth suspect is said to have purchased mobile phones belonging to the Saunders, but was not involved in the kidnap and killing. As such, he was given a suspended sentence.