As a full-time author specialising in true crime I can guarantee you the last thing on a writer’s mind after publishing a book is suicide. Writing books is hard, and some books – like Mark Minnie’s – require tremendous resolve and soul-searching. The mood after a book comes out is relief and celebration, even more so when it gets the airing it deserves.
Ironically, I was at the Ramsgate Book and Art Festival on August 5, a Sunday, doing a presentation on the murder of Vincent van Gogh when I mentioned the cover of that day’s Rapport. I’d come across it on Julian Jansen’s Twitterstream that same morning. As an introduction to my presentation on the famous Dutch artist, I cited as examples of popularly misconstrued suicides (besides Van Gogh) true crime cases such as Rebecca Zahau, Susan Rohde (still sub judice), and John Wiley (as per the Rapport’s front page that day), to name but a few.
Recently, in South Africa, there have been a number of additional murders made to look like suicides, including the double murder in Stella, and Natasha Mans, a woman who went missing in Bloemfontein and was found dead under a tree with a gun beside her. The bullet shot through her body didn’t match the gun, and it was found that the body had been refrigerated for a spell to disguise the time of death. Suicide is poorly understood, in true crime and otherwise. Suicide and murder aren’t very different. Suicide is the murder of oneself, and so in the same way as one investigates a homicide, it’s just as important to have a motive, a means, premeditation etc when there’s a suicide. Since the “perpetrator” in a suicide is automatically brought to justice, there’s a deplorable tendency to sweep the circumstances surrounding suicides under the carpet. As if someone else’s death doesn’t matter as much if they’re responsible for it. Because suicide is such a taboo, people tend not to think about these things, let alone investigate them.
Given that every 40 seconds somewhere in the world someone commits suicide, compared to a murder committed every minute, we probably ought to be far more serious about suicide than we are – as a society. In effect, we ought to be more serious about how and why people commit suicide than how and why someone is murdered. Intuitively we know there is no comparison between the two. When people commit suicide, amnesia quickly sets in and family especially tend to jump up to make face-saving (but inaccurate) pronouncements about their dead relative.
Just as often intimate family members are so stung, so injured by a suicide, they’re unable to say anything for years, even a lifetime, which worsens the stigma and perpetuates the ignorance around mental health. We also need to be far more discerning about when and why a suicide is not a suicide, but perhaps made to look like one. Van Gogh is a great example of the incentive in perpetuating the suicide myth. In his case, his art is worth more and his legacy somehow more esteemed because a “troubled artist’s” art is somehow seen to be more valuable than an untroubled artist’s art… Before we get to the list of 22 Reasons, one final point on Minnie.
I have a huge problem with the media recycling the idea that his son Markus predicted his father’s suicide. “When dad finished this book he sent me a copy. I got through the first two chapters and then stopped. Tears and a heavy heart, knowing my father was about to dive into something that could kill him.” This was written and posted on to Facebook before Minnie’s death, so his son wasn’t suggesting his father was suicidal, but rather that he was, or may have been, in mortal danger. And it turned out he was. It’s the media’s job to be more explicit about this, rather than making lazy and misleading allusions to his son’s “creepy” omen. Now, there are three main areas to test why Minnie’s so-called suicide isn’t genuine: 1) the location of the suicide, 2) Minnie’s demeanour and intentionality at the time, and 3) the circumstances and context immediately and generally surrounding the time of death.
1. Minnie’s body was found in the veld near a rose plantation on a friend’s farm in Theesecombe, but basically in an isolated area.
2. A handwritten “suicide note” was found, presumably on Minnie’s person, perhaps in his pocket. There’s still no information about the contents of the note.
3. Minnie’s car and cellphone are still missing from the scene. The cellphone was switched off and Minnie hadn’t responded to emails in the hours before his death.
4. The gun found beside Minnie wasn’t his gun, it belonged to Brent Barnes, a lifelong friend Minnie was staying with at the time. Barnes may be charged with neglect in terms of the weapon.
5. The bullet wound was said to be between Minnie’s eyes.
6. Minnie was based in China, he worked as an English teacher at a university in Guangzhou, China, and was on holiday in South Africa at the time of his death. He had been on a 20-month sabbatical because he couldn’t work and write the book. In the end the university said they needed to fill the position, and Minnie – committed to his story – gave it up. While working and living in China Minnie visited his teenage daughter twice annually in South Africa.
7. During an interview with Minnie on the last Friday before his death, at 11am, Minnie was careful to meet Media24 reporters in a public area, the McDonald’s parking lot in Cape Road, in the suburb of Linton Grange, Port Elizabeth.
8. Minnie was found at the back of Barnes’ farm – near an old greenhouse bordering the end of the property. Minnie went to meet reporters in a public area closer to town. He travelled about 11 minutes by car towards the city of Port Elizabeth, in order to put himself more deeply inside the urban fabric. When I first heard the story, I assumed from the very thin reporting that Minnie had gone to visit a friend or neighbour and had been killed there. In fact, he was killed on the property where he was staying, but in an isolated part of it, on the border. It was also Barnes himself who found Minnie, after a female friend (his co-author or perhaps someone at Tafelberg Publishers) alerted him that Minnie wasn’t answering his phone. The fact that Minnie’s phone and car are gone, but there’s a suicide note, is a huge mismatch. The cellphone data could indicate that Minnie was lured to the boundary of the property by someone pretending to be a journalist or friend. Jacques Pauw, the author of another controversial book that shook the corridors of power in South Africa, has already suggested that if the handwritten note is found to be Minnie’s handwriting by a forensic analysis of the suicide note, it could still mean Minnie wrote the note under duress, meaning he was forced to write the note before he was shot dead. For me the number one indicator that this is a hit just from the above eight points is the bullet between the eyes. While we don’t have the ballistics yet, a key variable will be the angle the bullet entered Minnie’s brain. It’s very difficult to shoot oneself at right-angles with a gun, especially single-handed. Also, people who commit suicide want to avoid further pain. So looking into the barrel just before firing is unlikely. When people shoot themselves in the head it tends to be from the side, through the temple, or in the mouth. It’s seldom through the forehead, and virtually never between the eyes.
9. “I spoke with him. He didn’t seem frightened or in a bad space. He was in a good space and he loved his children very much. He was determined to get justice at some point.” – Marianne Thamm (who wrote the foreword to his book)
10. “He was here for a book launch and he was doing some of his investigation with people who had contacted him with more evidence for the book. He met some of these people. He did fear for his life from the day he started this investigation, and that’s why he left the police service.” – Marianne Thamm
11. Tafelberg says that during the last communications with Minnie, he sounded enthusiastic about the book’s publication and to expose the 30-yearold secrets. – EWN 12. According to Maygene de Wee, who interviewed Minnie three days before his death, Minnie was “paranoid and didn’t want people to know he’d relocated to South Africa months previously”. The reporter had to promise Minnie that she wouldn’t tell anyone where he was.
Nick van der Leek is a true-crime author and freelance photojournalist.