The alleged killers of a British couple who were brutally murdered before their bodies were fed to crocodiles had suspected links to ISIS, according to reports.
Respected botanists Rod Saunders, 74, and wife Rachel, 63, were in South Africa when they were targeted, kidnapped, beaten to death and then put in their sleeping bags and thrown into a river infested with the beasts.
Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, all deny kidnap, murder, robbery and theft. They are currently standing trial at Durban High Court.
It has now been revealed that detectives found pamphlets relating to the Islamic State terrorist group, along with an ISIS flag, at the defendant’s home when they were arrested, local reports say, according to The Times.
Del Vecchio, who converted to Islam, and Patel, whose father is a Muslim cleric, have both been included on South African security force’s watchlists.
Del Vecchio had been caught on a quadbike watching planes at Durban’s King Shaka airport more than two years before the murders.
What’s more, messages on WhatsApp and Telegram found on their phone showed the suspects discussed plans to ‘kill the kuffar [non-believer] and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and put fear in the heart of the kuffar’. The suspects also described Rod and Rachael Saunders as ‘prey’ who were ripe for a ‘hunt’.
The charge that the suspects had links to Islamic State has not been submitted to the court, according to The Times.
Adventure-seeking botanist couple Rod Saunders, 74, and Rachel Saunders, 63, were reported missing on February 10, 2018, after heading into the Ngoye Forest Reserve 30 miles north of Durban in South Africa
The British couple were allegedly targeting, kidnapped, murdered – their remains thrown to crocodiles – by a married couple and their lodger who lived in the area
The British couple spent six months a year scouring wild mountains and forests for sought-after-stock for their thriving worldwide mail-order business.
But while on their travels, it was said they met a gruesome end.
Their badly decomposed bodies, which had been devoured by the reptiles when they were pulled out of the water by fishermen days later, were unrecognisable as the missing couple and were brought to mortuaries.
It was only months later – when police could find no trace of the British couple – that they ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be DNA tested. It was then that Rod and Rachel were identified.
The full-scale hunt for the seed hunters had already resulted in four arrests – three of them have been charged with their murder, kidnap, robbery and theft of the married couple.
Del Vecchio, wife Bibi Fatima Patel, and their then-lodger Jackson deny the charges.
The fourth suspect, who was found to have bought cell phones belonging to the Saunders but was not involved in the kidnap and killing, was given a suspended sentence in return for vital evidence.
Around two percent of the population in South African is Muslin, and it has never suffered a major Islamist attack. However, it has become a hot-bed of dirty money financing terrorism in southern and east Africa, the Times reports.
Large-scale trafficking of drugs, weapons and people have been facilitated by South Africa’s weak security institutions and permeable borders. This has allowed terrorist groups to fill their coffers.
The couple spent six months a year scouring wild mountains and forests for sought-after-seeds for their thriving worldwide mail-order business Silver Hill Seeds
The Saunders were last seen by a BBC documentary film crew, who filmed them for an episode of Gardener’s World
The tragic couple were keen adventurers who set up a successful business in Cape Town selling seeds they found in remote areas to customers around the world and the court was told of their last journey.
They left their home in Cape Town in their Toyota Land Cruiser on February 5, 2018, to keep a rendezvous in the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal 900 miles away with a BBC TV documentary film crew.
The internationally renowned botanists were interviewed by TV presenter Nick Bailey for an episode of Gardeners World as they searched the Drakensberg Mountain region for rare Gladioli flower seeds.
Indeed a selfie taken by Mr Bailey and posted on his Twitter account and a photo taken by producer Robin Matthews during filming were believed to be the last snaps taken of them alive.
After filming, expert horticulturist Rod and microbiologist wife Rachel, who had been married over 30 years, parted ways with the TV presenter and headed off to camp at a dam by a remote forest.
They were last in contact with an employee at their workplace Silverhill Seeds which they ran from their home in Cape Town on February 8, just three days after they had set off to meet the BBC.
Dr Saunders and her husband Rod said they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve 90 miles north of Durban but were never heard from again. On February 10 the alarm was raised.
The court was told: ‘Around February 10 the investigating officer received information that Rodney Saunders and his wife Dr Rachel Saunders from Cape Town had been kidnapped in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region.
‘It was established on February 13 that the defendants were drawing money from various ATM’s which amounted to theft of R734,000 (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment.
‘It is alleged that between February 10 and 15 at the Ngoye Forest the accused did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rachel Saunders and between the same dates did unlawfully and intentionally kill Rodney Saunders’ it was said.
Dr Saunders and her husband Rod told an employee they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve 90 miles north of Durban on February 8 but were never heard from again. On February 10 the alarm was raised
Murdered British botanists Rod (left) and Rachel Saunders (centre) on a hike with the Pacific Bulb Society
On February 15, 2018, Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, and his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, were both arrested at their home in Endlovini, which is just 30 miles from the Ngoye forest where the Saunders vanished.
It came after the Hawks, which is an organised police crime fighting unit, found a link between the cell phones belonging to Mr and Mrs Saunders and the cell phones of the suspects and they applied for a search warrant.
It was said that a number of items which had been bought on Dr Saunders bank card were recovered including receipts in the handbag of Bibi Patel which corresponded with the date and time of the use of Dr Saunders bank card.
The court heard: ‘On March 23, the third accused Mussa Ahmad Jackson was arrested and he made a statement to the effect he was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road.
‘Del Vecchio in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove sleeping bags from the back of the Toyota and they threw them with human bodies inside into the river’.
The victims’ Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with a large amount of blood in the cargo area which was later confirmed to belong to Dr Rachel Saunders, the court heard.
Rachel’s body had been recovered from the crocodile infested River Tugela on February 14 and Rod’s on February 17 by local fisherman but both bodies were not initially linked to the missing persons inquiry.
The tragic couple, seen here on another seed hunt with the Pacific Bulb Society, were allegedly targeted by Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, all deny kidnap, murder, robbery and theft
The victims’ Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with a large amount of blood in the cargo area which was later confirmed to belong to Dr Rachel Saunders, the court heard
Rod and Rachel Saunders on one of their many expeditions into the wilds of the South African mountains to gather seeds for their global mail order gardening company in Cape Town
Later DNA checks in morgues finally showed a badly decomposed body in one mortuary came back on April 25 identifying the male body as Rod and the other DNA check result which was received on June 6 identified Rachel.
It is believed both died from being beaten to death with a blunt instrument after being kidnapped and robbed and they were then dropped off the bridge into the river for crocodiles to devour their bodies.
On February 10 a message from Del Vecchio to his wife and their then lodger said there was an elderly couple in the forest and that it is a good ‘hunt’ and he has the ‘target’.
Del Vecchio in a message to an unknown person allegedly sent ‘when the brothers in kinya go out and do this work it is very important the body of the victims is never found.
‘It remains a missing person case’ said he message.
When Rod and Rachel first met he was a nursery manager at the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town and Rachel was a leading microbiologist at a nearby university.
Rachel was a keen collector of indigenous seeds and travelled to all corners of South Africa to find different types of Gladioli and after they married Rod decided to quit his job to join her on her travels.
South African born Rachel received dual citizenship after marrying British born Rod and the pair travelled the globe giving lectures on their passion and expertise on the Gladioli of South Africa.
In 1995 the couple set up Silverhill Seeds named after their home in Silverhill Crescent and built up a successful business working from home employing staff to sell their seeds around the world.
The trial continues.