UNSOLVED COLD CASE: The Murder of the Smit’s

UNSOLVED COLD CASE: The Murder of the Smit’s

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Who was Dr Robert Smit?

UNSOLVED COLD CASE: The Murder of the Smit's
Dr Robert Smit

Dr Robert Smit was a South African politician and a member of South Africa’s National Party. He was also the managing director of a company named, Santam, which was South Africa’s largest short-term insurance company. The South African government would use it to circumvent sanctions concerning the procurement of any sensitive military or economic resources. Robert lived with his wife Jeanne (Jean) Cora, his son, Robert Jr (14), and daughter, Liza (13), at Roper Street, Pretoria.

He attended Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and earned a PhD in Economics. At the tender age of 34, he became the youngest deputy secretary of finance in the South African Treasury Department. He went on to become South Africa’s ambassador for the International Monetary Fund in the US. He had been tipped to become the next finance minister before his death.

Case Background

Jean-Cora was alone in their rented home in Selcourt, Springs, on the night of the 22nd of November 1977. Robert Jr and Liza had remained in their Roper Street, Pretoria home. Robert had been working in his election office in Springs, he had lunch with friends and had also been interviewed by a journalist, Rita Niemand on the afternoon 22nd of November.

At approximately 3:15 p.m. Sarah Lombaard, Robert Smit’s receptionist took a call from a man asking to speak to Dr Smit about politics and asked whether it would be possible to visit Dr Smit in the evening, he claimed to live near Dr Smit. She told the caller she wasn’t sure what Dr Smit’s plans were but would patch him through to Dr Smit to make arrangements. At the start of the call, the caller told Sarah his name was MacDougall. Upon looking at Robert’s diary later, it was recorded as “McDougal – 8 p.m.” Keep this name in mind, it comes up later.

At 6.10 p.m. Jean-Cora was driven home by Robert’s employee and the couple’s driver, Daniel Tashablala. She was said to have been watching television around 6:30 p.m. whilst Daniel made himself a meal in their kitchen. Jean-Cora locked the door behind Daniel when he left the home at 6:50 p.m. Between 7:14 p.m. – 7:40 p.m., Jean-Cora called Sarah Lombaard and asked if Robert was still in the office, and when Sarah informed her that he was she told Sarah to tell Robert that his “guests were waiting for him”.

By the time Robert had arrived home later in the evening, Jean-Cora had been shot and stabbed. The perpetrator(s) were lying in wait for Robert when he arrived home, he was then also shot and stabbed to death. The calibre of the guns used to murder the couple was different, one was a 0.32 (7,65mm pistol), and the other a 0.38 (9mm revolver/pistol).

Daniel Tshabalala arrived at the home on the 23rd of November 1977 at approximately 7 a.m., and after knocking on the door and receiving no answer he entered the home after finding the door unlocked. He came across Robert’s body lying motionless in the passageway and upon further entering the house into the lounge he found the lifeless body of Jean-Cora slumped over the telephone. Tshabalala didn’t look for the children, realising he was at a crime scene he ran outside to alert a neighbour of the Smits.

Robert had been shot three times, two in the head and one in the chest, and the same stiletto style knife used to mutilate his wife was plunged deep into his back. Jean-Cora had also been shot three times, once in the back of the head at close range, then the chest and in the right thigh, but she had been brutally stabbed 14 times with a stiletto style knife, overkill as the shots she had received to her body had been what killed her. A post mortem done on the bodies stated that the stabbings were a half-assed (not the words they used, obviously) attempt to make a clinical assassination look like the work of some sort of deranged maniac.

Robert’s briefcase was missing, and the words “RAU TEM” were sprayed in red paint across the kitchen walls, fridge and freezer of the home. Most neighbours reportedly didn’t hear anything, other than one who claimed to have heard gunshots at around 11:15 p.m., but they did not call the police. This is thought to be a red herring and that Robert was murdered when he returned home between 8 p.m. – 9 p.m. There was very little evidence found in the home. The briefcase was said to have contained key information that could help solve the case, but it has never been found and it’s not known what the contents were.

Robert’s brother, Iaan, spoke to Rapport on the 24th of June 1979 and claimed that Robert had spoken to him at midday on the 22nd of November 1977, and Robert had told him, “Oom, I tell you, vuilgoed are coming to visit me [tonight]” (not Progressive voters).

Iaan told the newspaper that when his brother spoke of “vuilgoed” (rubbish) what he meant was people who had undesirable foreign elements that had settled in the Republic from places like Scandinavia, England, America, Hungary, and from former Portuguese colonies in Africa (post-1974). Iaan also told the newspaper that ever since his Oxford days Robert had used ‘McDougall’ as a fictional name in reference to a ‘Van der Merwe’ style character.

RAU TEM

It could be an anagram, it could actually be Rautem which has several different meanings such as the Galician phrase meaning, “I’m afraid”.

Further research we have found from the book Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nichol. In the book, one of the characters uses the phrase, “Rau tem” and when asked what it meant the character responded, “Just do it!”

Just as a side note, Mike Nichol is from Cape Town, South Africa. We haven’t been able to verify if this is an actual translation or not if you are from South Africa and can confirm we’d love feedback.

Rau Tem is also an anagram of Mutare which is a small city in Zimbabwe.

 

Mark Benza

In the aftermath of the murders, there were suspicions that a Czech Canadian scientist and businessman called Mark Benza could have been involved in some way. He was arrested and detained very briefly, he was questioned by the police before being released without charge. He subsequently left the country after his release.

There were several different reports published about Benza at the time, this information has been sourced and directly quoted from Politics Web.co.za (all credit to them for this next section):

“On September 7 1977 Robert M Edmund, CEO of the Edmund Scientific Company, of Barrington, New Jersey had handed Benza a letter of introduction ahead of his trip to South Africa. It was addressed to the South African “Department of Commerce” and said that Mr Benza had the right to manufacture and sell various products of the company in the Republic.

It seems that Benza arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 9 1977. He moved into the luxury Ponte Building, in Berea, on September 15 claiming, on the lease agreement, to be President of the Edmund Scientific Africa Corporation. However, in the business cards, he had printed in South Africa he claimed to have been the President of the Enercon Corporation.

On September 29 he met up with Emmerentia Liebenberg, a close friend of Robert Smit, who happened to live in the same apartment block.

Liebenberg was the widow of CR Liebenberg the Joint Managing Director of Spectro Beherend Ltd (formerly Spectro Research Laboratories). He had died suddenly in April 1977. She was the sister-in-law of Tommie Muller, the chairman of Iskor and brother of Hilgard Muller, South Africa’s foreign minister between 1964 and 1974.

[In a later article in the Weekend Post Geoffrey Allen wrote that there were rumours, which Liebenberg publicly denied, that Smit and she had been having an affair, “even that he intended to divorce his wife to marry [her] but had peremptorily cancelled that plan to avoid scandal” (November 25 1989).]

On October 5 Benza sent a telegram to the Edmund Scientific Company saying that all was going well. It was sent from the Voer-Sentraal Kooperasie in Pretoria to which Liebenberg’s father, Frans van Wyk, was attached. This was the last Edmund Scientific heard from Benza.

Benza was introduced to Robert Smit by Liebenberg in early November 1977. According to Beeld (December 5 1977), the two men met in Pretoria to discuss “overseas financial matters.” Shortly after that meeting, Benza showed Liebenberg a scale model of his newest invention – an engine that was driven by solar energy.

There were various inconsistencies in Benza’s account of himself, which raised the suspicions of his acquaintances. Jesus Guardiola, a restaurant owner in Ponte with whom he had discussed a possible business arrangement, told Rapport (December 18 1977) that Benza was a person who could not be trusted: “He lied about too many things. First, he said he had never lived in South Africa. Then he said he had just lived here for three years before.”

Liebenberg told Beeld (December 5 1977) that she grew suspicious of Benza when she came across a document suggesting that, contrary to what he had told her as well, he had previously lived in South Africa. She tipped off the security police, through a friend, and they met with and spoke to Benza on November 18 1977.

Liebenberg later told Rapport (November 23 1980) that the first she heard of the murder was when she was driving with Benza in her car in Johannesburg on the morning of November 23 1977. They saw newspaper posters along the side of the road and she had cried out: “Mark, Robert was murdered!” Benza had allegedly replied: “It’s a good thing he’s dead. He talked too much.”

After the murders Benza was questioned by the police and his passport was taken. A police spokesman told Beeld (December 5) that “he did not make a great impression with his knowledge of overseas financial matters. Indeed, it was very limited.” The newspaper stated that the passport was returned, and he was allowed to leave the country after it was established that Benza’s fingerprints did not match any of those found at the murder scene. Beeld said that it was rumoured that Benza was now in Brazil.

A short while later the Sunday Times journalist Neil Hooper managed to trace Benza to his home in Calgary, Canada. Hooper was also able to speak to Benza’s then-girlfriend Gloria. In an interview published in the Sunday Times on December 11 1977, Benza denied having had any connection with Edmund Scientific. He confirmed that he had lived in South Africa between 1967 and 1970 after fleeing Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Asked what he did during that time he said: “I was working. Any kind of work, and on spectroscopic work on a spectroscope.”

He had met with Dr Smit, and other businessmen, as he was “exploring for money” to support his solar energy business. He added that he planned to return to South Africa (in February 1978) to continue his campaign to introduce a solar-powered car to the republic. He also told Hooper that on hearing of the murder of the Smits he had actually remarked: “Well, everybody has to go at some stage.”

According to Stephan Terblanche of Rapport Benza’s two former employers – Edmund and A Wettberg of the Alberta Gas and Trunk Line – knew little of his background. He studied at a Communist school in Czechoslovakia and then fled the country for “political reasons.” He then came to Canada. He had also visited various black African states. (December 18 1977)

While the newspapers were clearly still intrigued by Benza, the police weren’t. A police spokesman told Die Transvaler (December 12 1977) that the investigation into Mr Benza was completed more than a week ago. “Benza had nothing to do with the murder.”

Nothing more would be reported about Benza for the next few years.”

 

The Underworld Source

In 2012 an “underworld source” approached the South African Cape Times newspaper claimed a former fugitive named Virgilio Paz was involved in the murders. This source also implicated several other people, including a Cuban hit squad. Virgilio did his own interview with the Cape Times categorically denying his involvement in the murders.

This source also stated that there were five perpetrators involved in the killings and they had flown in a week before the murder occurred. They left the country after the murders had been committed. The source claimed to have driven to of the perpetrators to Lanseria Airport, whilst three others stood watch around the home. Other than Virgilio Paz also known as Romero, there was an American man, a Mexican man and a fourth man only known as McDougal (it’s not known where he was from). However, other articles claim that McDougal was actually a pseudonym that Phil Freeman used in the 1980s’.

They state Jean-Cora was right beside the telephone when the Mexican man shot her. The US citizen shot out the lights above the stoop outside the home so Robert wouldn’t be able to see his shooter. Light from the house shone through the front door where Robert stood so the shooter would be silhouetted when he was shot from behind. The source reported that Robert was then dragged into the home along a passage and around a corner.

 

A Hit Team

The claims made from the source tied in with an article published by the Sunday News Journal in Delaware on the 24th of February 1980 by journalist Joe Trento.

In 1973 Hendrik van den Berg, the Commander of Bureau for State Security (Boss) and their counterpart based in Chile named Dina had reportedly started hiring CIA-trained “anti-Castro fanatics” (as in Fidel Castro, the infamous drug kingpin and former President of Cuba) as hit team contract killers. It was said that known victims of the hit team were the Smits, an exiled Chilean leader named Bernardo Leighton, and his wife Ana who survived an attempted assassination in Rome on the 6th of October 1975, but were seriously wounded.

The Sunday News Journal investigation reportedly showed that the killings were carried out under orders of Boss by the Cuban Nationalist Movement. They reportedly did not want Smit releasing details of who had been paid off abroad by the South African Information Ministry.

Smit had allegedly been about to speak out about a scandal he came across after he had lobbied for the World Bank to lend money to South Africa to help the economy. He had then heard from “friends” that more than R70 million (rand) had been deposited in some US bank accounts in the name of South Africa. According to CIA and State Department sources, Robert had discovered names of over 20 different American politicians which included senators, right-wing journalists, and publishers had received large sums of money as pay-off’s or bribes. They were said to have been known to support the Pinochet regime in Chile which has close ties with South Africa.

It was reported that the bullets recovered from Jean-Cora’s body matched those from the failed assassination attempt on Leighton and Ana. Romero had been suspected in the failed assassination so it was believed he was also involved in the murder of the Smits. Romero was also involved in the killings of a Chilean diplomat named Orlando Leterlier, and his colleague, Ronni Moffit, who was killed in a car bombing in Washington on the 21st of September 1976.

A witness in the bombing told the news publication that Romero and his associate Dionisio Suarez had both been using CIA-supplied counterfeit money and South African gold Krugerrands while they were on the run. Romero, who spent 7 years in jail in the US for the murders of Leterlier and Moffit, denied he was involved in the Leighton case.

“I’ve never been to South Africa, nor do I remember who Robert Smit was. Whatever we did was done for ideals, not money, Krugerrands or any other currency.” Virgilio Paz aka Romero was quoted as saying to a newspaper.

 

More Suspects

In 2006, the National Prosecuting Authority of the post-apartheid government had publicly named three suspects which were two BOSS operatives and one member of a police task force.

Suspect one was security police member, Phil Freeman. Phil committed suicide in 1990, it was reported that Robert was due to meet with Phil on the night of Robert and his wife’s murder. Two stiletto knives from Italy were delivered with Phil Freeman’s name on it to a police station in Cape Town.

Dries Verwey was also suspected of being involved in the murders of the Smits. He was found dead in Port Elizabeth. The police believe his death was a homicide having been shot in the left side of the head.

A third suspect is a man known as “RA” but news articles have reported to be named Roy Allen, who currently resides in Australia. There was no application for extradition in order to question RA as it was reported investigators still had to take certain statements from other individuals. Roy Allen spoke to Beeld at the time he was named, and stated, “I am no murderer. I was at the time in the security police. But I was never a member of the so-called Z-Squad or Z-section as we called it. I was a member of the N-Section. Nothing we ever did came close to murder.”

Roy Allen claimed to be dating Sarah Lombaard at the time and that he had spoken to Robert a few times about “this and that”. Roy Allen stated that “my personal belief is no one in the security forces at the time would have taken Smit out. He was a white, Afrikaans speaking, prominent soon-to-be member of the government. But I would not go as far as to say that the regime was not involved.” Allen stated he thought that perhaps a foreign hit squad had carried out the murders and that the advantage of that kind of method is that foreigners come in and do the job, then they leave. There are no tracks left linking the hits to those in the regimes that order it.

An organisation named the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the Smits “were killed by members of the security forces and that their deaths constitute a gross violation of human rights.”

In 2009, an author named R.W. Johnson named deceased Taillefer ‘Tai’ Minnaar who was an associate of Allen and Freeman as another suspect in the murders. In the book he wrote named South Africa’s Brave New World, Johnson cited he had an impeccable source, and that this source had stated Minaarr had become remorseful about the hit in his later life, he said that the orders had ‘come from the very top’, but that he regretted his involvement in the whole dirty business.

Minnaar had actually worked undercover in Cuba in the mid-1970s alongside the CIA. He had been handled out of South Africa’s Washington Embassy. He did an interview in 1984 with Star, he had described himself as an old friend of General Hendrik van den Bergh (Boss) and by the late 1976’s he had returned to South Africa to work as an instructor in the intelligence headquarters based in Rietvlei.

 

The Children

Luckily, the Smit children, Robert Jr (14 at the time of the murders), and Liza (13 at the time of the murders) were not present at the time of the murders, it’s not known if they would have also had the same fate of their parents. However, both have received death threats since the murder of their parents. Torie Pretorius of the National Prosecuting Authority who looked into the murders in the 1990s had been in touch with both children and they had reported the threats to Torie. Liza Smit has written a book and is a strong advocate in trying to find the killers of her parents. It’s not known what Robert Jr is doing at present.

 

Link to Liza’s book: I am Liza Smit

References

Cape Times – New claims made about who killed Robert Smit – IOL

Politics Web – The Smit Murders: Reexamined

Reddit – r/UnsolvedMysteries: South African Businessman Robert Smit and his wife were murdered in 1977, to this day it remains unsolved.

Wikipedia – Robert Smit

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