The alleged killers of a well-known botanist couple from England, who were brutally murdered before their bodies were fed to crocodiles, had suspected links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), Daily Mail reported. Botanists Rod Saunders, 74, and wife Rachel, 63, were in South Africa when the suspected Isis-affiliated couple targeted, kidnapped, beaten to death, then put in their sleeping bags and thrown into a river infested with crocodiles.
Botanists Rod Saunders, 74, and wife Rachel, 63
Suspects 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, though. They are currently standing trial at the Durban High Court.
Sleuths found pamphlets relating to the Isis, along with the terrorist group's flag, at the defendant's house when they were arrested.
The Isis-linked suspected killers are Muslim. Del Vecchio, who converted to Islam, and Patel, whose father is a Muslim cleric, are now on South African security force's watchlists.
The authority had caught Del Vecchio earlier on a quadbike watching planes at Durban's King Shaka airport more than two years before the murders. Messages on WhatsApp and Telegram found on their phone showed the suspects discussed plans to "kill the kuffar [non-believer] and kidnap 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".
Police have not yet submitted the charge sheet that would say the suspects had links to Isis to the court.
The British couple spent six months a year looking for wild mountains and forests for sought-after-stock for their global mail-order business, but while on their travels, they met a gruesome end.
Their badly decomposed bodies, which had been devoured by crocodiles when they were pulled out of the water by fishermen days later, were unrecognisable as the missing couple and were brought to mortuaries.
Months later, when police could find no trace of the British couple, they ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be tested for the DNAs. The tests identified Rod and Rachel.
Police had by then succeeded in the full-scale hunt for the seed hunters. Police charged three of them with the couple's murder, kidnapping, robbing and stealing from the victims.
Del Vecchio, wife Bibi Fatima Patel, and their then-lodger Jackson deny the charges. The fourth suspect, who was found to have bought mobile 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 2% of the population in South African is Muslim and it has never suffered a major Islamist attack. However, it has become a hot-bed of money laundering that sustains terrorism in southern and east Africa. South Africa's weak security institutions and permeable borders have helped large-scale trafficking of drugs, weapons and people. This has allowed terrorist groups to manage funds for their militancy.
The tragic couple were keen adventurers. They set up a successful business in Cape Town, selling seeds they found in remote areas to customers around the world, the prosecution told the court.
They left their home in Cape Town in their Toyota Land Cruiser on 5 February 2018 for a visit to the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal, 900 miles from home, with a BBC TV documentary film crew.
The Saunders were last seen by a BBC documentary film crew, who filmed them for an episode of Gardener's World
TV presenter Nick Bailey interviewed the renowned botanists for an episode of Gardeners World as they combed the Drakensberg Mountain region for rare Gladioli flower seeds.
Bailey posted a selfie and a photo taken by producer Robin Matthews on his Twitter account while filming. These were perhaps 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 in a remote forest.
They were last in contact with an employee at their office Silverhill Seeds, which they ran from their home in Cape Town on 8 February, three days after they had set off to meet the BBC.
Saunders and Rod said they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve about 145 km north of Durban but were never heard from again. On 10 February, an alarm was raised that they were missing.
The prosecution told the court, "Around 10 February, 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 13 February," the prosecution said, "that the defendants were drawing money from various ATM's which amounted to theft of R 734,000 (£ 37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment."
"… between 10 and 15 February 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," the prosecution said.
On 15 February 2018, police arrested the Isis-affiliated couple — Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, and his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28 — at their residence in Endlovini, which is about 48 km from the Ngoye forest where the Saunders vanished.
The Hawks, an organised police crime fighting unit, found a link between the cell phones belonging to the Saunders couple and the cell phones of the suspects. The Hawks applied for a search warrant.
Police recovered a number of items, which had been bought on Dr Saunders bank card, including receipts, from the handbag of Bibi Patel, which corresponded with the date and time of the use of Saunders' bank card.
The court heard: "On 23 March, 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 10 February and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road."
The court was told, "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 19 February with a lot of blood in the cargo area, which was later confirmed to belong to Rachel Saunders, the court was told.
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
Police had recovered Rachel's body from the crocodile-infested River Tugela on 14 February while local fishermen found Rod's on 17 February, but both bodies were not initially linked to the missing persons inquiry.
Subsequently, DNA checks in morgues showed a badly decomposed body in one mortuary came back on 25 April, identifying the male body as that of Rod and the other DNA check result, which was received on 6 June, was identified as Rachel's.
Both died from being beaten to death with blunt instruments, it is suspected, after they were kidnapped and robbed and then dropped off the bridge into the river for crocodiles to devour their bodies.
On 10 February, a message from Del Vecchio to his wife and their then lodger said that 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 wrote "when the brothers in kinya go out and do this work it is very important the body of the victims is never found".
Suspects Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35
"It remains a missing person case," the message read.
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. She travelled across South Africa to find different types of Gladioli. After they married, Rod decided to quit his job and join her on her travels.
South African-born Rachel received dual citizenship after marrying British-born Rod. The couple 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.