Thabazimbi – a small town in Limpopo province – was once Melanie Coetzee’s beat. She was a clerk at the local police station until 2007 when she was dismissed.
Melanie Coetzee: “I was in the police for 15 years; there was never any problem. I never thought of resigning; I never thought of leaving them. I was actually very happy.”
She was accused of committing a violent crime, a story that still has local people talking today…
Melanie: “What they did to me was so bad. They took my whole personal life. They took everything.”
Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): “Melanie’s life took a dramatic turn in this modest police house in Thabazimbi in November 2007.”
She and her husband, had been married a short three months, when they started having relationship problems.
Melanie: “He was away for three months. He moved out of the house and, as I understand, it he was suffering from depression.”
In that time, her husband had a change of heart.
Melanie: “Two weeks before the incident he came back to me. He said wanted to come back. I was brought up to believe you should work at your marriage, and you must sort things out, and I wanted to try again.”
On the evening of the 20th of November 2007 the couple had a heated argument and Melanie walked out of the house.
Melanie: “And when I came back into the house, I found in the bedroom. My safe, where my service pistol was, was inside the wardrobe.”
Melanie says she found him sitting at the edge of the bed, with her service pistol cocked at his head.
Melanie: “When I walked in I asked him: ‘What are you doing now?’ and I took the weapon out of his hand.”
After a brief tussle, Melanie says he wrenched the firearm back from her. Before she could do anything to stop him, he pulled the trigger.
Melanie: “And at that moment I screamed and I was hysterical and didn’t know what to do. And he just fell where he stood in front of the bed. He was standing next to the bed and he fell.”
Melanie’s husband died instantly. The bullet was found lodged in the doorframe of their bedroom. She immediately phoned a friend who told her to call the police.
Melanie: “I was in such shock that I completely forgot the telephone number and she said to me: ‘Melanie concentrate, the police station, just phone them and I am on my way.”
The officers from Melanie’s station, arrived quickly and analyzed the scene. They noted the gun was lying under his left hand. They identified and recorded the entry wound as being on the left side of his head, so they suspected the deceased was left handed. When they discovered he was right handed, they began to suspect foul play. Melanie, in the meantime, had been admitted to hospital for shock. The next morning, things took an unexpected turn.
Melanie: “At around 11 o’clock Superintendent Manjane and Captain Ngobeni came to the hospital. They told me to come with them. I looked at them strangely; I didn’t understand what was happening.”
Investigators Manjane and Ngobeni removed her from hospital without an official discharge and bundled her into their police vehicle.
Melanie: “We drove off, but what was very strange about that journey, the police station and the hospital are about a kilometre apart, but they drove with me around the whole town. And they shouted at me that I shot my husband execution style and I am a murderer and they will see to it that I pay for what I did. In the state I was in, I said I didn’t do it because I didn’t do it and it became a fight.”
At the police station, Melanie says she was prevented from calling her attorney, and was kept from contact with friends or family.
Melanie: “And when I looked at the docket, I saw they had changed it from suicide to murder.”
Derek: ” Melanie spent eight long nights behind bars at the Bela Bela police station before she was eventually released on bail of R10 000.”
Melanie: “Thabazimbi is a small town, everyone knows everyone; and everyone knows everyone’s business and everyone’s opinion was: she did it, she killed him. They stared at me, it was very, very bad.”
Melanie was charged with murder, negligence with a firearm and domestic violence. She appeared in court a number of times in the following year.
Norman Wessels (Lawyer): “In that time she appears in court six times. The case is remanded pending the case of the DPP and all further investigation.”
Norman Wessels is the last of a string of lawyers who handled Melanie’s case
Norman: “Everything in the forensic report does suggest it was a suicide. And anything alleged by the guys that gave statements and that were at the scene were merely presumptions and couldn’t be backed up.”
Ballistics tested Melanie’s hands for traces of gunpowder.
Derek: “There was no trace of gunpowder on her hands?”
Norman: “Nothing whatsoever.”
Melanie: “The gun residue was on his right hand, and my hands had none.”
The allegation that Melanie had planted the gun under his left hand was also dismissed.
Norman: “The forensic report says obviously once you shoot yourself and you drop down, where the gun laid, there is a perfect explanation for that. It is nothing out the ordinary.”
And finally, forensics found that the entry wound was clearly on the right side of the head, and not the left, as had been alleged.
Melanie: “His wound was, this side was bigger than this side, because the gun was against his head. It was entry on the right and exit on the left, and they found the bullet stuck in the doorframe.”
On the basis of this evidence, the director of public prosecutions declined to prosecute and ordered an official inquest.
Derek: “So effectively Melanie is innocent?”
Norman: “She is without a doubt innocent.”
Derek: “On the 6th of June 2009, the criminal charges against Melanie were withdrawn. And, two months later, as official inquest found that her husband’s death was in fact a suicide.”
That ruling was little comfort to Melanie, an outcast who had lost her husband, her home and her source of income.
Melanie: “Thabazimbi, too many things happened there that I couldn’t move forward.”
Eventually she moved out of Thabazimbi and began to put her life together again. Last year she remarried and set about looking for a new job.
Melanie: “I send over 70 emails looking for work. if there was something in the papers, or something on the Internet or anything, I sent in my CV.”
She never got a single response.
Melanie: “It was as if the doors wouldn’t open, they stayed closed. I didn’t even get an interview and I started to think there’s a big problem, what is happening?”
Earlier this year, Melanie asked a former police colleague to check her record.
Melanie: “She said to me: ‘Melanie, you won’t believe what I am seeing in front of me. This case is still not over.’”
Until the serious charge of murder is removed from her record, Melanie’s life is on hold.
Hendrick Coetzee (Melanie’s husband): “It’s hard for her and it eats me as well, it gets hard for me.”
She and her husband Hendrick are pointing fingers at the investigating officers at Thabazimbi for the delays.
Hendrick: “I get so angry with the cops and I phoned the ‘oke who was supposed to sort it out.”
Derek: “Captain Ngobeni?”
Hendrick: “Yes, I spoke to him personally as well and he said, no, he is going to sort it out. And I said to him he better sort it out soon because otherwise there is going to be trouble.”
In desperation Melanie approached us with her story on the 18th of August this year – more than two years after being wrongly accused of murder. At that time, her name was still clearly on the criminal record centre’s data base.
General Phahlane (Divisional Commissioner of Forensics): “We can only delete a record following an instruction for the court or an order from the investigating officer.”
General Phahlane, divisional commissioner of forensics, says that investigating officers are tasked with facilitating the clearance process.
General Phahlane: “They have an obligation once there is a decision of court, the investigating officer is to immediately process what the court has pronounced.”
Derek: “That certainly didn’t happen with Melanie. It took a full two years after her case was withdrawn for the relevant documents to get to the criminal records centre.”
The investigating officer responsible is Captain Ngobeni. He did not respond to our
mails requesting an interview, so we popped in to see him undercover and unannounced. He was out, but his colleague was happy to get him on the line.
Derek: “Captain Ngobeni? It is Derek Watts here from Carte Blanche, Captain…”
Captain Ngobeni told us he was tied up in meetings and couldn’t make an interview.”
Derek: “I want to interview you regarding Melanie Coetzee – why her records didn’t get to the central records office?”
He insisted that the delays had nothing to do with him.
Derek: “So what’s the name of the person handling it?”
At the time, the Independent Complaints Directorate had also investigated Melanie’s case, and the captain claimed that the docket was held up with them. A quick call to the ICD soon cleared that up.
Derek: “We just want the date that the relevant documents were forwarded to Thabazimbi police station.”
[On phone] Man 1 (ICD): “Ja, I think we can also from our side, we can request permission to give those dates to you. It’s not a big deal, we can do it.”
They kindly sent us documented proof that the finalised docket had been returned to Thabazimbi on the 2 October 2009. Captain Ngobeni signed receipt himself.
Derek: “You can’t be happy about the delay in notifying your department, can you?”
General Phahlane: “I can’t be happy. It is our obligation to serve the interests of the people of this country and it is certainly not our wish to see anyone being prejudiced in the process. I guess, if I were in Melanie’s shoes, I would have the right not to be happy.”
Melanie: “I wanted to move on long ago, and try and put this behind me… eventually a person has to move on. It happened and it’s over. But it’s as if it’s still there, because it’s not finalised.”
Whether or not our enquiries nudged things along, the general received the required court documents on the 29th of August, and cleared Melanie’ s record immediately.
Derek: “Right now her name definitely isn’t on your system and she could get a certificate to that affect?”
General Phahlane: “Well, it is so that as of the 29th of August 2011, Melanie’s records have been cleared. So her records will be clean as we speak.”
Not taking his word for it Melanie went through the process of having a formal record check processed through MIE background screening. She received official clearance on November 8th 2011.
She and Hendrik can now look forward to a new year with new possibilities…