The horrific murders of two British botanists in South Africa and the subsequent devouring of their bodies by crocodiles have been laid bare to a court.
Dr Rachel Saunders, 63, and husband Rod, 74, were brutally killed and their corpses wrapped in their own sleeping bags and thrown off a bridge into a crocodile-infested river.
A suspected ISIS gang then went on a £37,000 spending spree with their credit cards after stealing their Toyota Landcruiser, camping equipment and mobile phones.
Durban High Court sat in hushed silence as pathologists – who cannot be named as they fear for their safety – spelled out how the devoted married couple met their grisly ends.
The botanists, who ran their own seed delivery business from Cape Town, spent six months in the wilds every year collecting rare gladioli seeds which they sold worldwide.
World-renowned botanists Rod Saunders (right), 74, and wife Rachel (left), 63, were pounced upon as ‘a good hunt’ as they scoured a mountain region in South Africa for rare seeds for their business
Their bodies were recovered days later but it was months before they were identified by DNA tests and post-mortems were carried out on both badly decomposed bodies to try and establish cause of death
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, the court heard
They had driven 900 miles from their home to meet a BBC documentary film crew in the Drakensberg Mountains to film an episode of Gardeners’ World with presenter Nick Bailey.
After filming they headed off for the remote Ngoye Forest National Park 90 miles north of Durban where they set up camp to go in search of gladioli seeds.
But they were spotted and in text messages subsequently recovered from the accused killers’ mobile phones were said to be an ‘elderly couple’ who would be a ‘good hunt’.
They were allegedly tracked and brutally murdered then fed to crocodiles by Aslam Del Vecchio, 41, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 31, and their lodger Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 37.
The trio with alleged links to terrorist group ISIS face charges of kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances, theft and murder and have pleaded not guilty to all.
The Saunders’ bodies were said to have been wrapped in their sleeping bags and driven to the crocodile infested Tugela River where they were thrown off a road bridge.
Their corpses were washed up within days but were so badly mutilated by crocodiles and decomposed it was months later until they were identified by DNA checks.
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 Gardeners’ World
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, 2018, but were never heard from again. On February 10 the alarm was raised
Durban High Court where the alleged killers of British botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders are on trial for the brutal robbery and murder
Rod’s body was found on 17 February 2018 and was identified only in April 2018 and Dr Rachel’s body was found three days earlier but was identified only in June 2018.
Senior prosecutor Mr Mahen Naidu called two forensic pathologists who carried out the post-mortems to give chilling evidence to the court of their cruel end.
The pathologist who did the post mortem on microbiologist Dr Rachel said he could not at first tell whether the victim was male or female due to the injuries.
The doctor, with 40 years’ experience, said that her body was ‘one of the most extreme cases’ for which he had ever performed an autopsy in his whole career.
He said that she died from strangulation and stab wounds and blunt trauma injuries then referred to the subsequent mutilation by crocodiles that left her unrecognisable.
The doctor said: ‘I performed the autopsy and I was not sure as to whether it was a male or a female body given its advanced decomposed state and due to the crocodile injuries.
‘She had been dismembered. There were missing limbs – the right arm and a leg were not there. The groin was totally eaten out and there was no breast tissue.
‘There was no way to determine the gender. I also saw fractures on the skull, spine, neck, and ribcage. There was no hair. There were also multiple stab wounds.’
Prosecutor Mr Naidu asked the pathologist if he was aware the body was found in the Tugela River and asked if the injuries present were due to ‘scavenger activity’.
The pathologist said: ‘The violent nature in which the body was dismembered suggests crocodiles may have fed on it. There were ragged bites all over the body.
‘However, the stab wounds were well defined about 2cm deep and the marks on her neck suggested strangulation and the cause of death is due to multiple injuries.’
Earlier another pathologist said that world renowned horticulturist Rod had died from blunt impact injury and had also been attacked by crocodiles in the river.
He said: ‘Examination of the body showed evidence of scavenger activity for example a crocodile due to lost tissue on the arms, neck, and chest and a missing tongue.’
The horrific evidence of their murders and subsequent mutilation by crocodiles after their bodies were unceremoniously dumped off a river bridge left the court in silence.
It had heard text messages between the trio with ISIS links described them as a ‘good hunt’ and discussing ‘killing the kuffar’ saying they were in the forest.
The Saunders left their home in Cape Town where they ran their business Silverhill Seeds on February 4, 2018, and drove 900 miles to meet the BBC TV film crew.
Murdered British botanists Rod (left) and Rachel Saunders (centre) on a hike with the Pacific Bulb Society
The tragic couple, seen here on another seed hunt with the Pacific Bulb Society, were allegedly targeted
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
They then moved onto the Ngoye Forest and the last contact with them was on February 8 and a full-scale police search was launched for them two days later.
The court was told: ‘Around February 10 the investigating officer received information that Rodney Saunders and his wife Dr Rachel Saunders had been feared kidnapped.
‘It was established on February 13 that the defendants were drawing money from ATM’s which amounted to theft of R734,000 (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Toyota Land Cruiser and camping gear.
‘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.’
The elite Hawks police squad had found a link between the phones belonging to Mr and Mrs Saunders and mobiles of the suspects and arrested the three accused and charged them with murder.
They also found ISIS pamphlets and flags at the trio’s home.
The court heard: ‘On March 23 the third accused 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 was in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove the sleeping bags from the back and threw them with human bodies inside into the river.’
The victims’ Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with large amounts of blood inside.
South-African born Rachel received British citizenship when she married UK-born Rod 30 years ago and the pair travelled the world giving lectures on their passion on the Gladioli of South Africa.
In 1995 Rod quit his job as nursery manager at the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and leading university microbiologist Rachel quit hers and they set up Silverhill Seeds.
It was a successful business working from home employing staff to sell their seeds around the world and the couple spent six months a year camping in the wilds gathering stock to sell by mail order.
Married couple Del Vecchio and Patel and their lodger Jackson deny kidnap, murder, robbery and theft at Durban High Court.
The prehistoric-looking Nile crocodile is widespread throughout South Africa and grows up to 5.5m long and weighs over 1000kg and kills up to 300 people a year in South Africa.
The trial continues.