The father of a student who was gang-raped and murdered in South Africa has revealed his wife ‘walked into the ocean and didn’t return’ after struggling to cope with her loss.
Willem Cornelius said his wife, Anna, became a ‘shadow of herself’ after their daughter Hannah, 21, was killed following a night out in in Stellenbosch, west of Cape Town, in May last year.
Addressing court today where he faced his daughter’s killers, Mr Cornelius said his ‘family died with Hannah’.
He said ‘no-one really knows’ what happened when his 56-year-old wife – once ‘the strongest and most competent person I have ever met’ – decided to go swimming ‘in the ice-cold and stormy Atlantic Ocean’.
But he added: ‘I do not believe that she committed suicide… but what I do believe is that she did not have the physical or mental strength left to counter any difficulties that she may have experienced.’
Hannah was carjacked while dropping off fellow student Cheslin Marsh, 22, at his home in Stellenbosch.
Geraldo Parsons, 27, Vernon Witbooi, 33, and Eben van Niekerk, 28, were yesterday found guilty of the rape and murder, as well as the kidnap, robbery and attempted murder of Mr Marsh. A fourth man, Nashville Julius, 29, was found guilty of kidnapping and robbing Ms Cornelius and Mr Marsh.
Justice: Hannah Cornelius, 21, was raped and murdered in Stellenbosch, South Africa, after she and her friend were carjacked by four men in May, last year
Willem Cornelius said his wife, Anna (right), became a ‘shadow of herself’ after their daughter Hannah (left), 21, was killed following a night out in in Stellenbosch, west of Cape Town, in May last year
Willem Cornelius (pictured today), the father of murdered Hannah Cornelius has revealed his wife ‘walked into the ocean and never returned’ after struggling to cope with her loss
Verdict: Vernon Witbooi, 33, Geraldo Parsons, 27, Eben van Niekerk, 28, and Nashville Julius, 29, appear in court during their trial
Hannah’s aunt, Professor Eleanor Cornelius, has today slammed the attackers for smiling throughout the case ‘like they had only gotten up to mischief’
Today, Mr Cornelius, was called to the stand in the Western Cape High Court and revealed he had not previously been able to sit through the harrowing proceedings, saying: ‘I couldn’t bear to hear what they did to my daughter’.
In his heartbreaking appearance in court, Mr Cornelius said the effect of his daughter’s death on the family was ‘beyond devastating’.
According to Time Live, Mrs Cornelius’ body was found off Scarborough on the Cape Peninsula after she went for her daily swim at 7am.
A colleague with the Hannah Cornelius Foundation CEO – set up in Hannah’s name – said Mrs Cornelius ‘had been quite ill’.
Foundation CEO Lily Reed said at the time: ‘She had flu and a chest throat infection the whole week before. I think that added to it.’
Rescuers said they expected she had drowned.
Once a magistrate, Mr Cornelius told the court he did not believe he had the impartiality to continue in the role after what had happened to his daughter.
Earlier, her aunt, Professor Eleanor Cornelius slammed the attackers for smiling throughout the case ‘like they had only gotten up to mischief’.
The mother of Cheslin Marsh – who was battered with bricks and left for dead by the attackers – also took the stand and spoke directly to the men in the dock.
Marilyn Marsh said: ‘Who does something like that to a person? My son did nothing to you.’
Yesterday, video footage from the court posted on social media by Times Live heard Parsons and Witbooi being asked in Afrikaans if they are sorry, to which Parsons responded that he was.
Geraldo Parsons (second from left) covers his face after being found guilty of kidnapping, gang-raping and murdering a university student
Taken: Ms Cornelius, a second year university student, had driven her friend Cheslin Marsh home, and the pair were carjacked outside his block of flats
‘Our family died with Hannah’: Willem Cornelius describes his ‘remarkable’ daughter in court
Willem Cornelius told the court he believes his family ‘died with Hannah’ after the ‘remarkable’ student was murdered.
The 21-year-old’s devastated father spoke in court ahead of the sentencing of four men convicted of involvement in her killing.
The former magistrate said he could no longer work in the profession because he did not believe he had the impartiality for the role after what had happened to his daughter.
Before describing his daughter, Mr Cornelius apologised for not having been at the proceedings before.
He said an investigating officer had taken him through some of the details of the case beforehand and ‘did not feel up to going through the evidence again’.
‘I suspect all parents believe their children are exceptional, and we were no different. Almost from birth, Hannah proved to be different from what we believed was the norm.
‘There were no feeding problems, no terrible twos, no teething difficulties – in fact, the first time she cried without an obvious reason, we were so anxious we asked our family doctor to attend to her in the middle of the night.
‘We were mortified when he informed us that she was having her first tantrum.’
After the birth of her autistic brother, Hannah became ‘part of management, with a share of duties and a say in decisions’, he told the court, adding that she never gave her parents any ‘drama and difficulties’, excelling in school.
‘I recall an incident in her early teens when she gravely informed us that she did not want to attend our church anymore, as it did apparently not make provision for her Muslim friends to go to heaven.’
Mr Cornelius said that a ‘young woman she met in Europe described her in a poem as being a relentlessly friendly and commendably comfortable in her own skin – that opinion was shared by almost everyone from all walks of life who met her.’
At 16, she declined a birthday present, insisting instead that she ‘could not in good conscience spend money on herself while people around her were living in poverty’.
Instead, she made up gift packs for children in a nearby settlement – an act she carried out on subsequent birthdays.
He added: ‘When she enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch, Hannah informed us – somewhat to our dismay – that she had no interest in pursuing a career in law, but that she wanted to do something that would actually help people.’
She told her parents she wanted to study languages, literature and philosophy and then study in France.
‘The theme of helping people was a constant in her life and I understand this may have led indirectly to the reason why we are here today.
‘Even so, both me and her mother were immensely proud of raising a child for the new South Africa, a child without the baggage of our generations, with little interest in money or material things, with no prejudice regarding race, religion or social standing. A remarkable child on the cusp of growing into a remarkable young woman.
‘My wife, in addition to being my best friend, was the strongest and most competent person I have ever met. She became a shadow of herself… frantic, almost manic in everything she did. Outwardly still in control but inside she had very little to give – there was very little substance.
‘She turned her back on a successful law practice and ploughed every bit of energy she had into the foundation with absolutely no regard for her health or any other practical consideration.
‘No-one really knows what happened on that early morning when she decided to go swimming in the ice-cold and stormy Atlantic Ocean – for myself, I do not believe that she committed suicide… but what I do believe is that she did not have the physical or mental strength left to counter any difficulties that she may have experienced.’
He said that his son did not understand the concept of the loss his family has suffered.
‘Every night, he stops infront of a framed photograph of Hannah and asks “When are her holidays over? When is she coming home?” This has now been going on every night for a year and a half.’
‘The most obvious observation of the effect of what happened is the manner in which my life has contracted. There is no real joy or anticipation, no hope or expectation for the future, no goals to strive to – just an obligation to give my son as much of a life as he can have for as long as he can.
Addressing the sentencing, he added: ‘I am well aware of the constraints placed on the court in imposing sentence and I fervently hope that the court will consider imposing a sentence that will at the very least prevent other parents from going through what we have gone through as parents as far as the accused in this matter is concerned.’
Witbooi, whom the judge revealed has a violent criminal record going back 19 years, was also filmed giving a camera a ‘thumbs up’ as he left Western Cape Court.
This morning, the court heard that Parsons had a tattoo on his body saying ‘f**k the cops’ and another saying ‘hungry for money, thirsty for blood’.
Another shows a baboon with a woman’s face with its legs open, the court was told, according to News24.
Parsons had previously told the court during the trial that the quartet had only intended on stealing Ms Cornelius’ car and that the incident spiralled after they saw the two students still inside.
He said the desperate student had bargained with them, agreeing to let the men sexually assault her – as long as they let her live.
However, several of the men brutally raped her, after which they threw her into the boot of her own car, and drove her to a secluded spot where they murdered her.
CCTV footage released during the trial shows how the incident began in the early hours of May 27, 2017.
Four men are seen surrounded Ms Cornelius’ VW Golf, parked outside the block of flats where Mr Marsh lived.
Vernon Witbooi, Geraldo Parsons, Eben van Niekerk and Nashville Julius at the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday
Evil: Ms Cornelius reportedly bargained with the men in order to try to convince them to let her live, but they ended her life by crushing her head with a large rock
Kidnap: CCTV footage captured the moment when four men carjacked Ms Cornelius and Mr Marsh in May last year
Pure evil: Describing the sexual assault Ms Cornelius suffered, a state pathologist told the Western Cape High Court it ‘would have been a very painful experience to the person’
Mr Marsh says they had ended up chatting in the car, and were interrupted by a man putting a screwdriver to Ms Cornelius’ chest through the open window.
They were forced out of the car, after which Mr Marsh was robbed of cash and his phone and locked in the car boot.
The four men forced Ms Cornelius to get back into the car with them, after which they drove to a drug dealer’s home to smoke crystal meth, before they drove out of Stellenbosch and pulled over near a local vineyard.
They reportedly dragged Mr Marsh out of the boot and made him lay his head on a rock on the ground before battering his skull with bricks until they thought he was dead.
Shocking: Ms Cornelius was dragged from her car and raped by at least three of the men, the court heard last month
Injured: Three men made Mr Marsh (pictured after) put his head on a rock then battered his skull with house bricks until they thought he was dead
Mr Marsh recovered consciousness the following day, and staggered to a nearby home suffering severe head injuries and a broken arm to raise the alarm about Ms Cornelius.
Unknown to him her body had been found just hours earlier, dumped by the roadside.
After the rape and murder of Ms Cornelius, the gang went on a crime spree in the hijacked car, robbing at least three women before the stolen car was spotted and a high speed police chase began.
Three were arrested after dumping the car and fleeing and the fourth was arrested later.