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British couple murdered and fed to crocodiles

Rod Saunders, 74 and his wife Rachel, 63, were attacked four years ago - Pacific Bulb Society
Rod Saunders, 74 and his wife Rachel, 63, were attacked four years ago - Pacific Bulb Society

A pair of respected British botanists was murdered by a South African kidnap gang and their bodies thrown in a river to be eaten by crocodiles, a court has heard.

Rod Saunders, 74 and his wife Rachel, 63, were attacked four years ago as they searched for wild seeds in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province for their mail order business.

The couple was killed shortly after being interviewed for an episode of BBC Gardeners’ World and pictures of them with presenter Nick Bailey are said to be the last photographs taken of the couple.

The pair disappeared as they searched for rare Gladioli seeds in the Drakensberg Mountains in February 2018.

Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time, Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, all denied charges of kidnap, murder, robbery and theft at the Durban High Court.

Saunders and his wife, who was a microbiologist, were co-owners of Silverhill Seeds, a Cape Town company specialising in South African seeds and selling books. They spent months each year scouring remote mountains and forests for specimens.

The couple, who had been married for more than 30 years, left their Cape Town home in their Toyota Land Cruiser on February 5 to meet with a BBC crew 900 miles away in the Drakensberg Mountains.

After being interviewed by Mr Bailey, they headed off to camp by a dam in a remote forest.

The couple with BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Bailey
The couple with BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Bailey
The couple out in the South African wilds backpacking the mountains seeking out seeds for the specialist mail order gardening firm - Pacific Bulb Society
The couple out in the South African wilds backpacking the mountains seeking out seeds for the specialist mail order gardening firm - Pacific Bulb Society

Employees at Silverhill Seeds said they had last been in contact with the pair on February 8.

The court was told: “Around February 10 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,” MailOnline reported.

“It was established on February 13 that the defendants were drawing money from various ATMs which amounted to theft of R734,000 (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment.”

The couple are believed to have been killed sometime between February 10 and 15 in the Ngoye Forest.

Jackson made a statement alleging he was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road.

“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 badly decomposed and eaten bodies of the victims were found days later by fishermen, but at first were not linked to the missing couple.

It was only months later when police could find no trace of the British couple that they ordered all unidentified or unclaimed bodies in morgues to be DNA tested. Tests identified the bodies were that of the Saunders.

Del Vecchio and Patel were both arrested at their home in Endlovini, 30 miles from the Ngoye Forest, after police allegedly found links between their phones and those of the Saunders.

The trial continues.