Vetfaan has to hide a smile – despite the circumstances – when Gertruida meets the woman who stole her name. Not only does the rotund, short thief contrast dramatically with the trim figure of Gertruida; the more comical feature is the difference in their facial expressions. Gertruida, normally in control and often with a sparkle of mirth in her eyes, now stands transfixed with her lips pursed in anger. The other lady’s expression of guilt and humiliation is all too obvious to ignore.
“Gertruida, this is Myrtle Kromhout, nee Botha. She used to be a clerk here from 2007 till 2010. We had her singing all morning.” Bertus lifts an eyebrow as she shuffles to a stop a yard or two from Gertruida. “An interesting story she told us, even if it is so disgusting. The men will take her to the cells now. I’ve already spoken to the magistrate – she won’t get bail.” He now turns to Myrtle with a cynical sneer. “Enjoy your stay with us, Mrs. Kromhout.”
The group watches as the woman is led away to the waiting police van.
“How…?” Gertruida still has difficulty in expressing her thoughts.
Bertus suggests they go inside, where he leads them to an unoccupied office.
“Myrtle Botha was a nobody with no prospects. She filed reports and patient’s files in the store room down the passage. Not having finished school, she knew she was facing a lifetime with dusty files in the dimly lit room. As you can imagine, a girl with her looks couldn’t hope to snare a well-to-do bachelor, either.
“So, one day, sergeant Kromhout walked into her store room, wanting details on a man who had been admitted after being shot during a burglary. The policeman seemed to be a kind, warm-hearted young man and Myrtle tried her best to impress him. She handed over the file, saying something nice. He responded by asking her if she’d like to have coffee with him after work. She was overjoyed.
“And so it started. Kromhout, apparently, was the local station’s fingerprint man and filled in whenever the short-staffed police service needed him to help out. Sometimes he’d be needed in the charge office; at others he’d be on patrol…and so on. He had the run of the place, see?
“But the man also had a darker side. He dreamed of a life of luxury, something he’d never have as a sergeant. Coming from a poor family – just like Myrtle – he’d been toying with the idea of using other people’s money to make his life easier. At first he took money from the wallets of the accused in the cells – nothing much, but enough to whet his appetite. Having free access to the evidence room and the safe where they kept belongings, he’d help himself to a tenner here and a hundred there.
“When he met Myrtle, it was a question of spontaneous combustion. A match made in hell. On that first date – right in the beginning – they both bemoaned their individual lots.The conversation drifted from complaining to possible solutions. More dates followed. And…eventually…they hit upon the idea of identity theft. Could they become ‘other people’ and so escape the long arm of the law? But how? What could they do with stolen identities?
“Myrtle says it was Hardus Kromhout’s idea. We’ll never know for sure, will we? Anyway, stealing identities was one thing…what about stealing real people? They laughed at the idea in the beginning, but then they hit upon stealing children. Hardus had recently been involved in the investigation of a missing child and had followed some leads. He thought he had a very good clue who was behind the disappearance, but had no proof.”
Bertus sighs heavily before telling them that the sergeant met with the man he suspected and instead of apprehending the criminal, he asked him for advice.
“They set to work, then. Kromhout used his connections to create new identities for him and Myrtle. She supplied the information on Gertruida and Herman Grove – two patients with no next of kin and therefore less risky. The fingerprints were more difficult, but if a filing clerk went from ward to ward to pick up documents and files, nobody lifted an eyebrow if she took a glass from the bedside. With Kromhout’s free range in the police station, he easily concocted false affidavits for the “stolen” ID’s. I’m not sure how he managed to get the marriage certificate, but if you knew the right people at Home Affairs, nothing is impossible. They did get married in real life, as well, in 2010 – but I suspect that was part or the ploy: they could be the Kromhout…or the Grove…couple whenever it suited them to assume a certain identity.
“They didn’t stop there. Being somebody else isn’t going to make you money. So Myrtle set the second phase of their plan into action – she stole the information on three babies that were born in the hospital.” Bertus waits for the gasps of dismay to quieten before continuing. “It’s easy, you see? A baby gets born. A father rocks up at Home Affairs with the proof. They register your child. One, two three… The clerk doing the registration has no idea who your wife is, but you have all the documentation ready. They were deviously clever in this, too. They registered the births a week later in Bloemfontein, citing complications at birth and illness in the family as reasons for the delay and the different place.
“And there you have it: Mr. and Mrs. Kromhout, now Mrs and Mrs Grove, with their lovely little family of three children. Now, with unabridged birth certificates ready, they’d cross the border at Komatiepoort, drive to Maputo, catch a plane to Singapore with their little kid in tow…and sell him or her.”
“How…?” It’s Vetfaan’s turn to be speechless.
“Children disappear all the time, Vetfaan. But here’s how they went about it: in 2010 they both quit their jobs – and soon after that, they did their first ‘run’. They always just took one child, but used different birth certificates, depending on whether it was a boy or a girl. Apparently they tried to take two boys once, but it turned out to be too much of an effort. Still, it was a lucrative enterprise. Myrtle says they toured the country after that..Pick up a seemingly homeless child, spoil him with sweets, a nice room in a nice hotel and tell him his mommy and daddy are so happy that he can go on this luxury holiday with his uncle and aunt. The kid has no idea that his name has changed, but the passport and documentation is perfect for border control.
“So you nab a kid in Polokwane, another in the Free State and maybe one in Durban. Always a different place and never too near to anywhere they’ve ‘worked’ at before. The police won’t connect these disappearances and there’s no reason to suspect the Grove family on their way to Mozambique.”
“And they did this over and over again?”
“Yes Servaas. In the beginning they used younger children, but as the birth certificates aged, so did their victims. They now used four-year olds.”
Servaas says a words that usually upsets Oudoom – but this time he nods his approval.
“What about Kromhout, then?”
“Ah…that’s the juicy bit. Let me tell you…”
(To be continued…)