When 21-year-old Hannah Cornelius dropped her friend and fellow student Cheslin Marsh off at his house in Cape Town, the two were interrupted in the driveway outside by four men. When a screwdriver was pressed against Cornelius’ chest through the open window of her car, she knew she was in trouble.
After the students were forced out of the car by the men, who robbed Marsh and put him in the trunk of the car, the girl pleaded with the men to spare her life. But she had no idea what was in store for her that night.
Cornelius had enjoyed some drinks and good music with her friend Marsh that night. When she dropped him home just after 11 pm, the two remained in the driveway chatting for a while about school. When four tall men approached and threatened her through her open car window with a screwdriver, Cornelius complied fully and did what she was told, begging not to be killed.
With Marsh in the trunk and a very scared Cornelius in the back seat, sandwiched between the men, the group drove back to one of their houses to smoke some crystal meth. They then drove out of Stellenbosch and took the two friends to a nearby vineyard which was secluded. What happened next was unnecessary and brutal.
On a Rock
As if the night couldn’t get any worse for these two students, Marsh was dragged out of the trunk of the car, beaten and told to lay down and place his head on a rock on the ground. The four men then proceeded to beat his skull with bricks they had found nearby until they assumed he was dead. Then they turned their attention to their other victim: Hannah Cornelius.
Having had their way with Cornelius, the gang decided to murder her, smashing in her skull with bricks as they had done to Marsh. Having dumped her lifeless and bloody body on the roadside, the four men embarked on a drug-induced crime spree, robbing three women and then getting caught during a high-speed car chase with the police that night.
The following day, Marsh regained consciousness in the field where he had been left to die. He awoke with a pounding headache and a broken arm but managed to drag himself to a nearby home to raise the alarm about Cornelius. But it was too late; she had already been gang-raped, murdered and left by the side of the road. The four men were arrested by police and taken into custody.
As a magistrate himself, Cornelius’ father William was well-versed in the ways of the court. Following his daughter’s death, however, he announced he was resigning from his job for fears that he could no longer remain impartial due to his circumstances. He spoke in court about his daughter Hannah and the great love the whole family had for her.
What They Did
Finally, it came time for William to take the stand at the Western Cape High Court. He revealed that he had been unable to sit through the proceedings until then. “I couldn’t bear to hear what they did to my daughter,” he said according to a Mail Online report. He said that the effect of his daughter’s brutal murder was “beyond devastating.”
In his heartbreaking address to the court, William said about his daughter: “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.” But Hannah also displayed amazing traits as a young child, which Mr. Cornelius felt were noteworthy to mention.
The atmosphere in the court was broken to a degree when the bereaved father spoke, with a tiny grin on his face about his daughter. “There were no feeding problems, no terrible twos, no teething difficulties,” he recalled. “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,” he said.
When Hannah’s brother was born with autism, she became “part of management, with a share of duties and a say in decisions” about him. While always excelling at school, Hannah never gave her parents any trouble and was always there to lend a helping hand no matter what was needed at the time. The girl’s kindness was evident from a young age, as William explained.
William went on to extol the virtues of his daughter, telling the court: “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,” he explained. But more tragedy lay ahead for this poor family, who all but fell apart after Hannah was murdered.
Coping With Loss
William explained that his wife, Anna, had struggled to cope with the loss of her daughter in such a brutal way. He revealed that one day she “walked into the ocean and didn’t return’ after struggling to cope with her loss.” Even though he claimed that his wife was a “shadow of herself” after the murder, he doubted she committed suicide in the ocean.
No One Knows
As if this family hadn’t been through enough tragedy already, the strange death of his wife was a further nail in the coffin. William explained to the court that while “no-one really knows” what happened to his wife; describing her as “the strongest and most competent person I have ever met,” he said she decided to go swimming in the ice-cold Atlantic Ocean one day.
William explained: “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. The fact that she was quite ill at the time, having had the flu and a chest infection, could have been a factor in her tragic death.
The bereaved father and husband explained that since his daughter’s murder, his wife had changed track in her life, leaving her thriving law practice and focusing on the foundation she set up in memory of her daughter. “She turned her back on a successful law practice and plowed every bit of energy she had into the foundation with absolutely no regard for her health or any other practical consideration,” he said.
Having lost his daughter and wife, William was left to care alone for his autistic son. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom when he explained, “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.”
Perhaps the only piece of information that could bring some solace to the bereaved father was what the pathologist in the case concluded. While her death was brutal and unceremonious, Dr. Deidre Abrahams concluded that Hannah died quickly from blunt force trauma to the head. She explained the details to the people in court, including Mr. Cornelius.
“The skull is made of very strong bones. It is not easy for a skull to break or crack unless a lot of power is used to break the skull,” explained the state pathologist according to News 24. “This would have been a very painful experience to the person,” she added but concluded that the victim had been hit twice with a rock and that her skull had been crushed to the point of fatal brain damage. But the victim had also received a fatal stab wound during the attack.
Before she had her skull crushed during the callous attack, Cornelius was stabbed with a screwdriver in the lower neck. According to Abrahams, that injury could itself have been fatal as it had pierced a vital gland in her neck. The fact she died quickly is just about the only silver lining in an otherwise tragic case of rape and murder for no good reason at all.
The other good thing is that the four men who raped and killed Hannah Cornelius will likely receive life sentences for what they did. Geraldo Parsons, Vernon Witbooi, Van Niekerk and Nashville Julius all have a string of charges behind them already, including aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and rape. There is little doubt that the justice system will find these men guilty and that they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.