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22.09.2021 South Africa

South Africa's lone criminal profiler battles crime tidal wave

By Claire DOYEN
Elmarie Myburgh is the only criminal profiler in South Africa, where someone is killed every 25 minutes.  By WIKUS DE WET (AFP)
LISTEN SEP 22, 2021
Elmarie Myburgh is the only criminal profiler in South Africa, where someone is killed every 25 minutes. By WIKUS DE WET (AFP)

The woman's breasts had been cut off, but her genitals were untouched. An unusual choice for a killer. Even stranger, no blood had spilled at the crime scene. The body must have been moved.

It may have been the work of a murderer -- but not a mutilator, says Elmarie Myburgh, the only criminal profiler in South Africa's police force.

It's a tough job anywhere in the world, but especially in this country of almost 60 million people, where someone is killed every 25 minutes and 115 rapes are reported every day.

"There are just so many cases," says Myburgh, who has investigated 70 murders and 90 rapes -- many by repeat offenders -- over her 25 years in the role.

"Compared to other countries, like let's say Norway or Sweden, we have more murders in Pretoria on a Saturday than they have over the whole year."

On top of which, South Africa's police struggle with a reputation for inefficiency and corruption, while years of underfunding and budget cuts have seen their ranks decimated.

Newspapers regularly quote Myburgh at court proceeedings, where her psychological assessments of convicted killers influence their sentencing.  By WIKUS DE WET (AFP) Newspapers regularly quote Myburgh at court proceeedings, where her psychological assessments of convicted killers influence their sentencing. By WIKUS DE WET (AFP)

Two of Myburgh's colleagues -- including the woman who hired her -- have come and gone.

Myburgh's cramped Pretoria office overflows with files of interrogations, ballistics, blood reports and medical examinations.

All of it is crime scene evidence that the trained criminologist has used to reconstruct the personalities of murderers to help track down suspects.

She carefully studies each beating, and how the violence escalates to a fatal blow, looking for hints to a killer's relationship with the victim.

'Nervous'

Myburgh was already working for the national police when South Africa's first psychological investigation unit was set up after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Back then, the FBI was at the forefront of criminal profiling.

"Now we may be quite on par with them," Myburgh says.

She remembers her first crime scene clearly: "A man who was literally lying on his back, and there was a big rock on the top of his head."

Then 27, she'd already seen her share of gruesome photos.

Fewer than two out of 10 murders are solved in South Africa.  By WIKUS DE WET (AFP) Fewer than two out of 10 murders are solved in South Africa. By WIKUS DE WET (AFP)

"But it's a different story when you go to the crime scene. The blood, the smell," she says.

Soon after, the young Myburgh was called for another murder: a woman stabbed repeatedly in her home.

"We sat in the living room speaking to the husband and the front door was open so there was a draft, and then the next moment the door closed," she says. "I was a bit nervous, I must say."

Neither of those cases was resolved due to lack of evidence.

Over the years Myburgh has accepted that frustration is part of the job, especially in South Africa.

The system is so overburdened that just getting telephone records or DNA results can take months or years.

Reads crime fiction

The figures are not reassuring: fewer than two out of 10 murders are solved in South Africa, according to police figures.

Myburgh believes this encourages more and more crime.

"People think they get away with it," she says.

The lieutenant-colonel drinks plenty of coffee to get through tough cases.

To unwind, she enjoys good wine, and she confesses to sometimes watching "CSI" -- the hit forensics cop show -- even if it gets on her nerves.

"Not realistic," she says.

Bestselling South African crime novelist Deon Meyer sends Myburgh his manuscripts to proofread. Her razor-sharp eyes catch inconsistencies in even the tiniest detail.

"She understands the heart of a detective and psyche of a criminal, but what makes her so exceptional is that she also reads crime fiction," Meyer said in a 2013 interview with local media.

Meyer manages well, Myburgh laughs. "We can make a detective out of him."

Newspapers regularly quote Myburgh at court proceedings, where her psychological assessments of convicted killers influence their sentencing.

It was her handiwork that helped solve the case involving the women whose breasts had been out off, a particularly gruesome crime.

"It was more an intimate murder. I oriented the detective to a boyfriend or a husband. The boyfriend later confessed," she said.

At 50, Myburgh has started training three other cops to take over when she retires. But that's still more than nine years away, and she doesn't plan to quit.

"I think I'll keep going," she says.

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