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A.K.A.: "Loskop Killer"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Robberies
Number of victims: 6
Date of murders: 1929 - 1936
Date of arrest: August 10, 1936
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: Suliman Ismail Kharva / Hassan Mia Armoordeen / Mohamed Ebrahim Motala / Ismail Hajat, his assistant Hassan Mayet and native servant Nkunzana Mazibuko (merchants, mostly Indian)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Natal, South Africa
Status: Executed by hanging in 1937

The Loskop Murders: Natal 1929 1936

When at dusk on the 17th of May 1929 an Indian storekeeper named Suliman Ismail Kharva was shot dead at the door of his lonely store on the farm "Moorburg" in the Ntabamhlope area of the Estcourt district, it was little realized that this was the first in a series of crimes that was to shock Natal and arouse considerable interest in the other parts of the Union.

The crime was at first regarded as an isolated one and an European was arrested in connection with the matter, but he proved, on further enquiry, to be in no way implicated. As cash only had been taken from the store, there was little for the police to work upon and thorough investigations met with no success.

On the 29th January 1933 almost four years having passed an Indian storekeeper named Hassan Mia Armoordeen was shot and killed at his store on the farm "Cornfields", some miles from "Moorburg", but also in the Estcourt district. The similarity of the crimes was recognized, but that one individual had committed both was by no means evident, although again cash was all that was taken.

While, however, investigations into the "Cornfields" murder were in full progress, case number three occurred for, at Ntabamhlope on the 26th of April 1933, but three months afterwards, Mohamed Ebrahim Motala was shot dead in the late afternoon, while his Indian assistant accompanied by the store native had gone into the nearby plantation to examine snares.

During the initial investigations an Indian was arrested on suspicion, but he established the bona fides of his own story, and a native who had testified against him proved unreliable. He was accordingly released.

That one person was responsible for both this and the "Cornfields" crime now seemed probable, with the possibility that the "Moorburg" shooting, though so long previously, was a link in the chain. Features common to all three cases were that the shootings took place in the late afternoon at isolated stores, cash only was searched for and taken at each place, and no eyewitness was present on any occasion.

While the scene of the third crime was at Ntabamhlope, 35 miles as the crow flies from the "Cornfields" store, it was nevertheless in the same district as the farm "Moorburg".

At "Cornfields", a native meagrely described as "dressed in khaki coloured clothes", and carrying under his arm "something wrapped up and long", had been seen approaching the store which he should have reached about the time the fatal shot was heard, while a native similarly dressed was seen riding from the locality shortly afterwards.

In the Ntabamhlope store, the police found a piece of blanket that had apparently been wrapped round a gun and which retained a strong native odour. It was therefore considered that the gunman was a native who knew the locality well, and a long and intensive search commenced. Owing to the slender clues available, investigations were necessarily of a general, though thorough nature and included a checking up on shotguns throughout the area.

In both the "Cornfields" and Ntabamhlope cases, the wads of 12-bore guns were found at the scene, although no cartridge cases were left behind. Some few months prior to the "Cornfields" and Ntabamhlope tragedies, a local farmer had reported the loss of a 12-bore shotgun and ammunition, and soon after this an European motorist, returning one evening from a sale, was held up and fired at by a gunman, believed to be a native, on the main road near Chievely.

Ejected cartridge cases were, in this instance, left on the road. It was strongly suspected that the stolen gun was the weapon used in this affair and in the two last killings, and every effort was accordingly made to trace it. A native had been convicted of the theft of this gun, which was stolen in May 1932, but others were known to be involved in the matter and the weapon was never recovered.

The actual thief was in gaol when the last murders occurred, and his associates had either been effectively shadowed without result or were proved to be absent from the area when the crimes were committed. One associate was followed to Durban where an informer obtained employment with the same firm in the hope, which proved vain, that useful information could be secured. No avenue of investigation was neglected but the police efforts, which never flagged, went unrewarded.

With the passing of time, public interest tended to wane until, on the 13th of June 1934, one year and two months after the Ntabamhlope case, it was rudely reawakened. On the farm "Heartsease" in the Loskop district between "Cornfields" and Ntabamhlope an Indian storekeeper named Ismail Hajat, his assistant Hassan Mayet and native servant Nkunzana Mazibuko were, during the night, all shot dead.

Like the scenes in the previous crimes, the "Heartsease" store was in an extremely isolated position. It was surrounded by hills, and separated by some 17 miles of difficult country roads from Loskop itself. The murders, which were committed about 7 p.m. were first discovered by native customers who, the following morning, were perplexed to find the store had not opened.

After some delay, during which they realized that something was seriously wrong, the natives made their way to a distant farmhouse and told their story which, of course, had to be confirmed. Considerable time therefore elapsed before the police received their report and could reach the store, which gave the culprit every advantage to anticipate the hue and cry he knew would surely follow, and cover his escape.

From investigations on the spot it appeared that at the time the murderer arrived, the native servant, an umfaan of about 14 years, was in his room at the back of the store, and possibly assisted by the unwilling but intimidated umfaan, the culprit induced the younger Indian to withdraw the bar and open the back door of the store which gave access both to the kitchen on the right and a general room on the left.

Observing that the caller carried a gun, the Indian retreated hastily to the general room to get a revolver kept in a rough wooden drawer. The caller, however, stepped immediately through the door, and seeing the elder Indian in the kitchen, shot him across the stomach, tearing it open and causing him to collapse: he followed this up with a shot below the shoulder, and the victim died almost immediately.

The murderer then turned and fired at the young Indian, who appears to have rushed through the general room, and around through the store to the kitchen, where he was promptly shot through the head, and killed outright, his revolver, unfired, clasped in his hand. After that the culprit, accompanied by the native, went to the front of the store where he forced the till which contained not more than 6, and apparently endeavoured to compel the native to point out where other money might be hidden.

A tin box, covered with dust, and ordinarily kept out of sight on a high shelf, was found near the till and proved to have been handled by the native. Nothing else was touched.

On leaving the store the murderer ordered the native boy to his room and, as he entered, shot him at close quarters through the back so that he fell forward, dying instantly in the doorway. A big dog belonging to the storekeeper was also shot probably at the same time as the native.

A thorough examination of the store itself yielded no immediate clue, but an organized search of the locality resulted in one cartridge case being found outside the back door, and, some five hundred yards distant, a condensed milk tin that had been freshly opened. This tin, believed to have been handled by the culprit, and the cartridge case, were the most valuable clues that so far had been obtained in the whole string of murders.

Enquiries at native kraals in the vicinity helped no more that to fix the time of the tragedy, for the significance of the shots, which were mistaken for other sounds, had not there been realized. Again the murderer made his escape unnoticed, and by killing the native, he disposed effectively of the only witness to the crime he set out to commit.

Public apprehension in Northern Natal became increasingly evident, and representations expressing horror and alarm were made to the government by various Indian organizations. The police however, needed no reminding of the seriousness of matters and both uniform and plain-clothes branches of the force pursued with unrelenting zeal every possible line of investigation and enquiry. Advantage was taken of the fact that for the first time a compatriot had been killed, to encourage the native population of the district to more sympathetic effort.

A thorough check up of known criminals was made and many possibilities regarding suspects and guns mentioned in letters from the public were carefully investigated. Allegations of rivalry between various storekeepers were tactfully sifted and various informers employed, but progress was slow and uneventful until, just before Christmas 1934, when the next dramatic act took place.

At 1 p.m. on the 20th of December 1934, a young European named Hall, travelling to the Rand by motorcycle from Durban, reached a point on the main road one-and-a-half miles from Frere, which he was approaching, when he noticed a native sitting in the long grass to the left of the road. When the motorcyclist was within a few paces of him, the native reached for a gun and fired at Hall from an angle of about 45 degrees, spraying him with shot in the lower chest, abdomen and left hand.

Hall, who was travelling at between 35 and 40 m.p.h. managed to keep going for some four or five hundred yards where, in a dip in the road and out of sight of the gunman, he met a native work-party and managed to dismount, although in considerable pain. After rendering such aid as was possible, the natives, who had been joined by an European, informed the police at Frere, and the European took Hall in his car to the hospital at Colenso.

An immediate search by all available police from surrounding stations was organized, but once again the culprit, favoured by his start, eluded capture and the police dogs, which arrived during the afternoon from Pietermaritzburg, failed after leading to a stream two miles across the veld. Wads, apparently from the cartridges from a 12-bore gun, were found at the scene, and the daring, accuracy of aim and apparent motive of the gunman identified him with the "Killer" of the previous crimes.

Since the "Heartsease" murder, hopes had from time to time been aroused that the gun used by the murderer would be located within the Frere "Cornfields" boundary, but it had not been possible to obtain more definite information. There was, however, now reason to believe that the gunman did not carry his weapon the day his crime was committed, but that he secreted it beforehand nearby, and then awaited a favourable opportunity for its use.

As, therefore, the gunman had not profited from his attempt on the motorcyclist and, from the circumstances may even have believed he missed with his shot, it was felt not unlikely that might soon turn his attention to a fresh effort.

With the possibility therefore of surprising the culprit while transporting his gun, special and, it was hoped, unsuspected measures were taken in regard to the examination of the property and persons all natives travelling within the area of the crimes, while motor decoys in the guise of "easy marks" made frequent use of likely stretches of road. Success however came no nearer, and investigations were not helped by an unwitting reference in one of the local papers to the systematic search that was arranged.

Six months after the Hall affair came an unexpected development, for the gun, which had been sought with such futility, was recovered under circumstances that negated its value so far as tracing the murderer was concerned. Its finding was, in actual fact, a stroke of bad luck. During the early part of June 1935, natives belonging to a road party working in the Frere District found in a culvert at the side of the road, a long parcel wrapped in sacking which, on being opened, revealed a shotgun.

This proved to be the 12-bore weapon reported stolen in May 1932 and suspected to have been used when the European motorist was shot at near Chievely shortly afterwards, and in the subsequent murder of storekeepers. Tests by an arms expert confirmed this suspicion, the conclusion being reached that the cartridge cases found after the Chievely hold-up, and the one discovered at the scene of the "Heartsease" murder, had been fired from the weapon.

With the gun in the hands of the police, its possibilities as an aid in locating the culprit faded away wholly, and there was now little likelihood of its recent ownership being established.

Success, therefore, seemed more remote than ever when the police found themselves with this unexpected and rather unique handicap, but, notwithstanding that no eye-witnesses were available, the investigating officers were not unduly disheartened, and worked with renewed zeal on their unenviable task. Efforts were made to identify the sacking, in which the gun had been wrapped, and touch was maintained with storekeepers, while uniformed and plain-clothes officers were constantly on the alert in the area.

Suspects were eliminated almost as quickly as they appeared, and nearly twelve months went by until, on the 4th of November 1935, another shooting occurred on the farm "Moorburg". Just after 2 p.m. a native carrying what appeared to be a bundle of sacks over his shoulder, arrived at the front of the store and spoke to an Indian lounging on the veranda. The latter, believing the native wanted to sell the sacks, suggested he see the "boss" inside.

The visitor bent to put his bundle on the ground to the right of the veranda steps, and then, to the astonishment of the Indian, produced a gun. Looking through the door of the store, he shouted "Bekani! Bekani! (Look! Look!) Yes! Yes!" and, having attracted the attention of the storekeeper, who was standing in front of his counter, aimed at him and fired. The storekeeper, Amod Suliman Patel, ran to the side of the store, and was struck in the forearm by about 10 pellets, but he was not seriously hurt and the bulk of the shot went into the frame of the door.

While the native was reloading his gun, the Indian on the veranda entered the store, and accompanied by the storekeeper and two native customers, dashed into the kitchen at the back, where they remained until the gunman left. Before departing, the gunman took about 10 in cash and a bunch of keys from two drawers that served the store as tills.

When free to raise the alarm, the storekeeper sent a message to the European owner of the farm who lived about a mile away, but by the time he arrived the gunman was on the ridge of a hill some two miles off and disappearing in the Ennersdale direction. After telephoning the police at Estcourt, the European, armed with his own gun, went in search of the culprit, being joined with the minimum of delay by the police from the neighbouring stations.

The country surrounding the store being mountainous and studded with gum and wattle plantations, the advantage again lay with the gunman, who once more escaped. The police dogs, which were early on the scene, were unable to take scent. In addition to the Indians and two natives at the store, the gunman was seen by a third native who had fled when the shooting took place. All were positive they had not seen the culprit before, and although undoubtedly terrified by what had taken place, they gave a description of the wanted man and said he was dressed in an old khaki overcoat which came below the knee, and wore a black close-fitting knitted cap which may have had flaps over the ears. Native women and children, who had seen the gunman hurrying from the store, stated he was a stranger in the locality.

No cartridge case was left at the scene, but a wad picked up indicated that a 20-bore weapon had been used. For the first time the police now had definite information regarding the culprit and systematic investigations were resumed with zest. It was apparent, however, that many natives were afraid to speak, and feared that if the gunman were arrested and not sentenced to death he would kill those who had assisted the police.

Terror gripped the countryside, and less than three weeks after the shooting at "Moorburg", a further tragedy was enacted. At 11.30 a.m. on the 23rd of November 1935, a native dressed in a long khaki overcoat and khaki trousers entered a store at the foot of the Hlatikulu mountain some 27 miles South-West of Estcourt, and asked the native in charge, one Abraham Hlatshwayo, if he could accommodate his horses. Abraham replied, "No", whereupon the visitor asked if he could off-saddle there for a while.

On being told he could, he went out, but reappeared almost immediately in the doorway and pointing his gun, shot Abraham through the heart as he stood behind the counter. He then entered the store, and aiming his gun in turn at each of the three customers (a native woman and two girls) ordered them out. They fled. The gunman next rifled the cash box, taking about 16 in notes and silver, but leaving a cheque, some postal orders and a quantity of copper. He took also the store keys from the person of Abraham whom he again shot, through the back, as he lay on the floor.

Outside, the gunman fired a third shot at no particular target and departed up the hill at the back of the store towards the mountain. The woman and girls ran to the kraal of a chief some three or four miles off, and he in turn reported the occurrence to the owner of the farm who communicated without delay with the Estcourt police. Local police and detectives from Pietermaritzburg were still in the district and immediate action was taken to organize a thorough search of the area. Farmers were asked by telephone to send helpers and the aid of all local native chiefs was sought, while, of course, surrounding police stations lent every available man.

Before, however, the search had been long in progress, a heavy mist enveloped the mountain and, spreading over the adjacent area, severely impeded operations. The conditions at and around the store were all against the successful employment of dogs and once again the gunman made a safe getaway. No cartridge cases were found, but cardboard wads picked up indicated that a 20-bore gun had again been used.

Of the three native females who were in the store, only one could give a fair description of the gunman, and the discovery of his identity seemed as far off as ever.

Storekeepers throughout the extensive area were thoroughly alarmed, demanding special protection, which it was not possible to give. As, however, it was the practice of the gunman first to reconnoitre a store before his attack, they were advised regarding precautionary measures they should take, and of means whereby investigations would be helped should they be attacked. That the last crime had been committed during the daytime was attributed to the fact that stores were now heavily barricaded at night and fierce dogs were employed to keep guard.

Vague information, received second and even third hand through informers, was at this stage beginning to connect a local native with the shootings. He was reported from various sources to have been seen going towards the store at Ntabamhlope just before Patel had been shot: to have had money and left the district soon thereafter: to have possessed a gun: to have "lost" a gun some months back (the gun recovered in the culvert was found in June), and to be known as the culprit to a female relative who had remarked, "How can I speak against my own flesh and blood?" His description tallied with that of the wanted man, and, although he was absent from the district for long periods at a time, he was at his kraal a few days before the Hlatikulu tragedy. Investigations however proved that he was in Durban when the shootings at both Ntabamhlope and Hlatikulu took place, with the result that, like others before him, he had to be "written off" as a suspect.

Efforts to encourage the giving of information were now made by the offering of a reward of 100, and making this known as widely as possible especially among the natives of the district and surrounding territories.

Following the publication of the reward, the police received much information necessitating considerable work, but little progress was made until June 1936 when a farmer of the area reported the disappearance of a 20-bore shotgun. He could not say when the loss had occurred, as he had last used the weapon during the 1935 shooting season and had not required it again until he found it to be missing. It was therefore possible for this weapon to have been used at the "Moorburg" and Hlatikulu crimes of November 1935, and that the gunman was one of his servants or a native belonging to a neighbouring farm also associated with them.

The clearing up of the theft of the gun was now the first objective, and among the suspects was native Timana Sundwane, a kitchen boy employed by the owner. Another other suspects were natives who answered the descriptions on hand, and one had even the same "Isibongo" (surname) as the native connected with the theft of the first (12-bore) gun, but he proved to be unrelated to him. Although the theft could not be pinned down to any particular individual, daylight was beginning to dawn, for while these investigations were in progress, the last murder, and the final attempt at murder, took place.

On Friday the 7th of August 1936, one Mbulawa Hlopi arrived from Johannesburg at Bergville where he arranged to sleep before resuming his journey on foot to the location where he lived. Curing the evening he made the acquaintance of a strange native to whom he confided that he was on his way, after working on the gold mines. The two, apparently discovering they were bound for destinations in one direction, left Bergville late the following morning, accompanied by a third native named Japie Hlongwana.

At about 2.30 p.m., and after covering some nine miles, the trio arrived at a gate on a farm road leading to the location where Mbulawa lived, when, without warning, the strange native produced a gun from among the effects he was carrying and fired three times at Mbulawa, who was killed by the third shot which was aimed at point-blank range. Japie Hlongwana fled to cover afforded by an avenue of trees nearby, and escaped without injury.

Although the deceased's pockets were rifled, showing the motive for crime to be robbery, the gunman overlooked 14 which was left in a vest pocket. Apart from the discovery of wads indicating that a 20-bore shotgun firing No. 6 shot had been used, no other clues were obtained on the spot, and an organized search proved abortive.

At about 2.30 a.m. the following morning, a native named Jameson Nxumalo was fired at on a road some four miles from Frere and about 35 miles from the scene of the Bergville shooting, and hit in the leg. He was not injured seriously, and his assailant walked off without interfering further with his victim. There were no clues to be found beyond that the pellets indicated that No. 6 shot had been used. This event, taking place exactly 12 hours after the Bergville affair, showed unusual mobility on the part of the gunman.

By Monday the 10th of August, 1936 the initial investigations into both crimes were complete, and early the following morning use was made of Japie Hlongwana, the witness to the Bergville tragedy, to test his claim that he could identify the man who had killed his companion. Among the suspects was Timana Sundwana [Mtimane Msundwana], hitherto regarded as possibly responsible for the theft of the 20-bore gun, and who at the moment was not in the service of his master.

He was located at his kraal at 6 p.m. the same day, and immediately identified by Japie and detained. As by then it was too dark for a proper search to be made, a close guard was set over his kraal for the night. At daybreak, the search of the kraal resulted in the finding of a long khaki overcoat, a black woollen cap, ten rounds of live 12-bore shotgun cartridges, four rounds of live 20-bore shotgun cartridges and three bunches of keys.

The cartridges and keys were found in the thatched roof of the suspect's hut, but Sundwane denied any knowledge of a gun. When, however, the investigating officers commenced to pull the hut to pieces, he intervened and volunteered to show where the gun was hidden. He then took the officers to a point in a riverbed some half-a-mile away where a 20-bore gun wrapped in sacking was found and identified as the missing property of his master.

Sundwana was taken to the Estcourt Charge Office where, after being formally charged with the Bergville murder, he confessed before the Magistrate to the attempted murder at Ntabamhlope on 4th November 1935 and the murder at Hlatikulu on 23rd November 1935. The keys found at the search of Sundwana's hut were identified as belonging to the stores at these places, which the accused afterwards pointed out as the scenes of his crimes.

At Estcourt on 18th September 1936, Sundwana was committed for trial in respect of the murders at "Heartsease", Hlatikulu and Bergville, and the attempted murders at Chievely, "Moorburg" and Frere. After the rising of the Court, he confessed further to the shooting of the motorcyclist Hall, the Ntabamhlope murder on 24th April 1933, the "Cornfields" murder, the theft of the 20-bore gun, the Hlatikulu murder and the subsequent Frere shooting.

This left only the first of the offences, the murder at "Moorburg" on 17th May 1929, unaccounted for. On 30th October 1936, however, he admitted this offence also, stating that he shot the Indian with a 12-bore gun which he from, and replaced on, his master's gunrack without the weapon being missed.

On 25 November 1935, before the full Bench of the Native High Court at Estcourt, Sundwana was convicted of six counts of murder and sentenced to death: four counts of attempted murder and two counts of theft were withdrawn by the Crown. The death sentence was duly carried out, and thus, after taking eight lives and making attempts on four more, the "Loskop Killer" who had been born in the area and had lived there the 35 years of his life, met his end.

No story of these crimes would be complete without mention of the late Detective Head Constable H.H. Burnham of the Pietermaritzburg C.I.D., to whose zeal, courage, and tenacity, tribute must be paid. Possessed of a high sense of duty, Head Constable Burnham never spared himself throughout the difficult period, and no one was more deserving of ultimate success than he, to whom chief credit is due. His passing, in the prime of life, was a great loss, not only to the Natal C.I.D., but to the whole South African Police.

Lt-Col P.H. Golby, Deputy Commissioner S.A. Police
(Criminal Investigation Deparment)



MO: Shotgun slayer of merchants, mostly Indian.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans



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