On 4 November 1974, a suburban housewife and mother of two sons and a daughter in Cape Town, was brutally murdered. The body was found with the jaw broken in no less than two places, probably as a result of being hit with a pistol, and death resulted from the victim being strangled and stabbed seven times in the left breast with a closed pair of scissors. Four of the stab wounds had penetrated her heart. Two accused were charged with having committed the murder, a nineteen year old girl, Marlene Lehnberg and her co-accused, Marthinus Charles Choegoe, a thirty three year old unemployed, crippled labourer. At the time the murder was committed, Lehnberg was barely eighteen years of age, then the youngest woman ever to have committed a murder in South Africa.1
Lehnberg, an attractive intelligent girl, left school shortly after turning sixteen despite being a good and even sometimes outstanding student, and obtained work as the receptionist at the orthopaedic workshop of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town in February 1972. By all accounts, her upbringing had been extraordinarily strict, and she had not even been to in a cinema by the time she left school. Despite her conservative upbringing, or perhaps because of it, she quickly graduated to dating boys and having sexual intercourse with them. It was at work, however, where she made the acquaintance of Christiaan van der Linde, thirty years her senior. Van der Linde worked as chief orthopaedic technician at the hopsital. A friendship developed, and soon it progressed to drinking at work together after closing. While it would probably be fair to say that Lehnberg found in Van der Linde a more sympathetic father figure than her own puritanical father had been, it is obvious that he took great pains to seduce the girl, taking her to lunch and entertaining her after work. Fairly soon the inevitable happened and by April 1973 Lehnberg and Van der Linde were having an affair.
When Lehnberg turned eighteen, she left her parental home, and moved into her own lodgings, where Van der Linde continued to visit her after taking her home after work. Lehnberg fell hopelessly in love with Van der Linde, even though he told her that he would not leave his wife for her. Despite this, Lehnberg went to speak to Mrs. Susanna van der Linde, but realised that the marriage was not going to break up for her. Mrs. van der Linde was apparantly quite prepared to tolerate her husband’s going about with Lehnberg, but she wasn’t going to divorce him. Neverthless, Van der Linde indicated that if his wife were to pass away, there would be no reason why he would not consider marrying Lehnberg. No doubt this is what sparked the seed of the idea of murder in Lehnberg’s mind.
During the early part of 1974, Van der Linde got the idea that they were being observed, and their affair was put in ice. Mrs. van der Linde was apparantly receiving anonymous telephone calls. Needless to say, Lehnberg was not impressed with the turn events were taking. She had already made the acquaintance of the man who was to be her co-accused, Choegoe, a patient at the hospital as a result his one leg having been amputated above the knee, obliging him to use a prosthesis. This apparatus was causing him discomfort, which in turn sent him to the orthopaedic workshop of the hospital. His misfortunes had brought him so low, that he fell entirely under the spell of Lehnberg, who bought his loyalty with promises of money and sex.
Already during July 1974 Lehnberg had approached Choegoe asking him to kill Mrs. van der Linde, promising money, a car and even sex in exchange. On several occasions Choegoe went to the Van der Linde house, and on one accasion Lehnberg even dropped him off close by with a hammer and instructions to bludgeon their victim to death. Choegoe failed to do anything on this occasion. It later became clear, however, that all the failed attempts had resulted in Mrs. van der Linde seeing Choegoe around the house too many times for comfort, and became suspicious.
During September 1974 Lehnberg resigned from her job and obtained another position. This was as a result of the fact that Van der Linde had informed his wife of the affair, and had stopped dropping Lehnberg at home and taking her for joy rides. Lehnberg had also lied to Van der Linde and had told him she was pregnant. Once the lie was in the open, Van der Linde was less than charmed with the idea of any continuation of the relationship. Lehnberg told everybody that she had decided to relocate to Johannesburg.
In the mean time, Lehnberg had asked an engineering student she knew, Rob Newman, whether she could borrow his pistol. Newman refused. He also refused to kill someone when she asked him whether he would do so at her request. A short while later, his pistol disappeared from his room. He reported this loss to the police, telling them that he suspected Lehnberg.
Lehnberg told her family and friends that she would be leaving for Johannesburg during the night of Sunday 3 and Monday 4 November 1974. Instead of doing this, she went to pick up Choegoe and the two of them went to the Van der Linde house the morning of 4 November 1974. Here the deed was done.
Lehnberg declined to testify at the trial. The result is that her version of events was never placed before the court. She was reported to have claimed that Choegoe was the sole perpetrator, and that she had waited in the car for him after she had rang the doorbell. Choegoe’s evidence was that they had acted in concert throughout, and that Lehnberg had hit Mrs. van der Linde in the face with the pistol after tripping her up. Thereafter Choegoe had throttled her, and stabbed her with the scissors Lehnberg had given him.
The police later took Van der Linde to the scene in order to identify the body of his wife. According to the police officials present, his reaction was callous, as though he already knew, simply turning the body of the murdered woman over with his foot. He was never charged as an accomplice.
Lehnberg was later arrested in Johannesburg and there admitted to her involvement to the extent that she alleged that she only asked Choegoe to commit the crime, while she waited in the car.
Marlene Lehnberg and Marthinus Choegoe were both sentenced to death, but on appeal their sentences were commuted to lengthy terms of imprisonment. Choegoe was paroled in 1986, after which he turned preacher. Lehnberg was paroled later the same year. She entered South African legal history as "the scissors murderer", a case which the trial judge later described as having been one in which the evidence he had heard was the strangest and most bizarre he had come across in his career.
1 In October 2004 a fourteen year old Durban girl was found guilty of organising the murder of her grandmother, thereby becoming the youngest female ever to have been convicted of murder in South Africa. Her name has been witheld as South African law prohibits the publication of names of youthful persons convicted.
S v Lehnberg and Another 1975 (4) SA 553 (AD)