Peter Roebuck biography: 'He's gone out the window!'
Advertisement

Peter Roebuck biography: 'He's gone out the window!'

The death in South Africa of renowned cricket writer Peter Roebuck stunned many. Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge recount his final hours.

It may be comforting to his family and friends to know that Peter Roebuck's final afternoon was spent watching cricket in the company of cricket people. He and Nic Kock, an old friend from Cape Town's University of Western Cape, stayed at the UWC's oval until well after the day's battle had ended, mixing and chatting freely with players in the club rooms. Roebuck even shared a Castle Lager with them. The young cricketers were thrilled to have him in their midst and, as the shadows lengthened, they invited him and Kock to dine with them.

Roebuck demurred and asked Kock for a lift back to the hotel. It had been a pleasant afternoon and evening by all accounts. "Peter was in a very good mood throughout the day," says Kock. "We chatted cricket. We talked about the future. There was no sense of stress."

Peter Roebuck in 1993.

Peter Roebuck in 1993.Credit:Ray Kennedy

Roebuck was dropped at the entrance to Cape Town's Southern Sun hotel at 8.50pm. As Kock drove off, at least two policemen were preparing to depart from different stations to rendezvous at the hotel and arrest him.

So what exactly had happened in room 623 of the Southern Sun five days earlier? What was it that had so traumatised a young man to move him to file a complaint of sexual assault? And what had led a detective from the Cape Town police to effect an immediate arrest on the alleged perpetrator? For upon learning of the accusation, the police responded in a manner that struck some observers as unusually expeditious in a city weighed down by violent crime. Here was an overtaxed police force, on a weekend, patrolling an urban area with a homicide rate 15 times that of London. Yet within a matter of hours of receiving the brief, the commanding officer had visited the hotel, interviewed the complainant, organised back-up and gone to make an arrest.

Advertisement
St Joseph's Orphanage in Harare, where many of those he sponsored spent their early years.

St Joseph's Orphanage in Harare, where many of those he sponsored spent their early years.

The incident in Roebuck's hotel room the previous Monday evening remains a subject of conjecture. We have the alleged victim's statement and speculation from the police, Roebuck's colleagues and his former students. In the days that followed, the victim, a young Zimbabwean named Itai Gondo, went to ground, speaking only to his then girlfriend and turning up at his workplace.

He wrote a lengthy message to Roebuck via social media, then cut him off and exchanged a number of text messages with Petros Tani, the pair's mutual friend who'd introduced them – a flurry of communication that ended badly, prompting him to make a formal complaint to police.

On the morning of Saturday, November 12, 2011, Gondo had been greeted by uniformed officers. Once the gravity of the alleged offence had been outlined, they led him to a meeting room and interviewed him at length. Under oath, this is what he had said: "I am an adult male, a Zimbabwean refugee, 26 years of age, a student. On the 2011-11-07 between 19:00 and 21:30 I arrived at Southern Sun Newlands hotel. Mr Peter Roebuck allowed me into his room 623. He said I must have a seat on the couch next to his bed. He asked me to tell him more about myself after what we had discussed on Facebook. After I finished he told me about the student he has been sponsoring.

"I told him about my expectations, goals and ambitions and he told me about his. He said I must work hard, he likes discipline, he disciplines hard, he used a cane to discipline if you step out of line. He asked me about my talent. I told him I can fix computers.

Roebuck was a supporter of underprivileged African students.

Roebuck was a supporter of underprivileged African students.

"He told me that he currently stays with 17 boys at his house in Pietermaritzburg...

"He then said I must take off my jacket because it was hot ... Mr Pete then said I look thin. I responded that is my metabolism that is like that. He emphasised on male bonding, he then said women won't understand; we as males must bond to be successful. I must be comfortable with him in order to have a father-son relationship.

Cape Town's Southern Sun hotel, where Roebuck fell from the sixth floor, landing on the concrete awning below.

Cape Town's Southern Sun hotel, where Roebuck fell from the sixth floor, landing on the concrete awning below.

"He then said I must take off my T-shirt, pants and remain in my underwear. When he noticed that I was uncomfortable, he's said there's nothing sexual about it. It is about openness, that is what he and the other boys are doing. He started hugging me, assuring me that there was nothing wrong...

"He took his pants off and pinned me down from behind. He held me down with his left hand and holding his penis with his right hand, he put his whole body weight on top of me. He forcibly tried to kiss me, instead he was biting me on my right cheek. I tried to push him over to stop. I was in shock. While pushing off he grabbed my genital parts, that's when I realised he ejaculated all over my stomach.

The police photograph of the Southern Sun hotel room: Roebuck was sitting in the chair marked B, a policeman was standing at the spot marked D.

The police photograph of the Southern Sun hotel room: Roebuck was sitting in the chair marked B, a policeman was standing at the spot marked D.

I saw Peter Roebuck standing in the window. I screamed at him but he jumped without looking back.

"Mr Peter started apologising, went to the bathroom to fetch a towel, saying, 'I'm sorry, I've never done this before.' I was so traumatised. I just wiped myself and got dressed and left. While I was leaving he said I must come see him the next day. The day after the incident he tried to contact me via Facebook twice, I didn't respond. I only responded on 2011-11-11, telling him he must never contact me."

Detective Warrant Officer Aubrey McDonald of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit received a brief containing the above statement at 3.50pm. By 5pm, he was at the local police complex at Claremont, where he rang Gondo and arranged to meet. By 7pm, he was in Gondo's Pinelands home, about 10 minutes away from the hotel by car.

Another interview was carried out and Facebook communication that had purportedly occurred between Gondo and Roebuck was given to him. By 9.15pm, he was at the Southern Sun, where he met a Lieutenant Jacobs from Claremont in the foyer. After being informed that the hotel could not state whether Roebuck was in his room or not, McDonald requested the presence of the hotel's security official. Together they took the lift to the sixth floor.

After the incident in the hotel room, Gondo was left reeling. Over the next four days, Tani attempted to placate him after he'd taken the matter to police. "I said this was not the way to proceed," said Tani. "I wanted us to talk about this first, but events went too fast for us."

He was right about events moving too fast. He and an increasingly anxious Roebuck exchanged a series of Facebook messages as the week wore on, against the backdrop of the South Africa v Australia Test match at Cape Town's Newlands ground: Tani: "Finally I spoke with Itai ... he said he is no longer interested in your assistance and that's why he removed himself on Facebook."

Roebuck: "Oh well, not too sure what he said. He was a bit strange but he needs a lot of help. He needs to call me or other way round. Sometimes things go wrong the first time but you have got to fight back."

Tani: "Anyway Dad my advice would be to forget about him. We cannot force him because he doesn't need anything to do with you or us."

Roebuck: "Oh he's depressed. Isn't that dangerous? Think he needs to uplift his life. Sometimes I go a bit far in first meetings. I suppose outsiders not used to it ..."

Gondo then sent his final message to Roebuck: "You have greatly humiliated me and I feel very violated, disgusted with myself, your acts were of the purest, sickest kind. It makes sense why you pretend to help out orphans, whilst you prey on their financial difficulty for your perverted satisfaction. I shudder to even think what sick sex-related things you're doing to those 17 boys staying with you! I don't need your assistance, I don't shake hands with the devil, don't bother replying for I will block you after this message. One day the long arm of the law will catch up with your evil misdeeds, rest assured, then all the money in the world won't save you."

Roebuck must have felt his world closing in. He wrote to Tani: "Itai has sent me a nasty message and am sick about it. I will try to call him but not sure it's any use. I'm upset, don't tell anyone or they will worry."

At 9.25pm, McDonald, Jacobs and the security official approached room 623 uncertain whether Roebuck was inside. The security man knocked on the door and it was promptly opened. A warrant was produced and permission to enter requested. Roebuck stepped aside, let the three men in and then sat on his bed. McDonald explained the purpose of their presence. He said Roebuck would be charged with sexual assault. Allegedly, Roebuck responded that he knew "this is about Itai, who visited on Monday". He was then placed under arrest and read his rights.

The security official was excused from the room and Roebuck became agitated. He said he was well known in the media and the cricket world and his arrest would be front-page news. He raised the subject of his students in Pietermaritzburg and asked McDonald what was going to happen next. McDonald told him he would be taken to the Claremont police station and detained in the cells.

A formal charge would follow on Sunday and he would appear in court on Monday. The news distressed him. He was permitted to make a call and immediately rang fellow ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell, who was staying on the same floor. "He rang me in my room," says Maxwell, "saying, 'You've got to come down ... Something terrible has happened.' He was wound up."

As Maxwell reached the door of room 623, McDonald briefed him in the corridor. Inside, he found a dishevelled Roebuck sitting in a chair by the window, his pants lowered. "He was apoplectic," remembers Maxwell. "He was so distraught, going on about me ringing up his boys to tell them he wouldn't be able to catch a plane the next day. I imagine they had taken his computer. He was beside himself, in an awful emotional state. They only let me in the room for a minute or two."

Embarrassed by his state, Roebuck stood and pulled his pants up. He pleaded with Maxwell to find a lawyer, a difficult task given the day and hour. "They were taking items of clothing, the sheets on the bed, everything; they were going to be evidence quite obviously. He was in a dither, on the other side of the bed, as I recall, and behind him was a chair and a sliding window. He was in a very agitated state. I said, 'Can I ring Fairfax [Media, whose publications carried Roebuck's columns] and get them to intercede in some way?' and he said, 'They'll know soon enough!' There wasn't much more to it than that. McDonald was speaking mainly in Afrikaans to the other guy. He escorted me out of the room and then went back in."

Maxwell, stunned, went straight back along the corridor. Before he entered his room, fellow ABC commentator Drew Morphett – who was right next door – stuck his head out of his room and asked what was going on. "So we stood one step inside my room and had this conversation," Morphett recalls. "And he [Maxwell] said, 'I've just come from Roeby's room and he's being investigated by two coppers on some sexual charges. They're f...in' going through all his gear. They're looking at his underpants for signs of semen. When I last saw him he had his pants down around his ankles.' "

According to the official police version of events, McDonald told Jacobs he wanted to call the police photographer and would leave the room to do so. Jacobs replied by saying he would also make a call in order to arrange for police back-up. Under oath, Jacobs stated that he was standing diagonally opposite where Roebuck was sitting as he went to use his mobile. "When I lift [sic] my head up, I saw Peter Roebuck standing in the window. I screamed at him but he jumped without looking back." In stark contrast to Maxwell's testimony, Jacobs said that at the time of the incident – approximately two minutes after Maxwell left the room – Roebuck "appeared very calm".

McDonald testified he'd been outside in the corridor for only a few seconds when he heard Jacobs shout, "Hey wat maak jy?" ("Hey, what are you doing?" in Afrikaans). Seconds later: "I heard a sound which I now know was Peter Roebuck falling on the first-floor balcony." He further testified that Jacobs then opened the door and reported, "Die man het net gespring." ("The man jumped.") McDonald said he re-entered the room and saw that the window was wide open and Roebuck was gone. He noted in his statement that it had been closed when he and Jacobs initially entered the room to confront Roebuck.

"I was talking to Drew," remembers Maxwell, "and I heard McDonald coming down on his phone. We're just in Drew's room so I can hear him but he can't see us. We could hear him saying, 'There's been an incident,' and then he broke off into Afrikaans."

"This is a hell of a bombshell," says Morphett. "The last time I saw the bloke was 10 hours before and he was on top of the world. We're talking a step inside my room and he's [Maxwell's] filling me in and we hear a voice. It's one of the coppers and he's come out into the corridor, 10 metres down. We couldn't see him. And we can hear this bloke on a mobile phone saying, 'There's been a complication – he's gone out the window.' Jimmy and I looked at each other. 'F...! Who's gone out the window?' Has Roeby gone out the window?" ABC colleague Geoff Lawson was in his room on the third floor. He heard the sound that McDonald claimed to hear. "I remember sitting by the window with my laptop," says Lawson, "writing a story of the Test match and life was pretty good. And I did hear a noise outside. 'F..., what's that?' The car park's right outside."

Jacobs raced downstairs, closely followed by McDonald who placed a quick call to the Claremont station commander on the way. On reaching the foyer and heading outside, though, McDonald could find no trace of Jacobs – or, indeed, of Roebuck. He looked left and right. "For a moment I thought Roebuck got up and ran away." While searching the ground at the hotel's entrance, he was told to go to the first floor. There, he found Jacobs and another police officer. He saw Roebuck's body on the portico, but did not venture closer. It was immediately clear his suspect was dead.

"Our group waited to hear what the situation actually was," says Maxwell. "We were being comforted by the hotel staff and a very nice counsellor from the South African police. About an hour later, someone said, 'Will someone please come up?' – one of the paramedics. The first thing he said – and this is when you know your worst fears are confirmed – 'I'm sorry for your loss.' That was pretty shaking, to find out that – bang – he was dead."

As Roebuck had predicted, the story broke quickly. The broadsheets led with "Respected writer and broadcaster dies", the tabloids went with "Sex scandal". Former teammates and colleagues were compelled to pay tribute without knowing what exactly had happened, while those in Cape Town were faced with the prospect of dealing with the shocking event and moving on with cricket's caravan to the next Test in Johannesburg.

As for Itai Gondo, the knives were out. "Are you happy now?" read one text message sent to him from the house in Pietermaritzburg. The students were as bewildered as they were furious. To some, Gondo had killed the goose that laid the golden egg. To others, he was responsible for the downfall of the only father figure they had ever known. Accusations and speculation swirled about the possibilities of Gondo's involvement: it was a honey trap, he was a rent boy, it was another blackmail attempt – this time with unforeseen and deadly consequences. Another theory doing the rounds had him doing the dirty work of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (of whom Roebuck had for many years been an outspoken critic).

Gondo's response was low-key. He refused all media requests bar one, refused any payment to tell his story and – in a notoriously homophobic culture – admitted he'd been subjected to a homosexual advance. "For an African to say, 'This guy tried to rape me', is a big step ... For a man in Africa, you're almost instantly feminised," says Fairfax Media journalist and long-time Roebuck observer Adam Shand.

Four days after Roebuck's death, police escorted Gondo to Victoria Hospital in Cape Town where DNA and blood samples were obtained. A second, formal statement was then recorded. Afterwards, Gondo went into hiding.

Edited extract from Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge, published by Hardie Grant, out now.

Lifeline - 13 11 14

Most Viewed in Lifestyle

Loading
Advertisement