“…If you are reading this then I am dead.”
This is the opening line of a letter found hidden under a carpet in 2012. The letter was a confession to a murder committed 13 years earlier and reignited a case long thought to be cold – the kidnapping and murder of a woman named Betty Ketani. The man who wrote the letter may have feared death at the time, but today he remains very much alive.
The reopening of the Ketani case would lead to an investigation, which spanned five countries, relied on the help of a world-renowned DNA laboratory and saw a once popular and acclaimed Rosebank restaurant close literally overnight, its owner slipping out of the country. It would also add a chilling layer of meaning to this photograph, taken eighteen months before the confession letter was discovered at a house in southern Johannesburg.
Betty Ketani, a mother of three came to Johannesburg in the 1990s in search of work and a better life for her family. She landed a job as a cook at Cranks, one of the city’s most popular Thai restaurants. Life seemed to be taking a turn for the better until one day Betty mysteriously disappeared – never to seen again.
The bizarre series of events and cast of murky characters involved in Betty’s murder and trial that followed were the subject of journalist Alex Eliseev’s bestselling book, titled Cold Case Confession, first published in 2016. The book featured an image of a man dressed in a skeleton costume, smoking a cigarette at a Halloween party. It had been taken by me in a very different context, in 2010, when the man in the photo, Carrington Laughton, was just the quirky chairman of The South African Naturist Federation… not the author of the confession letter and convicted murderer he would later be known as. The photograph would go on to project a different, unintended and macabre image of Laughton within the context of his alleged involvement in the murder of Betty Ketani.
I had taken the photograph while documenting a nudist colony in the Northwest Province in 2010. There I had met Laughton, a proud naturist who volunteered to show the me around at a special event being held at a game lodge in the picturesque Pilansberg Mountains. Laughton elaborately painted his body for a Halloween party at the resort. I made the portrait and published it as part of his story. Neither me nor Laughton could have known at the time that the photo would go on to represent something much more ominous in the years to come. After the Ketani trial, never again would Laughton be seen as just a man in a skeleton costume enjoying a cigarette at a Halloween party – instead, to some, he was the dark angel of death, a cold-blooded executioner who took the life of an innocent woman and thought he had gotten away with it.
Laughton was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to 30 years behind bars for murder. He continues to protest his innocence, claiming that the confession letter is a fake and that he was set up. He has appealed his conviction, taking his case all the way to the Constitutional Court, but so far to no avail.
The motive for Betty’s murder remains unknown, but Laughton remains in jail, and that must provide as much closure for her family as it can for now.