Wife testifies against man in slayings — (Battle Creek Enquirer)

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 Battle Creek Enquirer

Trace Christenson, The Enquirer 

August 7, 2009

As Johan Vanniekerk straddled his wife, hitting and choking her, she told him she couldn’t breathe.  I know,” Donna Vanniekerk remembers him saying, “because I am going to kill you tonight.”

“I started screaming and he started strangling me harder. He said, ‘Don’t worry about the girls. When I am done killing you, I am going to kill them, too.”

Johan Vanniekerk didn’t kill anyone that night, April 30, but the 41-year-old Fort Wayne, Ind., man is charged with the May 1 death of his mother, 72, and his daughter, 3, in a Marshall motel. Investigators have alleged that Vanniekerk assaulted his wife in their Fort Wayne apartment and then the next day drove his mother and daughter to Marshall, where they were killed in a motel room.

Vanniekerk was found in a bed in the motel and arrested and now is charged with two counts of open murder. He listened Thursday as the first witnesses testified in his preliminary examination before Calhoun County District Court Judge John Holmes. Testimony will continue in September when a pathologist is expected to testify that Brenda Vanniekerk and her granddaughter Laura Vanniekerk died from an overdose of medication.

Donna Vanniekerk said she and her husband had been married 12 years but the relationship had soured and the couple separated because of his depression.

On the night of April 30, she said her husband entered their apartment a few minutes after a male co-worker, who was repairing some computers, had left.

“He took me down the hall and he put me on the bed,” Donna Vanniekerk told Prosecutor Susan Mladenoff. “He climbed on top of me and started hitting me and strangling me.”

A few minutes later the assault stopped and she said her husband made her promise he could move back with her and their three daughters and they would be together. She said she decided to act normally “because I thought I was dead and he was going to kill me and the girls.”

The next morning she prepared to go to work, took Laura to the apartment of her mother-in-law Brenda Vanniekerk, who provided child care, and then took the two older girls to school. There, an administrator called police and later Johan Vanniekerk realized the authorities were involved.
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The couple exchanged some phone calls and text messages but when Donna Vanniekerk and the police went to Brenda Vanniekerk’s apartment, they found she and her granddaughter were gone.

At 4:15 p.m. that Friday, Donna Vanniekerk received a text message from her husband which said “we have reached the point of no return,” and then another which said “this is all your fault, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

She continued to call her husband and, when he finally answered, she asked about her mother-in-law.

“She is already dead,” she said her husband replied.

And when Donna Vanniekerk asked about Laura, her daughter, he said, “she is dead, too.”

“I started screaming and said she is my baby. He said, ‘not anymore,’ and hung up.”

Donna Vanniekerk told Defense Attorney Lesley Kranenberg that her husband “used to be kind and loving but he turned mean and vindictive” after his father died in 2004. She said he had been seeing a therapist and taking medication for depression.

Marshall Patrol Officer Andrew Groeneveld testified he was one of several officers to enter two rooms rented by Vanniekerk at the Comfort Inn in Marshall.

Groeneveld said in the room he entered shortly after 5:30 p.m., they found Vanniekerk on one bed, with labored breathing, and the child already dead on another bed.

Trace Christenson can be reached at 966-0685 or tchrist@battlecr.gannett .