South Africa's alleged "Phoenix Strangler," Sipho Agmatir Thwala, is suspected of raping and strangling 19 victims with their underwear before burying them in shallow graves. On March 31, 1999, the Durban High Court found Thwala guilty of only 16 murders and 10 rapes, and he was sentenced to 506 years in prison. Thwala, 31, of KwaMashu, became the most wanted man in KwaZulu-Natal province, located in eastern South Africa along the Indian Ocean during an alleged year-long reign of terror. At the time of his murderous spree - between 1996 and 1997 - the Phoenix and KwaMashu communities were gripped with terror, not knowing who would be next or when he would strike again.
Thwala, who was acquitted of rape and murder in 1994, was arrested for the serial killings at his Besters squatter camp home in a pre-dawn swoop by police in August 1997. His arrest came days after DNA samples taken from the suspect, who was released on the rape and murder charges in 1994, matched those taken from several crime scenes.
The killer apparently lured his victims to the sugarcane fields fields of Mount Edgecombe, near Phoenix, by offering them employment. Thwala fitted the profile compiled by police forensic psychologist Micky Pistorius, who described him as "intelligent and charming to women, but extremely dangerous". Thwala speaks English, Afrikaans and Zulu and grew up as a labourer in the cane fields where he sold cane to local residents.
His mother, Khathazile Ntanzi, described Twala as an intelligent man who could read and write even though he never received schooling beyond Grade 1. "He was a normal child, a gentleman and helpful around the house. He also bought us groceries when he had money. We are relieved he has been sent to jail. Who knows? He may have turned against us one day," said his sister, Zibekile.
On March 31, 1999, a Dunbar judge sentenced Twala to 506 years in prison after he was found guilty of 16 slayings and other charges. Twala, 31, showed no remorse for his crimes. He was also found guilty of one charge of attempted murder, seven of indecent assault and three of rape.
Shortly before his sentencing, a rumour spread around Inanda that Thwala had been seen at his family's home. An angry mob converged on the house, setting it alight after locking his mother, Khathazile 65, and his sister Zibekile, 41, inside as they prepared to go to church. A neighbour came to their rescue, dragging them from the blazing dwelling. Fearing for their lives, the family fled to the police station with Zibekile's six-month-old son, Mthandeni, and her daughters Fikile, 2, Ntombizakhona, 7, and Phumelele, 8.
Both Thwala's mother and sister said that they believed he "got what was coming to him" when Judge Vivienne Niles-Duner imposed the 506-year sentence on him. At the time of his reign of terror, neither Thwala's mother nor his sister suspected that he was the killer. "He never changed his behaviour. He would even occasionally condemn the killings and said he hoped the killer would be caught soon," said his mother.