IN DEPTH: Stella torn apart by double death of lifelong besties
The young couple look madly in love. In one photo Xander Bylsma is lying in Sharnelle Hough’s arms, his eyes bright. In another he has his arm around her and they’re both smiling broadly.
Now family and friends are asking: where did it all go so terribly wrong?
Its been two months since Sharnelle and her best friend Marne Engelbrecht’s deaths and the small North West town of Stella is still reeling in the wake of the brutal killings, for which Xander (19) will stand trial.
In the early hours of the morning on a Saturday 26 May, a hostel matron at the local high school found Sharnelle (17) hanging by a rope tied to the railings of the stairs. Marna (16) was discovered dead on the bathroom floor with what looked like a handbag strap tied around her neck.
Hours later Xander was arrested at his Stella home and he has since confessed to the crime, Vryburg police spokesperson Captain Charlize van der Linda said.
The teenager is set to appear in the Vryburg Magistrate's Court on Monday 6 August.
But the case remains shrouded in mystery and Sharnelle’s mother, Sonja Hough (42), is desperate for answers.
“My heart is so, so sore,” she tells us, struggling to hold back her tears. “Words can’t describe it – I can’t tell you what I’m feeling. I can’t think anymore.”
Sonja, who works at a holiday resort in Koster in North West, was hoping to attend the preliminary court hearing on 28 May in Vryburg but was delayed on the road so ended up missing proceedings. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she says.
She’s grateful when we tell her Xander didn’t apply for bail – apparently one of the reasons for this is that he fears for his safety.
During his first court appearance, about 15 policemen formed a human wall between him and people in the gallery.
The teen, with unkempt hair and a day-old beard, stared at the floor while magistrate Sophia Meyer postponed the case.
Sonja says she’s enraged. “I recently asked Sharnelle about him. She told me they’d broken up,” she says. “When I asked questions, she’d cover for him. She wouldn’t say anything nasty about him.
”Sonja isn’t the only one who’s feeling heartbroken. Her ex-husband, Ronnie Hough, arrived at court looking distraught, standing close to his second wife, Anna, for support. “She was my only child. My only one,” was all Ronnie, the manager of a cattle farm near Vryburg, could bring himself to say.
Marna’s father, Stefans Engelbrecht, a farmer, also struggled to control his emotions outside the magistrate’s court in Vryburg. His wife, Rianet was so shattered she wasn’t up to going to court to face Xander, who’s Marna’s second cousin.
More than anything they all want to know exactly what happened. “Xander grew up in front of us,” one of Sharnelle’s relatives tells us outside the court.
Sharnelle’s cousin, Linmari Hough, found it hard to see him in the dock. “It felt as if my heart had stopped,” she says. “This is someone who’s been in our home and has visited us on the farm.”
When we visit the town in June, a silence hangs over the hostel at Stella high school. Outside a woman with short, dark hair stands smoking. “I’m not allowed to talk to you,” she says softly, tears welling in her eyes.
On the other side of the block the school entrance is a hive of activity. A police van is parked at the gate.
“We treasure our memories of these two vivacious, smiling girls,” the school said in a statement issued soon after their deaths.
“Not for a moment did we think they’d be taken away from us so needlessly. But we’re comforted that they were together because few children shared a friendship as close as Marna and Lallie (as Sharnelle was known).”
The girls had been best friends since kindergarten and shared a room in the school hostel. “You’d never see them sad or unhappy,” Linmari says. “They were always joking and laughing.”
Marna especially loved horses and she and Sharnelle would go riding every weekend, Linmari adds. “They loved the animals so much.”
Marna was smart and often got awards for academic performance.
Sonja says Sharnelle was spontaneous and had a warm, cheerful personality.
“She never did anything wrong. She also didn’t want to see anything bad in another person.”
Now investigators are trying to piece together what happened to the teens in their final hours.
At the end of the school week they’d stayed in the hostel on their own because they were due to accompany the first rugby team to Koster the next day. Afterwards Sharnelle planned to stay on to see her mom.
On the Friday night the girls asked the hostel matron to leave the door unlocked because someone was delivering clothes to them, police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Amanda Funani says.
At about 5.30am the next morning the matron went to wake the girls so they could get ready for the bus trip to Koster– and made a horrific discovery.
“The matron found Sharnelle hanging by a rope tied to the railings of the stairs,” Van der Linde says. “Marna was found on the bathroom floor. Something similar to the strap of a handbag had been tied around her neck. The suspicion is that both were strangled.”
Now family members are desperately trying to join the dots.
Xander was the big love of Sharnelle’s life for about a year, they say. The teens started going out when he was in matric and Sharnelle in Grade 10.
At the time Xander, who hails from Hartswater in the Northern Cape, was also a boarder at the school but he was later suspended after being caught sneaking out to visit the girls’ hostel.
A local resident, with whom Xander boarded for a term during his suspension, describes him as a well-mannered boy. “He was quiet but always friendly. He never caused any trouble.”
Xander’s parents were divorced and his father, Monte, remarried. “His mom, Mercia, was always concerned and protective about him. She’ll be shattered by the news,” the resident adds.
Xander often accompanied Sharnelle on visits to her dad in Vryburg. “He liked Sharnelle a lot,” one of his friends says. “He used to write affectionate things about her on Facebook.”
A keen hunter, Xander also shared pics of himself posing with the jackals he killed on farms in the area. It’s believed farmers paid him to kill the predators to stop them preying on their livestock.
Friends say he was knowledgeable about firearms, his second love after Sharnelle.
But in May, his first love decided she didn’t want to continue their relationship and they split up, one of Sharnelle’s relatives tells us. “We think he just couldn’t cope with the fact they’d broken up,” the relative adds.
There were rumours that Xander had a wandering eye and that for a long time there’d been trouble in the relationship.
“Whenever Sharnelle tried to leave Xander, he’d drive to her parents’ house and threaten her, telling her she’d regret it,” says Petro Richards, a retired secretary whose grandchildren were in the same class as Marna.
One of Xander’s friends says that from reading the WhatsApp messages he sent in recent months it was clear he wasn’t happy. “He’d post things like ‘you can’t trust anyone’.”
Linmari says Sharnelle left Xander because she felt he was obsessed with her.
“He wanted to know where she was all the time and what she was doing.
That type of stuff.” But even so, Linmari was stunned when soon after his arrest Xander confessed to the murder. “I couldn’t believe it, because he loved her so much,” she says.
Pictures: Martin de Kock, Supplied