A BRITISH couple were murdered, zipped inside their sleeping bags and fed to crocodiles by a ruthless kidnap gang days after they recorded an episode of BBC Gardeners' World, a court heard.
Respected botanists Rod Saunders, 74, and Rachel, 63, were ambushed as they searched for rare seeds in a remote nature reserve in South Africa.
The adventurous pair spent six months a year scouring mountains and forests for wild flower seed stock for their thriving worldwide mail-order business.
In February 2018 they drove 900 miles from their home in Cape Town to meet a BBC crew in the Drakensberg Mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where they were filmed looking for rare gladioli.
A selfie with Gardeners' World host Nick Bailey and another pic by producer Robin Matthews are believed to be the last snaps taken of them alive.
After filming, expert horticulturist Rod and his microbiologist wife of 30 years Rachel went off to camp at a dam by a remote forest.
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They told an employee at their Silverhill seeds company they were heading for the Ngoye Forest Reserve 90 miles north of Durban, but were never heard from again.
Prosecutors say they were snatched from their camp, beaten to death and thrown off a bridge into the croc-infested River Tugela.
Their part-eaten and badly decomposed bodies were recovered by fishermen days later – but were unrecognisable and were deposited separately at mortuaries.
It was only months later they were identified following DNA tests on unclaimed bodies – Rod's in April that year and Rachel's in June.
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Meanwhile police had launched a full-scale search and found money had been drained money from their account.
They feared the missing couple had been kidnapped by ISIS terrorists, the court heard.
The elite Hawks organised crime unit linked Rod and Rachel's phones to local suspects who had shared extremist messages, it is alleged.
A total of four suspects were arrested – three in South Africa around 30 miles from the reserve, and one in the Netherlands.
Three went on trial this week at Durban High Court, accused of kidnap, murder, robbery and theft.
Sayefundeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 39, his wife Bibi Fatima Patel, 28, and their lodger at the time Mussa Ahmad Jackson, 35, deny all the charges.
The court was told: "It was established that the defendants were drawing money from various ATMs which amounted to theft of 734,000 rand (£37,000) and there was the robbery of their Land Cruiser and of camping equipment."
Receipts in Bibi Patel's handbag corresponded with the purchases made with Rachel Saunders' bank card, the court was told.
Lodger Mussa Ahmad Jackson was arrested a month after the married pair, and allegedly told cops he had helped dispose of the bodies.
The court heard: "On March 23 the third accused was arrested and he made a statement to the effect he was woken by Patel at their home on February 10 and told to meet Del Vecchio on the road.
"Del Vecchio in the Land Cruiser and Patel and Jackson followed to the Tugela River Bridge where they helped him remove sleeping bags from the back of the Toyota and they threw them with human bodies inside into the river."
The victims' Toyota Land Cruiser was recovered on February 19 with a large amount of Rachel's blood in the cargo area.
The indictment also alleges that when the phones of all three suspects were analysed, WhatsApp messages led to fears they were members of ISIS.
One message on February 9, 2018, discussed how they must "kill the kuffar (non believer) and abduct their alias, to destroy infrastructure and to put fear in the heart of the kuffar".
On February 10 – the day of the murders – a message from Del Vecchio to his wife and the lodger said there was an elderly couple in the forest.
He told them it was a good "hunt" and he had the "target", it is alleged.
And in another message to an unknown person, Del Vecchio allegedly said: "When the brothers in kinya go out and do this work it is very important the body of the victims is never found… It remains a missing person case".
The fourth suspect in the Netherlands was not involved in the kidnap and killing.
He bought the Saunders' phones, and was given a suspended sentence in return for vital evidence against the other three, the court heard.
The trial continues.
Rod and Rachel met when he was a nursery manager at the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town and she was a leading microbiologist at a nearby university.
South-African born Rachel – who had dual British citizenship after marrying Rod – was a keen collector of indigenous seeds and travelled to all corners of South Africa to find different types of gladioli.
Rod quit his job to join her on her travels, and together they built up a successful business selling seeds around the world.
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