South African star athlete Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder over the shooting death of his girlfriend and will appear in court today, police said yesterday.
Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times before dawn in Pistorius’s home in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria.
Pistorius, 26, and Steenkamp, 30, were alone in the house at the time of the shooting, police brigadier Denise Beukes said.
She said police quizzed neighbours on what they heard at the time of the shooting and earlier in the evening. Police said a 9mm pistol was found at the scene.
Pistorius is a global celebrity and champion for disabled sport, and was the first double amputee ever to compete at an Olympics, in London last year.
He ran using two carbon-fibre blades, leading to his nicknames “Blade Runner”, and the “fastest man on no legs”.
Brig Beukes said police were aware of previous incidents at the house, saying there had been “allegations of a domestic nature”.
On Wednesday, Steenkamp tweeted that Valentine’s Day should be “a day of love for everyone”.
South Africa has some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and many homeowners have weapons to defend themselves against intruders.
Before the murder charge was announced, Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702 said the athlete might have mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar.
In an interview with The New York Times last year, Pistorius was open about his love of guns. The article described him talking about how he had pulled a pistol to search his home when his alarm went off.
The athlete’s playboy lifestyle has courted controversy in the past. He spent a night in jail after allegedly assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a party in 2009.
In the same year Pistorius crashed a speedboat he was piloting on South Africa’s Vaal River. Witnesses said he had been drinking before the crash and officers found alcohol in the wreckage, although they acknowledged at the time they had not given the athlete a blood test.
Pistorius broke his nose, jaw and several ribs in the crash, damaged his eye socket and required about 180 stitches to his face.
“Oscar is certainly not what people think he is,” said his former girlfriend Samantha Taylor last November – two months after a magazine programme covered the couple’s Seychelles holiday.
Steenkamp, a regular on the South African social scene, was reported to have been dating Pistorius for several months.
In the social pages of last weekend’s Sunday Independent, she described him as having impeccable taste. “His gifts are always thoughtful,” she was quoted as saying.
Neighbours expressed shock at the arrest of a “good guy”.
“It is difficult to imagine an intruder entering this community but we live in a country where intruders can get in wherever they want to,” said one Silverlakes resident, who did not want to be identified.
“Oscar is a good guy, an upstanding neighbour, and if he is innocent I feel for this guy deeply.”
Steenkamp’s colleagues in the modelling world were distraught.
“We are all devastated. Her family is in shock,” said her agent, Sarita Tomlinson. “They did have a good relationship. Nobody actually knows what happened.”
Pistorius’s father Henke declined to comment, only saying “we all pray for guidance and strength for Oscar and the lady’s parents”.
Pistorius’s agent Peet van Zyl and coach Ampie Louw could not be reached for comment.
His former coach, Andrea Giannini, said he hoped it was “just a tragic accident”.
“No matter how bad the situation was, Oscar always stayed calm and positive,” he said.
United Nations statistics show South Africa has the second-highest rate of shooting deaths in the world, second only to Colombia.
“The question is, why does this story make the news? Yes, because they are both celebrities, but this is happening on every single day in South Africa,” said Adele Kirsten, a member of Gun Free South Africa.
“We have thousands of people killed annually by gun violence in our country. So the anger is about that it is preventable.”
Pistorius’s sponsorship deals, including one with the sports apparel group Nike, are thought to be worth US$2 million (Dh7.35m) a year.
South Africa’s M-Net cable TV channel said it was pulling advertisements featuring Pistorius off air immediately after blanket coverage of the arrest in a country more used to honouring him as a hero.
He is an ambassador for the Mineseeker Foundation, a British charity that works on removing land mines, and British communications firm BT’s Paralympic World Cup.
Much of his work focused on changing perceptions about disabled people.
* With reporting by Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse