It is not known when Sithole took his first rape victim, but his first recorded incidence of rape occurred in September 1987, involving 29-year-old Patrica Khumalo, who also testified at his 1996 trial. Three other known rape victims came forward, including Buyiswa Doris Swakamisa, who was attacked in February 1989. She made a police report at the time that resulted in Sithole’s arrest and trial, and he was jailed in Boksburg Prison for six years, in 1989, for the rape of Swakamisa. Sithole maintained his innocence throughout the trial, and was released early, in 1993, for good behaviour.
Perhaps Sithole learned a lesson from his time in jail: that rape victims left alive can produce consequences. It is not known how soon after release that he began his rape and killing spree but, in the period between January and April 1995, in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, four bodies of young black women, who had been strangled, and probably raped, were discovered. This began a chain of events that unearthed an appalling litany of brutality and death.
When newspapers became aware of the similarities in the modus operandi of the killing of each victim, police were forced to admit that a serial killer might be operating in the area. When the body of the 2-year old son of one of the victims was also discovered, it incited further media coverage but, in a society inured to violence, interest was relatively short-lived within the media.
However, the recovery of a number of bodies within the general vicinity of Pretoria over the next few months, all sharing the same gruesome pattern, of having been raped, tied up and strangled with their own underwear, gave the public pause for thought. On 17 July 1995, a witness saw Sithole acting suspiciously whilst in the company of a young woman, and discovered her body when he went to investigate. Unfortunately, the witness had been too far away to be able to identify the killer.
A special investigating team was established within the Pretoria Murder and Robbery Unit, in an effort to establish whether the bodies conformed to a definite pattern, but the method of attack varied to such an extent that it was impossible to state with certainty that one killer was responsible. As more victims were identified, and the chronology of deaths, rather than the discovery of their bodies, became apparent, there was clear evidence that the killer was evolving his murder technique to extract the greatest pain from his victims, assumedly increasing his own pleasure. His means of approach was also clarified: in a significant number of cases, the victim had been meeting someone who had promised them employment.
On 16 September 1995, a body was discovered at the Van Dyk Mine near Boksburg. Further investigation revealed mass graves; forensic experts recovered ten bodies, in varying degrees of decomposition, over the next 48 hours. Investigators were certain that the Boksburg bodies were linked with the victims at Atteridgeville. Media attention was intense throughout the recovery operation, and even President Nelson Mandela visited the scene of the grisly discoveries.
Public concern increased with the media coverage, and the local authorities sought external help from retired FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who arrived on 23 September 1995. He assisted with the development of a profile of the serial killer, indicating that an intelligent, organised individual with a high sex drive was responsible, operating with a growing sense of confidence, and perhaps with the assistance of a second killer.