JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South African Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega moved swiftly Thursday to replace the lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder case after embarrassing revelations that the officer is facing attempted murder charges.
Pistorius is accused of premeditated murder in the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day. The Olympic athlete claims he shot her by mistake, believing she was a burglar.
Investigator Hilton Botha is being replaced by the man Phiyega described as “the most senior detective” in the South African police force, Vinesh Moonoo. She said Moonoo would pull together a team of the best detectives in the force.
Botha and three other police officers allegedly opened fire on a commuter minibus carrying seven passengers in 2011 in an effort to stop the vehicle, police officials confirmed Thursday.
The prosecutor in the Pistorius bail hearing, Gerrie Nel, said he only learned Botha was facing the charges Wednesday.
In an interview with South Africa’s Eyewitness News, Botha denied being drunk at the time of the shooting and said no blood had been taken as part of a sobriety check. He said the police did not see the passengers in the minibus.
Three of the police involved in the incident were arrested at the time but were not charged. However, prosecutors decided this month to charge the officers.
Botha, the first detective on the scene after the shooting of Steenkamp, came under intense questioning Wednesday by defense attorney Barry Roux at Pistorius’ bail hearing, which will continue Friday for a fourth day.
Botha outlined evidence supporting his view that Pistorius, 26, intentionally shot and killed Steenkamp, 29. But much of his evidence crumbled under a fierce barrage of defense questions from Roux.
Putting his final argument in the bail hearing, Roux argued Thursday that Botha had no credibility and that the state had failed to support its accusation of premeditated murder. He is seeking to have the seriousness of the charge against Pistorius downgraded to culpable homicide, making it more likely he would be released on bail.
Nel disputed Pistorius’ version that Steenkamp had gone to the toilet to relieve herself at 3 a.m., causing him to mistake her for a burglar and open fire through the toilet door.
He questioned why she would have left her cellphone outside the toilet on the bathroom floor beside Pistorius’ cellphone if she got up to relieve herself.
“In the front of the shower, next to the gun, were two cellphones: the applicant’s and deceased’s. Why?” Nel said. “The uncontradicted, unchallenged evidence of the position of his cellphone and gun are the coup de gras for his case,” adding they would “kill” Pistorius’ argument.
The prosecution offered no information on whether Steenkamp received calls or messages on the night of the killing.