As shocking murder charges were filed today against double-amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius, prosecutors in South Africa delayed his court appearance until Friday, citing complexities that necessitated more time prepare. And the case surrounding the death early Thursday morning of his "cover girl" girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, will be complex: Investigators haven't declared a motive in the killing, but multiple reports out of gun-friendly, violence-ridden South Africa linked Pistorius's police questioning to what may or may not be a defense of sorts — that the gold-medal winner mistook Steenkamp for an intruder in his home, and shot her by accident. As prosecutors planned to withhold bail and Pistorius prepared for court, it remained unclear where the self-defense narrative came from — not so fast, police officials seemed to say in their non-denial denial — but lingering questions remain: What did he really tell the cops? How much did he love guns? Could his actions have somehow been excusable?
The intruder "accident" story burst out of some South African outlet or another (emphasis below is ours) and took hold quickly across mainstream media. Here's The New York Times:
Reports from local media said that Mr. Pistorius told the police that the shooting was an accident and that he had mistaken the victim for an intruder.
But speaking to reporters in Pretoria, another police spokeswoman, Brig. Denise Beukes said those reports had taken her by surprise.
Salon's Kera Bolonik points to talk radio as possible perpetrators of this apparently false claim:
Pistorius apparently shot his girlfriend — a law-school graduate and model he’d been dating for the several months — in the head and arm, although the circumstances surrounding the incident were unclear, reported Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702. The local media in South Africa was saying that Pistorius told the police the shooting was an accident and that he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar.
And Sky News:
UPDATE: South African media reports that Oscar Pistorius killed girlfriend after mistaking her for an intruder and has been arrested— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) February 14, 2013
And The Guardian:
The South Africa police service were just as surprised this morning to hear on the radio that allegations had been made that the deceased had been perceived to be a burglar. We were very surprised and those allegations did not come from us.
Of course, the police service being "surprised" and saying the allegations "did not come from us" is not the same as the police denying that the "intruder" story is the one Pistorius will be sticking with in court. And whether it's one of those local-media snafus or really his defense in a murder case, the gun "accident" does seem to line up with what we know about the man the world calls Blade Runner:
Pistorius Is a Known Gun Owner Who Has Talked About Home Invasion Before
One of the main pieces of public evidence being passed around today by those trying to figure out this bizarre and tragic puzzle is a year-old profile from The New York Times Magazine. In an interview/shooting demonstration with writer Michael Sokolove, Pistorius talks about his gun ownership and his fears of home invasion in the same section (again, emphasis ours):
Pistorius lives in the house with a friend from high school, an engineer who moonlights as a mixed-martial-arts fighter. Pistorius had recently broken off a relationship with his longtime girlfriend, though another young woman was visiting when we got there. As he put together lunch for all of us — fruit smoothies, breaded chicken fillets he pulled from the refrigerator — he mentioned that a security alarm in the house had gone off the previous night, and he had grabbed his gun and tiptoed downstairs. (It turned out to be nothing.)
I asked what kind of gun he owned, which he seemed to take as an indication of my broader interest in firearms. I had to tell him I didn’t own any. “But you’ve shot one, right?” Actually, I hadn’t. Suddenly, I felt like one of those characters in a movie who must be schooled on how to be more manly
“We should go to the range,” he said. He fetched his 9-millimeter handgun and two boxes of ammunition. We got back in the car and drove to a nearby firing range, where he instructed me on proper technique. Pistorius was a good coach. A couple of my shots got close to the bull’s-eye, which delighted him. “Maybe you should do this more,” he said. “If you practiced, I think you could be pretty deadly.” I asked him how often he came to the range. “Just sometimes when I can’t sleep,” he said.
In November, Pistorius posted this eerie tweet, joking about a possible burglar:
Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking its an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry! waa— Oscar Pistorius (@OscarPistorius) November 27, 2012
Knowing those pieces of Pistorius's character, you could see why an intruder narrative might stick, especially as the world tries to figure out what happened this morning. What's more, Reuters is reporting that police said a 9mm pistol — perhaps like the one he handled with the Times reporter handles — had been found at the scene. There's also the broader reality that ...
Pistorius's Break-in Fears Aren't Unfounded, Because South Africa Is a Violent Place
"South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and break-ins by armed robbers are relatively common. Legal handgun ownership is also common, with some restrictions," reads today's Times report. More specifically, "each day an average of nearly 50 people are murdered. In addition to these 18,000 murders each year, there are another 18,000 attempted murders," according to a report from BBC in 2010. Either it's a good excuse, a sad reality, or, something in between, which leads us to...
Pistorius's Living Situation — and His Girlfriend — Don't Quite Add Up
As undeniable as South Africa's burglary problem may be, there are some other things that don't exactly fit with the "intruder" story. Perhaps most important is what the South African police spokesperson did say — that there had been reports about previous incidents between the couple involving "allegations of a domestic nature." As in, domestic violence, according to a nod after a reporter asked a follow-up question.
Steenkamp sent this Valentine's tweet out yesterday, which takes on a whole new meaning today:
There's also the security factor: the Pistorius home was actually very hard to break into. "Pistorius' complex is surrounded by a three meter high wall and electric fence," reads a report from Reuters. According to police, there's still no word where this intruder explanation came from — or if it is, in fact, the Pistorius defense. Police say they're seeking clues and witness accounts from neighbors, but it sounds like it was just Pistorius and Steenkamp in the house at the time of the shooting. "We are talking about neighbors and people that heard things earlier in the evening and when the shooting took place," South African Police spokeswoman Denise Beukes told Reuters.
Pistorius is not expected to enter a plea in court in his hometown of Pretoria on Friday.
[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post presumed the victim's knowledge of the suspect's affinity for guns and has been amended.]