PRETORIA – South African police Thursday charged Olympic amputee sprint star Oscar Pistorius with the Valentine’s Day murder of his model girlfriend, who was shot four times with a gun registered to the popular athlete.
Police played down reports suggesting the 30-year-old blonde model, Reeva Steenkamp, was mistaken for a burglar, and said she had died after suffering wounds to the head and hand in the shooting in the early hours of Thursday.
Twenty-six-year-old Pistorius — known globally as “Blade Runner” because of his carbon fibre prostheses — was to spend the night in jail before appearing in court early Friday to face murder charges.
The sprinter became an international celebrity during last year’s London Olympics, when he became the first double-amputee to compete in a Summer Games.
He was publicly adored in his native South Africa, though questions had been raised about his colourful private life — full of model girlfriends, guns and fast cars.
Police were called to Pistorius’s upscale Pretoria around 4:00 am by neighbours who heard gunshots inside the gated community.
Police spokeswoman Denise Beukes said the 9mm pistol used in the shooting was registered to Pistorius, who authorities have said is the only suspect in the case and who has been denied bail.
His arrest has rocked South Africa, where he had been considered a hero.
“Obviously we are shocked,” his father Henke Pistorius told AFP. “He is with the police and the matter is in the hands of the authorities.”
Steenkamp, once a FHM cover girl, was described as “the kindest, sweetest human being; an angel on earth,” by Sarit Tomlins of her management agency.
Authorities poured cold water on media reports that she had snuck up on her lover, suggestions that were fuelled by her tweet the day before.
“What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow??? #getexcited #ValentinesDay”, she wrote.
“We were surprised by allegations that the deceased had been perceived to be a burglar,” police spokeswoman Beukes said.
Police said they were talking to neighbours who heard disturbances on Wednesday evening and around the time of the shooting. There had been previous allegations of domestic disputes at Pistorius’s home.
“There were always rumours attracted to Oscar Pistorius, but most of them I just put down to him being a celebrity,” said Kyle Wood, a 25-year-old fellow resident of the Silverlakes community.
In 2009 Pistorius spent a night in jail after allegedly assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a party.
Crime is a major problem in South Africa, where an estimated 1.5 million people own guns. Many residents keep weapons at home and equip their houses with electric fences and panic buttons that summon heavily armed guards within minutes.
In November, Pistorius tweeted about arriving home and hearing the washing machine on “and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry! waa.”
Last year he told a newspaper he sleeps with a pistol, machine gun, cricket bat and baseball bat for fear of burglars.
He once took a reporter to a nearby shooting range with his 9mm handgun after learning that the journalist had never fired a shot.
His right to have a gun was called into question by South Africa’s anti-firearms lobby.
To be licensed as a gun owner, Pistorius would have had to seek a competency certificate that requires knowledge of gun laws and interviews with his neighbours to rule out issues around addiction, mental illness or violence.
“With Oscar’s case it is quite interesting because it does appear that there was a history of abuse and possible alcohol misuse,” said Claire Taylor of Gun Free South Africa.
Pistorius was also known as an adrenaline junkie, with a love of speed reflected in a passion for motorbikes. Four years ago he crashed his boat in a river south of Johannesburg, breaking two ribs, an eye socket and his jaw.
Empty alcohol bottles were found in the boat, but his blood alcohol content wasn’t tested.
The Johannesburg-born athlete won gold in the 4x100m relay and the 400m individual at the Paralympic Games in London.
He was triple gold medallist in the Beijing games in 2008 in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
Pistorius was named by Time Magazine last year as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11-months-old after being born without lower leg bones. But he played sports unhindered while growing up, switching to running after fracturing a knee playing rugby.
At high school, he was so good that his personal fitness coach said she was unaware for six months that he ran on prosthetic legs.
The incident was already having an effect on his career, with a South African pay television channel announcing it had canned a campaign featuring the runner.
There was no immediate comment from global sports giant Nike on its sponsorship of Pistorius, who it featured in an advert showing the runner setting off from the starting blocks with the line “I am the bullet in the chamber”.(AFP)