Why Oscar Pistorius Killed Reeva Steenkamp Is Still a Mystery Open to Endless Interpretation

The disgraced athlete's family threatened to sue Lifetime over its new biopic, which paints a dark picture of Pistorius leading up Steenkamp's murder

By Natalie Finn Nov 11, 2017 4:00 PMTags
Oscar PistoriusHerman Verwey/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

On Aug. 29, 2012, Oscar Pistorius proudly carried the flag of South Africa as he and his country mates walked in the Parade of Nations during the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony.

During the ensuing fortnight, the athlete known as "Blade Runner"—for the prosthetics he had not only mastered but on which he flew through the air with the greatest of ease—would win two gold medals and a silver. Born without fibulae and missing the outside of both feet, Pistorius' legs were amputated beneath the knee when he was 11 months old.

The greatest controversy in his life till then had been the uproar over whether he should've been allowed to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, as officials and experts debated over whether his Flex-Foot Cheetahs—his J-shaped carbon fiber prostheses—gave him an unfair advantage over runners equipped with "only" their biological legs. Even when he did make history as the first-ever amputee to compete in the Olympic Games, his reception in the sporting world was split.

Yet it was still the summer of Oscar Pistorius, the "fastest man on no legs," the year he became an inspiration for countless people all over the world.

Five months later, 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp was dead and her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, had been charged with her murder.

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In a bizarre-under-any-circumstances case that couldn't help but remind Americans of the downfall of onetime football hero O.J. Simpson, who's now a downright pariah, Pistorius turned into a tragic curiosity overnight.


Unlike Simpson, found not guilty of the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, Pistorius didn't deny shooting Steenkamp on Feb. 14, 2013. But it was an accident, he insisted. He said that he woke up in the middle of the night at his Pretoria home and, mistaking her for an intruder, accidentally killed her when he fired his gun through the locked door of the separate toilet area in the master bathroom.

Until that night, Oscar Pistorius was just a wealthy, beloved star, the country's favorite celebrity in 2011, according to Heat magazine's annual poll. So he wasn't immediately pegged as a likely murderer hiding in plain sight. The violent crime rate in South Africa was notoriously high and, though he lived in a gated community, he kept a gun in the house for protection.

What were people supposed to think? Was that a plausible story, or an absurd excuse?

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With the who-what-when-how of Steenkamp's death not in question, the only question left was "why?"—and the answer to that would make all the difference.

Alas, the situation was a case of he-said, who-knows? The only other person who could truly attest to what went on in those final moments before Pistorius pulled the trigger was dead.

While the world at large had rooted for him as an athlete, a picture started to emerge of a much more complicated man, one born with a tremendous physical disadvantage but into economic privilege in a country where the gap between haves and have-nots can be staggering; a man who was always on, his mind as well as his body firing away on all cylinders; an athlete who was fiercely competitive and disciplined when it came to diet and training but prone to insomnia; a man at ease with himself and yet, at times, seemingly on edge.

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He did what big stars, particularly athletes, do: he donated to charity; met with underprivileged and ailing kids; racked up endorsements from the deep pockets of Nike, Oakley and Thierry Mugler; and met with dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela. But he also could behave recklessly: Unable to sleep one night in New York, he got a tattoo at 2 a.m. He crashed a speedboat on South Africa's Vaal River in 2008 and needed 180 stitches to patch up his face; he wasn't made to take blood tests but witnesses said Pistorius had been drinking. He was charged with a weapons offense for firing his gun through the sunroof of a moving car in 2012.

After Steenkamp's death, police confirmed that there had been prior calls about domestic incidents at Pistorius' house, including in 2009 when he spent a night in jail for allegedly slamming the door on a 19-year-old woman's leg during a party at his house after she refused to leave; an assault charge was eventually dropped.

A January 2012 New York Times profile described Pistorius as having the quintessential athlete's disposition, "that of a person who believes himself to be royalty of a certain kind." At one point, the writer noticed Pistorius hitting 155 miles per hour on the speedometer while behind the wheel of his Nissan GT-R in the rain.

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Pistorius told the NY Times that the week prior his security alarm had gone off in the night, prompting him to grab his gun and go downstairs to check out the house. It was a false alarm, he said, but that prompted a chat with the writer about guns and shooting. Pistorius grabbed a 9-mm handgun and a couple of boxes of bullets and they went to a nearby gun range. Asked how often he went shooting, Pistorius said, "Just sometimes when I can't sleep."

The article also noted that Pistorius had recently broken up with a longtime girlfriend but "another young woman" was visiting his house when the reporter was there.

Lucky Nxumalo/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The life that Pistorius and Steenkamp led together would soon be endlessly probed for clues as to what was really happening when the athlete shot her four times with his 9-mm gun in the early morning hours on Valentine's Day in 2013.

The handsome pair had gone public as a couple a few months beforehand, in November 2012. Pistorius may have been considered a catch, but Steenkamp was the whole package: the model and TV personality was also a law school graduate, an advocate for victims of rape and domestic abuse, and FHM had twice named her one of the 100 sexiest women in the world. Financially successful on her own, she willingly helped support her parents.

After she died, friends and family described her as one of the most wonderful, giving people they'd ever known. 

Her final personal message posted to Twitter on the afternoon Feb. 13, 2013, read:  "What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow??? #getexcited #ValentinesDay." And then in response to one of the women who answered, she wrote, "That sounds amazing! Wow that's what it's all about! It should be a day of love for everyone :) may it be blessed!"

Her second-to-last retweet, also that day, was "WEAR BLACK THIS FRIDAY IN SUPPORT AGAINST #RAPE AND WOMAN ABUSE #BLACKFRIDAY." Barely 12 hours later, she was dead.

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But many women know it's far easier to give advice and offer support than take that advice or take precautions to protect themselves. 

A transcript of WhatsApp messages between them read during the trial suggested a tempestuous relationship at least, with Reeva writing to him five days before she died about an incident in which he apparently criticized her loudly in public.

"I'm a person too and I appreciate that you invited me out tonight and I realize that you get harassed but I am trying my best to make you happy and I feel as though you sometimes never are, no matter the effort I put in," she wrote. "I can't be attacked by outsiders for dating you and be attacked by you—the one person I deserve protection from."

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In court Reeva's cousin Kim Martin would recall meeting Pistorius for the first time, at lunch with the couple. When he went to the bathroom, she asked Reeva if she was happy and her cousin replied, "Yes, but we need to talk." Martin said she regretted never pressing Reeva right then and there about what she meant.

And yet a friend of Steenkamp's stated in an affidavit read at Pistorius' bail hearing, "Reeva told me that she really liked Oscar and they both clicked and understood each other...Reeva said if Oscar asked her to marry him, she would probably say yes."

A friend of Oscar's stated: "Oscar told me Reeva could be the girl he would one day marry."

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Pistorius was arrested within hours after police arrived at his house and was charged the next day, Feb. 15, with murder. Photos and video of Pistorius, his face buried in the hood of his jacket as he was led out of the police station, pinged around the world. "There is no other suspect involved," a police spokeswoman said at the time.

He spent a week in jail, during which Oakley and Nike cut ties with the decorated athlete. Steenkamp was cremated and laid to rest on Feb. 19, a day Pistorius spent intermittently collapsing into sobs in court during a reading of the allegations against him at his bail hearing. 

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In a statement read for him by his defense advocate, Pistorius said, "I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder, let alone premeditated murder, as I had no intention to kill my girlfriend." They had spent a quiet evening together at his home and went to sleep early. 

"We were deeply in love and could not be happier. I know she felt the same way," the statement continued. "She had given me a present for Valentine's Day but asked me only to open it the next day."

He said he had woken up and thought there was an intruder in the house. He wasn't wearing his prosthetics, making him feel especially vulnerable. The bathroom window was open and, when he heard a sound coming from the toilet area, he fired and shouted for Reeva to call police, not having noticed she wasn't in bed when he got up.

Pistorius said that only when he returned to the bed and Reeva wasn't in it did he realize she might have been the person in the water closet. He put on his prostheses (the J-shaped, sci-fi-looking blades were only for running, his everyday prosthetics look like legs) and tried to kick down the locked door. Then he smashed at it with a cricket bat, breaking a few panels, before finally locating the key.

"Reeva was slumped over but alive. I battled to get her out of the toilet and pulled her into the bathroom." He called his estate administrator to call for an ambulance and carried Steenkamp downstairs. "Downstairs, I tried to render the assistance to Reeva that I could, but she died in my arms," he said.

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"I am absolutely mortified by the events and the devastating loss of my beloved Reeva," the statement continued. "With the benefit of hindsight I believe that Reeva went to the toilet when I went out on the balcony to bring the fan in. I cannot bear to think of the suffering I have caused her and her family, knowing how much she was loved.

"I also know that the events of that tragic night were as I have described them and that in due course I have no doubt the police and expert investigators will bear this out."

Pistorius was granted bail but, ironically, wasn't allowed to go home, as it was a crime scene. A judge ordered him to surrender his passport and refrain from drinking alcohol, but a month later another judge relaxed the ban on international travel, agreeing with the defense that Oscar should be allowed to travel for competition—even though by then all races he had been contracted to compete in were canceled. The orders not to drink or go home were also rescinded.

Alet Pretorius/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

He was formally indicted on Aug. 19, what would have been Steenkamp's 30th birthday.

On Feb. 14, 2014, the year anniversary of Reeva's death, he posted a statement on his website: "No words can adequately capture my feelings about the devastating accident that has caused such heartache for everyone who truly loved—and continues to love Reeva. The pain and sadness—especially for Reeva's parents, family and friends—consumes me with sorrow. The loss of Reeva and the complete trauma of that day, I will carry with me for the rest of my life."

The trial began on March 3, 2014. Pistorius pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder and several firearms charges.

Pistorius looked and sounded distraught, and he frequently broke down in tears in court, but his explanation had provoked more than a little skepticism and the prosecution set out to prove he had purposely murdered his girlfriend in a rage.

A police ballistics expert testified that Steenkamp appeared to be standing and facing the door when the first bullet hit her in in the hip, causing her to fall. The second shot appeared to have missed her but the bullet fragmented when it hit the wall, causing bruising on her back. The third and fourth bullets hit her in the right arm and head.

Two different neighbors testified they had heard loud arguing coming from the house earlier in the evening, and one said on the stand that she had heard the "terrible screams of a woman." 

An ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, testified that Pistorius had been a volatile boyfriend who had "screamed angrily" on different occasions. He frequently had his gun on him, she said.

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Over the course of the trial, Pistorius was said to have anger issues. It was no secret he was into guns, the athlete having posted photos of himself on social media enjoying his hobby. A psychiatrist testified to Pistorius' anxiety issues, saying they dated back to his childhood.

His parents had divorced when he was 6 and his mother died when he was 15. When he was profiled by the New York Times, he wasn't in regular contact with his father, and Henke Pistorius released a statement that indicated a certain air of remove when his son was charged, saying, "We all pray for guidance and strength for Oscar and the lady's parents."

The lady.


On Sept. 12, 2014, Judge Thokozile Masipa found Pistorius not guilty of murder but guilty of culpable homicide—akin to manslaughter in the U.S.—which meant he was responsible for Steenkamp's death, but unintentionally. The following month he was sentenced to five years in prison.

At the sentencing hearing, the victim's cousin Kim Martin testified that learning of Reeva's death was, "for me, the end of the world." That day, "we arrived at my mother's house and I could see the minute we arrived my mother was hysterical, and then I knew." Reeva's mother, June Steenkamp, "just walked around shrugging her shoulders all the time. My uncle [Reeva's father, Barry Steenkamp] sat in the corner just crying. Crying, crying.

"It's ruined our whole family. It's ruined Uncle Barry and Auntie June. Reeva was everything to them. They absolutely adored her. They were so proud of her, what she had accomplished. She looked after them so well, not just financially."

Prosecutors appealed the verdict, feeling Pistorius' punishment was way too lenient. In September 2015, his lawyer said that his client—who before Feb. 14, 2013, had reportedly been making upward of $1 million a year in endorsements, appearance fees and prize money—was broke and couldn't afford the costs of another trial.

Parole was also already on the table, although South Africa's justice minister said that Pistorius had to spend at least 10 months behind bars first. Much to the outrage of Steenkamp's loved ones, as well as to advocates for victims of domestic abuse and gun violence who had rallied behind the family, the parole board approved Pistorius' transfer to house arrest. He was released from prison on Oct. 19, 2015.

Herman Verwey/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Meanwhile, though the international spotlight was focused predominantly on Oscar Pistorius' tragic and still shocking downfall, from hero and inspiration to killer, Reeva Steenkamp's family was still trying to pick up the pieces.

"You try to get on with your lives," cousin Kim Martin told the BBC on the eve of Pistorius' release. "You try not to focus any energy on Oscar being in jail, Oscar getting out of jail. But I know that anytime his name is mentioned and you hear it, it's like another blow. It's not easy. 

"We had to be content with what happened at that time [during sentencing] to be able to carry on. For your own personal sanity. Being in court all those months […] there was so much negative energy. You were just glad to get out alive."

At the time, one of the conditions of Pistorius' relief was that he meet with the Steenkamp family when they felt ready, the terms of the meeting entirely at their discretion. He did reach out multiple times but the meeting never occurred, the Steenkamps never feeling ready to go through with it.

Maxi Losi, Pool Photo via AP

But prosecutors were working to right the ship they felt had run aground in the meantime.

On Dec. 3, 2015, Judge Eric Leach ruled that the original ruling was flawed, overturned the not guilty verdict and upgraded Pistorius' conviction to murder. Granted bail, Pistorius was allowed to travel up to 12 miles away from his uncle's home where he'd been staying, between the hours of 7 a.m. and noon.

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In his first TV interview since Steenkamp's death, which he gave from his uncle's house in June 2016, Pistorius said he had to live every day with the knowledge that he "did take Reeva's life."

"I can smell the blood. I can feel the warmness of it on my hands," he said. "And to know that that's your fault, that that's what you've done."

He continued, "And I understand the pain people feel, that loved her and miss her. I feel that same pain. I feel that same hate for myself. I feel that same difficulty in understanding this. And I look back and I think, I always think— how did this possibly happen? I think, how could this have happened? How could this have happened?"

At the sentencing hearing days after Pistorius' interview aired, Barry Steenkamp gave emotional testimony about the loss of his daughter, saying he had forgiven Oscar but he still had to pay for what he'd done.

"I think of her every day. I talk to her. It is difficult to explain," Barry said. "What happened devastated us. I wouldn't wish that on anybody in the world."

Pistorius' lawyers and doctors argued that he had grown increasingly depressed and troubled and should be hospitalized rather than jailed. But on July 6, 2016, more than three years after Reeva Steenkamp's murder, Pistorius was sentenced to six years in prison, which is where he remains now.

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A brief trip to the hospital in August 2016 to treat minor wrist injuries prompted rumors that the then-29-year-old had tried to kill himself. He denied it, saying he hurt his wrist falling out of bed.

A week later, however, prison sources told South Africa's City Press that Pistorius had been put on suicide watch. Sources also said that Pistorius had told officials that three prison nurses were trying to kill him with "toxic" pills and he was refusing to accept any medication administered by them.

"I know that there are reports saying that he tried to injure himself—they're completely untrue and sensational," Carl Pistorius, Oscar's older brother, told City Press. "He slipped in his cell and injured himself, nothing serious." An investigation into what transpired, including Pistorius' alleged concern about the nurses, was underway.

This occurred at Kgosi Mampuru II Prison; Pistorius was later transferred to Atteridgeville Correctional Center, also in Pretoria.

With mountains of legal testimony, reporting and opinions to go on, Lifetime has now tackled the case in Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer, starring Andreas Damm as the disgraced champion and Toni Garrn as Steenkamp. The movie, premiering tonight, has been considered controversial since it was first announced, with critics from the sporting world and beyond questioning its merits on every level and Pistorius' family threatening legal action over what they called the film's "gross misrepresentation of the truth."


Damm portrays Pistorius as a tightly wound, emotionally volatile and aggressive man who bullied Steenkamp and made her fear for her life before ultimately killing her on that still-murky night—in other words, the prosecution's version of him.

"The 'film' was made with blatant disregard of both the Steenkamp and Pistorius families, as well as complete disregard for Reeva and Oscar," Carl Pistorius said in a statement last month. Noting that Oscar's mental health was thoroughly examined over the course of the investigation and trial, Carl added, "at no stage was Oscar found to have the mind of a killer."

In their own statement, Steenkamp's family said: "They are horrified and upset to read a report that 'the movie is told from Steenkamp and her mother's perspective.' June Steenkamp was not approached by Lifetime to participate, comment or be part of the making of the film, and did not give the producers any assistance. Any impression that is created that this is June's view, or that the movie is endorsed by the Steenkamp family, is untrue and incorrect."

Meanwhile, just last week, prosecutors went to South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeals to ask permission to appeal Pistorius' six-year prison sentence, protesting that it was "shockingly" lenient and "unjust."

They want his sentence lengthened to 15 years. Judge Masipa, whose finding of not guilty on the murder charge they had already successfully appealed, was also the judge who gave him six years for murder; she previously denied the prosecution's request to challenge the sentence.

Pistorius wasn't in court, but Reeva's mother, June, was present for the hearing and her lawyer said the family supports the prosecutions' appeal.

Last year, Barry Steenkamp told the court at Oscar's sentencing hearing that Pistorius didn't have to get the whole 15 years the prosecution was seeking, but he had to pay.

"Ever since Reeva's death I have spent my time on my veranda, at two or three in the morning. I smoke my cigarettes. I think of Reeva every day, every day of my life, morning, noon and night," he said. "I talk to hear every day in my head...my daughter."

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