I first met Anthony Venter at his house in Coral Springs. With him were his father, Carl, and his brother Derrick -- all of them big, strapping guys with Crocodile Dundee-sounding accents. It was like the South African equivalent of Bonanza set in the South Florida suburbs.
At one time, they did all live on a farm together, they told me. But that was outside Pretoria, and the real family business, oddly enough, was hairdressing. That's how Anthony met Dunitse "Dee" Venter; he began cutting her hair in the family salon in South Africa in 1994. His story of their relationship was punctuated by small nervous coughs. Anthony's voice was slow and soft and had a slight quiver. He sounded shell-shocked.
And he is.
Two years his senior, Dee was already a veteran of volatile relationships when they met. She and her first husband had a violent marriage, and after they divorced, she tried to kill herself, according to court records.
Dee poured her heart out to Anthony during that divorce, and soon they began seeing each other. They quickly wed in 1995, and the marriage was marked almost immediately by troubles that are far too deep to decipher in this space. Dee resented Anthony's closeness to his family, especially after the couple moved in with his parents at the farm. Anthony, according to letters Dee wrote before she killed their son, Kyle, drank too much and neglected her.
In other words, Anthony had some real, though rather typical, problems. Dee was another matter. Anthony says she was wildly manipulative and verbally abusive and, breaking a cardinal rule of marriage, complained that her ex-husband had been a better lover.
Not long after Kyle was born on March 6, 1997, the couple, along with Anthony's family, moved to South Florida, where Anthony and his father opened a beauty shop in Coral Springs. The couple's hope that things would get better in America never materialized. He says she supplemented the verbal abuse with more direct ways of hurting him. "She would take the car keys and put them between her knuckles and... she almost took my eye out one night," he told me. "If you pick up a card at your police station for victims of abuse, it's all for women. But the whole list of abuse things, except for sexual abuse, was exactly what she was doing to me. Estranging family, picking fights, constant arguments. All of it."
Anthony says Dee goaded him to hit her, but he never took the bait (and no police reports indicate otherwise). Six months before the murder, he entered therapy and soon realized he needed a break from the marriage.
In early December 2001, he moved into his parents' apartment, which was in the same Margate complex as the one he shared with Dee. "After therapy and stuff like that, I learned how to deal with this woman," he explains. "I stopped engaging in arguments with her. I knew she couldn't control me anymore. All the threatening phone calls, all the threats, threats, threats, I learned to deal with them."
For Dee, though, nothing was off-limits. She warned him that she would disappear back to South Africa with Kyle. She hired a private detective to trail Anthony, suspecting he was having an affair.
She even wrote a 19-page, single-spaced letter pleading her case to Anthony's therapist. In it, she attacked Anthony as a negligent father, a jealous guy, and a weak man who was too dependent on his family. "I eventually learned to yell, curse, and get ugly and nasty with him because he did not care how much he hurt me," she typed.
The most telling aspect of the letter is how she uses Kyle to coerce Anthony's return. If one of the most precious parental roles is sheltering young children, whose emotional outlook is so often a reflection of the adults around them, from the big problems in this world, then Dee failed miserably. Instead, it seems that she made sure that Kyle suffered as much as possible and then used his subsequent trauma to guilt-trip Anthony.
"The effect this is having on Kyle and me is devastating," she wrote of the separation. "I cannot begin to describe my pain and hurt to you, and worst of all, I cannot describe effectively how much pain and confusion Kyle is experiencing. He feels abandoned, as do I, and cries every morning and every night."
Anthony insists that he tried to see Kyle on a regular basis but was denied by Dee, who demanded that he first return to her.
She wrote to his therapist: "I have made many mistakes and have hurt him too and for all that I have done wrong, I am seeking Anthony's forgiveness and God's forgiveness. Please find it in your heart to help our family re-unite and find happiness."
A few days before she killed her son, Dee left a message on Anthony's answering machine that said, "You think you've won, but I'll fucking show you who is in control."
Even then, Anthony believes she was planning the terrible crime and choreographing it for maximum impact on him.
"It was all carefully planned," Anthony told me. "Now she's a reborn Christian. I tried to get the bitch to go with me to church since we came to America, but she wasn't interested. You kill a kid and then become a reborn Christian, and then life is good."
Indeed, life doesn't seem too bad for Dee at the moment. She's free on bail and, for the past 20 months, has been living in the upscale Isles East gated community in Coral Springs. She lives in the home of David Schroeder, a fellow South African and developer whose family made a fortune with the Jockey underwear company, and his wife. And she's undergoing Christian-based therapy, according to court records. Last week, I called Schroeder, who refused to answer my questions or arrange a meeting with Dee.
Dee's attorney, Michael Dutko, also denied my request for an interview with the defendant. Dutko wouldn't say if he would accept Anthony's compromise to give her 15 years in prison, but he did say it was all but certain she would ultimately plead guilty. He said the crime was a result of Dee's deep psychological problems and added that she needed not a long prison sentence but lifelong, intensive mental-health treatment. "Dee Venter serving life in prison will not bring Kyle back," Dutko said.
He's right. Anthony Venter's son is gone. Kyle would have turned 6 on March 6. Anthony now has a new wife and a baby daughter (who turned 1 on March 5) and says he feels relief every day that he's free of his ex-wife. But the pain of his son's death often overshadows any trace of new happiness.
So Dee, in some ways, is still in control.
"I'm fucked up, man," he says. "Christmas -- it was terrible. I thought it would be easier this year. I miss my son terribly. I think of all the things I could be doing with him. Bike-riding. Going to the beach. He loved being there. I see other little boys that are 5 or 6. It makes me very angry.
"I thought it would get easier, but it hasn't. I'm going to live with this the rest of my fucking life. There isn't a day that I don't think of it. I just want to isolate myself. I can't break out of it."