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As FBI investigates, book questions how businessmen died

Harrison Keegan
Springfield News-Leader

Two South African men, on a trip to ride motorcycles along historic Route 66, were found dead in 2015 in separate rooms at a Springfield hotel.

How they died was not immediately apparent.

But six weeks later, the Springfield Police Department announced the mystery had been solved after testing from the CDC: the two men — Gerrit Strydom, 45, and James Bethel, 44 — died from cerebral malaria.

It seemed the two men must have been bitten by infected mosquitoes during a fishing trip back in Africa, fallen ill and died after traveling to Springfield.

Case closed. Or at least, that's how it appeared. 

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But when the News-Leader requested the full investigative report in the case last month, the response from a police department spokeswoman was that the case is still considered open five years later — and the FBI has taken over the investigation.

Meanwhile, a book published last month on global corruption says Strydom and Bethel were potential witnesses in an international fraud case.

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The book, "Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World," says until shortly before their deaths, Strydom and Bethel worked for the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation — a mining group that is being investigated by the United Kingdom's Serious Fraud Office.

Tom Burgis, the journalist who authored the book, looked into the deaths of Strydom and Bethel as part of his reporting and concluded there was essentially no chance they died from malaria.

According to an expert interviewed for the book, there are many factors that determine how quickly malaria develops after a mosquito bite, and for two people to contract malaria at the same time and then die within hours of each other, they would have had to have been bitten by the same mosquito. But testing from the CDC ruled out that possibility.

The book also says the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation had a representative come to Springfield to help police with their investigation and paid for celebrity medical examiner Michael Baden to look into the case before samples went to the CDC.

According to the book, the United Kingdom's Serious Fraud Office was concerned about chain of custody and whether the samples had possibly been tampered with before they reached the CDC.

Furthermore, the CDC said it found malaria in Bethel and Strydom's blood but it never concluded that malaria was the cause of death, apparently the police department made that jump, according to Burgis — who also claims full toxicology reports were never added to the case file.

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In a recent article, Burgis wrote there have been "suggestions that Bethel and Strydom might have been poisoned."

Jasmine Bailey, spokeswoman for Springfield police, said the department is aware of the "Kleptopia" book but declined to comment on its assertions about the local case.

Regional FBI spokesperson Bridget Patton also declined to comment, "in keeping with our standard practice of neither confirming nor denying the existence of our investigations."

According to Reuters, the Serious Fraud Office has been investigating the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation since 2013 over allegations of wrongdoing in the acquisition of mineral assets in Africa.

The Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which was founded by three billionaires from Kazakhstan, has denied wrongdoing, according to Reuters.

Burgis wrote in an article this year for the Financial Times that there is a third mysterious death connected to the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation investigation — a geologist who was also a potential witness died in a car fire in South Africa in 2016. The article also says the former lead investigator in the fraud case also feared he had been poisoned at some point.