JOHANNESBURG – Did Oscar Pistorius really grow a beard? Did he shave it off?
In the run up to Pistorius' return to the courtroom Tuesday, the status of his facial hair is now regarded as legitimate lunch conversation in South Africa, a country that's become gripped by the murder charge against one of its most famous residents faces.
After Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in the bathroom of his luxury home in the early hours of Valentine's morning in what he's claiming was an act of self defense, a country's shock turned to intrigue, and now intrigue has morphed into obsession.
Since the Olympian was freed on $112,000 bail on Feb. 22, little new concrete information has emerged about the case, but the public appetite for juicy tidbits has not waned.
Everyone has an opinion, some more divisive than others.
"It's like men envy his success and these girls who are after revenge sound more like women scorned," Pistorius supporter @Helen1McGregor wrote to Yahoo! Sports. "The people who support Reeva go against everything she stood for. They are bullies; they are evil women. Reeva was none of the above."
Glen Agliotti, a South African businessman and convicted drug trafficker with alleged ties to organized crime, also weighed in on the efficacy of the country's justice system, saying he doesn't believe Pistorius will get a fair trial.
In the absence of real evidence to discuss, old stories have been rediscovered and given new meaning.
Since the bail hearing in February, there have been profiles of Oscar's aunt Micki, a top criminal profiler who describes herself as having "cryptesthesia," a form of extra-sensory perception that picks up vibes beyond the five senses. Henke Pistorius, Oscar's father, has made headlines for his views on South Africa's post-apartheid government and its failure to protect white people from crime. There was even a report from local paper Beeld that Henke also kept several guns and once shot himself in the testicles while cleaning one of them.
The world's media showed up to cover brother Carl Pistorius' culpable homicide trial in a 2010 car accident which left a female motorcyclist dead. He has since been acquitted.
There have been countless columns written about what was said during the bail hearing, with local reporters turning into international Twitter superstars. Some have already signed book deals.
In recent days, the Blade Runner's Tuesday court appearance, which, by all accounts is expected to last no longer than half an hour, has eclipsed the rest of the country's news.
In South Africa, over the 15 weeks since Pistorius was released from police custody: the currency crashed to a four-year low; miners again went on strike on the platinum belt where 34 of their colleagues were shot dead by police last year in Marikana; the trial began of 10 police officers who were filmed dragging a man (who ultimately died) behind a police vehicle; a wealthy, politically-connected family landed their wedding charter plane at a national military air force base; and, dozens of shops were violently looted in a Johannesburg township amid claims of xenophobia.
Yet, the fervor for anything relating to Pistorius has not waned.
This past weekend, South Africa's Sunday Times ran a story about a painting Reeva Steenkamp once produced, depicting angels, a gunman and a stairway to heaven, that her family has now dubbed her "premonition."
The tabloid gloss of the fall of the "Shooting Star" (as a recent Vanity Fair feature dubbed the athlete) is allowing a voracious public to indulge in gossip with the veneer of "news" respectability. It is the country's midnight binge on low-fat chocolate ice cream – a not-so-guilty pleasure.
State prosecutors say they expect police investigations into the matter to continue until August, and seasoned criminal law experts have suggested that the trial itself is unlikely to begin before the end of the year, with a referral to the province's High Court likely.
But in the lead-up to Tuesday's court appearance, the shape of the legal teams' cases are beginning to emerge.
The state prosecution witness list, obtained last week by local television station eNCA, includes some 27 individuals, none of which lawyers say they had to subpoena for their affidavits. On the list are some of Pistorius' closes confidants, including Justin Divaris, whose testimony in support of his friend formed part of the defense team's bail arguments. Also listed in the document: an ex-girlfriend, Steenkamp's housemate, ex-boyfriend Warren Lahoud, rugby star Francois Hougaard (who the model had been rumored to be romantically linked with), three paramedics, a host of security guards and residents of Pistorius' luxury housing estate, and the disgraced former lead police investigator, Hilton Botha.
None are expected to testify Tuesday, when Pistorius will appear again in the same courthouse where he fought for bail in February. During the four-day bail hearing, Pistorius' family was steadfast in their support of him, refusing to speak to media, but sitting silently in sharp-suited shades of charcoal and black, directly behind where Oscar stood in the dock.
When he was released to their custody, the staunchly religious family gathered in a relieved huddle, heads bowed, hands clasped.
There are others praying for Oscar.
A group of mostly female supporters from around the world, calling themselves the #Pistorians, have been vocal in their defense of the Paralympic star. With some members initially posting topless photographs of the athlete tagged #OscarPorn, lambasting Reeva Steenkamp for a lack of morality in her chosen career as a bikini model, and attacking journalists on social networks, the Pistorius family has tried to distance themselves from the group.
Since then, despite having made it onto the pages of a South African glossy magazine, many of the Pistorians most vocal proponents have gone underground on social networks, and most of those who remain verbose online refuse to speak to the media.
Some of those who have chosen to explain their support of the man who has admitted to shooting his girlfriend say, given everything he has achieved, they want to believe in his goodness.
"I just don't see how people can turn against him like they have, worshipping him one minute and then painting him as a criminal and a murderer and some kind of monster," Karen Anderson, a U.S.-based Pistorian told Yahoo! Sports. "It saddens me and it sickens me and it makes my heart bleed for him.
"I hate the way the people who support him have come to be portrayed," continued the 54-year-old Californian. "There are people out there who want to see us as crazy and obsessive and disrespectful to the memory of Reeva. Speaking for myself, that is not the case. I love Oscar, so I would only have the warmest of feelings for somebody that he loved."
The Pistorians have been met in a battle online with an active group of those who believe Pistorius' affidavit during his bail hearing is enough evidence of his guilt.
The debate rages on.
The "Oscar Pistorius Guilty/Not Guilty" page on Facebook already has more than 25,000 likes, amid a proliferation of other groups proclaiming his innocence.
As an athlete who overcame the odds, Pistorius had always been good currency – for himself and for sponsors like Nike and Clarins – and he continues to be now as perhaps the world's most talked-about accused murderer.
During February's bail hearing, local legal experts began doing the "afternoon satellite truck alley crawl," as one broadcaster put it, wandering down the line of correspondents and live positions erected outside the Pretoria courthouse, proffering their views on an array of international television channels.
A television producer made a hefty sum charging for footage of Reeva Steenkamp's last appearance on the "Tropika Island of Treasure" reality show.
The Steenkamp family, in the seaside town of Port Elizabeth, say they've been struggling financially with Reeva gone, and so have sold the exclusive rights to their interviews to a British broadcaster to survive.
Now former lead investigator Hilton Botha, who has since left the police service after being removed from the case, says photographs of the bloody crime scene broadcast on Britain's Sky News last week may well have brought in a tidy profit for whoever leaked them.
During the bail hearing, Botha admitted to entering the crime scene without appropriate protective gear, and is himself facing seven charges of attempted murder in an incident with a minibus taxi. His forensic team also came under fire for removing the critical cubicle door that Pistorius fired his 9mm gun through, before defense analysts had a chance to examine the scene.
At the time, Botha said he made the decision to do so because the police station had received offers for substantial amounts of cash for anyone who could provide photographs of the door.
Police say the pictures of the crime scene – which show the bloodied cubicle, smashed door and marked bullet holes – are not theirs and were not taken from their evidence files.
"Those are not our pictures, and I want to stress that they will not have any impact on our investigation in this case," said police spokesperson Phuthi Setati. "We do not know the origin of these pictures."
The family released a statement saying they were shaken by the graphic images, and pleading that the legal process be allowed to run its course.
A composed Arnold Pistorius, Oscar's uncle who is serving as family spokesman, talked Sunday about how his nephew is holding up.
"He's battling, but with the family behind him … they assist him a lot. And we are preparing him," Arnold Pistorious said. "He will definitely be ready. Being the mind that he is, being the man that he is, he will know how, what it's going to take, to do this event. I've got no doubt in my mind that he is not a murderer."
Uncle Arnold, in whose house the Paralympian has been living since his release, told CNN in an earlier interview that his nephew has surrounded himself with photographs of his deceased girlfriend, and has grown his beard to be less recognizable.
Since February, there's been little seen of the Blade Runner. A local newspaper published a grainy photograph taken from a distance showing Oscar in his trademark blades walking on a Pretoria running track, sparking massive speculation that he was returning to training. His agent, Peet van Zyl, admitted that Pistorius was considering it, but needed to overcome psychological barriers before being able to compete again.
Another local paper headlined sightings of the Paralympian out on the town, quoting patrons at a northern Johannesburg bar describing him as flirting with and patting women on the bottom.
Pistorius' aunt Lois told the Guardian that, since that incident, Oscar has remained at home, leaving only to go to church regularly. "At home he's reading the Bible a lot," she explained. "If you've got a purpose in life and you believe in God, it gives you a reason to understand things when they're not going smoothly because you rely on God who is everlasting and always there. Humans make mistakes. None of us is perfect."
Guilt or innocence aside, Steenkamp's death has tainted the sheen of South Africa's golden boy.
As drug kingpin Glenn Agliotti tellingly commented last week, "South Africans don't forgive and they don't forget. So unfortunately for me and for Oscar, you're almost dead in the water in South Africa because there will always be a stigma attached to you."
Martin Rogers contributed to this story.
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