Oscar Pistorius is 'numb with shock and grief' – family

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The Paralympian sprinter charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend is reportedly on suicide watch. But the South African hero had another side to his character

The Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius is "numb with shock, as well as grief" after the fatal shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria mansion three days ago, his family said yesterday.

Speaking publicly for the first time since Miss Steenkamp's death, the Paralympian's uncle, Arnold Pistorius, said the family "strongly refuted" the murder charges brought against the 26-year-old. He also spoke of the South African athlete's relationship with Miss Steenkamp, saying: "They had plans together and Oscar was happier in his private life than he had been for a long time."

He said the 29-year-old model and law graduate was someone they had all "got to know well and care for deeply over the last few months" and that the family was "battling to come to terms" with his nephew's arrest and charge for her murder. The sprinter is said to be on suicide watch in his cell at Brooklyn Police Station, Pretoria.

"After consulting with legal representatives, we deeply regret the allegation of premeditated murder," his uncle said. "We have no doubt there is no substance to the allegation and that the state's own case, including its own forensic evidence, strongly refutes any possibility of a premeditated murder."

The South African whose trademark prostheses earned him the nickname Blade Runner, reached a pinnacle of fame and public admiration last summer, after becoming the first double amputee to compete in an Olympic Games, and going on to win two gold and one silver medals at the Paralympics. In the early hours of Valentine's day, that all changed. His girlfriend, Miss Steenkamp, lay dying on the bathroom floor of his mansion, shot four times, seemingly by the man she had been so excited about spending the day with.

The prosecution say they will argue that Pistorius "repeatedly and intentionally" shot his girlfriend while she cowered behind a locked bathroom door. The athlete broke down in a 40-minute bail hearing on Friday, where he was charged with premeditated murder. He denies the charges but was not asked to enter a plea, and has spent the weekend in a police cell ahead of a bail appearance in court on Tuesday.

On the same day as Pistorius is due in the dock, Miss Steenkamp's family is expected to gather for a memorial service to celebrate her life. She made her television debut from beyond the grave last night on the reality show Tropika Island of Treasure, featuring celebrities competing in challenges against an exotic backdrop.

Speaking to reporters outside Miss Steenkamp's family home in Port Elizabeth, her uncle said that it would take a long time to come to terms with her death. "I can't see the family getting over this shortly. It's going to be a long, long-term reconciliation with a lot of things and issues," Mike Steenkamp said. He added that his niece's casket would be brought back to Port Elizabeth for a memorial service in the coming days.

A former editor of The Sun, Stuart Higgins, has been flown in to manage Pistorius's reputation.

The news has been greeted with shock by the sports world. Officially, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said Pistorius's arrest was a "police matter" that they would not comment on, but a senior source at the organisation said they were all still reeling from the news. "We can't believe it," he said. "He's our golden boy – it's just unreal."

But others said there were "two sides" to Pistorius, who was not the "squeaky clean" hero that had previously been portrayed in the press. A source close to the South African Olympic team said: "He's very aware of his own publicity and standing in the world. He's very charming but he has to get his own way... Off-camera he'll not be scared to elevate the level of altercation; he's not shy to tell you who he is. It's a movie that's being played out in front of us and no one knows what's going on. He's got two very different sides." He added: "He's not what you see on your BT adverts."

Pistorius is part of South Africa's elite, a set whose high-octane living includes exclusive parties and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful women. His party companions include controversial businessman Kenny Kunene, who appeared in court with the Paralympian on Friday. Known as the Sushi King, Kunene has served time for a Ponzi scheme and is famous for a party where sushi was eaten off the bodies of semi-naked women. He is also part of a social circle that includes political wild child Julius Malema, former head of the ANC party's youth league, who is awaiting trial for money laundering and racketeering.

"He's extremely confident. He always has an entourage," said a source close to the South African Olympic team. "We've seen him act irrationally. He can get hammered with the best of people. His character changes when you see him in that environment."

The South African footballer Mark Batchelor claimed yesterday in a local paper that Pistorius had threatened his friend the producer Quinton van den Bergh, after he started seeing Pistorius's then girlfriend Samantha Taylor while the athlete was away at the Olympics. Batchelor told the Saturday Star that he heard Pistorius threaten Van den Bergh.

After a speedboat accident in 2009, when Pistorius crashed into a jetty on the Vaal river, the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld reported that empty bottles of alcohol were found in the boat and his blood was not tested for alcohol. A source close to the athlete said: "Because he's a high-profile guy, he wasn't prosecuted."

After his arrest, police mentioned previous call-outs of a "domestic nature" to Pistorius's home. In 2009, the athlete spent 17 hours in jail after being charged with common assault. Cassidy Taylor-Memmory, a student at the University of Pretoria at the time, alleged that Pistorius had slammed a door on her after they had a fight at a party at his house, but the director of public prosecutions decided not to pursue the matter, saying it did not believe Pistorius had any intention to assault her.

Charlotte Harris, the family lawyer of Shrien Dewani, whose wife's death on their honeymoon in South Africa in 2010 sparked worldwide media interest, cautioned that the case was likely to become a "circus trial". She said: "It's very likely to be a circus trial because people are going to want to watch it and people are already staring around the ringside to have a look. The classic hero to villain story has always been an irresistible one. You have a beautiful woman and a national hero who has succeeded against all the odds."

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