updated 7/30/2008 4:47:06 PM ET 2008-07-30T20:47:06

A man who terrified a small rural community for months was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for committing a series of rapes and imprisoning a teenage girl and his own young daughter for 15 months in an underground pit.

Johannes Mowers, 33, committed his crimes in the bucolic Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, 60 miles from Cape Town, a valley known for its fine wines and fruit — and its crushing poverty, illiteracy and alcohol abuse among farm workers.

He had grown up in the area, and police said his knowledge of it helped him elude capture despite manhunts by trackers, dogs and helicopters. He survived by stealing food during repeated burglaries, police said.

Some residents, terrorized by his nighttime raids, left the area. A few locals believed he had supernatural powers that enabled him to escape detection.

Among the relatives at Wednesday's sentencing was the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was abducted from the family's cottage in 2005, when she was 13. Mowers kept her and his own daughter, then aged two, in a tiny pit he had dug into a hillside.

He was convicted of repeatedly raping the teenager. The two children — inseparable when they were found — have since been in the care of social workers. Even now, they speak only in whispers, because Mowers forbade them to talk, said prosecutor Nicoletta Bell.

Whisper Fund established
Supporters have set up the Whisper Fund to raise money for the girls' rehabilitation and education.

"My daughter will never be able to work through the trauma she experienced," said the mother of the 15-year-old.

The whereabouts of the toddler's mother — Mowers' former partner — is unknown.

Mowers stood impassively as the judge at Cape Town's High Court read a long list of sentences for crimes, including rape, indecent assault, abduction and burglary. Relatives and friends of Mowers' victims hugged on the steps outside the court after hearing the judgment.

"The damage he inflicted is incalculable," said a woman whose 22-year-old daughter was raped in 2006 by Mowers, who then used the victim's cell phone to taunt police.

Mowers pleaded guilty to 28 charges, including abduction and rape of a minor, four additional rapes, kidnapping, assault and housebreaking. The prosecution dropped other charges under an agreement that effectively gave Mowers one life sentence rather than many — making him eligible for parole after about 25 years.

'A game to him'
The case was shocking even by the standards of South Africa, where about 1,000 people are raped every day and police and courts are too overwhelmed to cope. Underlining the violence in a society still brutalized by apartheid, a former sailor was on trial in an adjacent courtroom Wednesday, accused of 40 counts of rape and 30 of indecent assault.

The mother of the 22-year-old victim said Mowers attacked and raped her daughter as the family was enjoying a New Year's break at their vacation home in the valley.

"He was intelligent and incredibly manipulative," the mother said. "It became a game to him."

Annette Theron, a farmer's wife, said Mowers broke into her house three times. On one occasion, her young daughter was alerted to the intruder's presence by the "smell of something like a wild animal."

Theron managed to flee with her daughters. Mowers assaulted her husband, then escaped.

'Right under our noses'
Mowers' 2 1/2-year reign of terror, which began before the two girls were imprisoned in the pit, ended in March 2007 when he was arrested after breaking into the cottage of one of Theron's farm workers.

Realizing he was drunk, the worker gave him more alcohol until he passed out, then sounded the alert. Locals beat Mowers up before handing him over to police.

After the arrest, Mowers led police to the pit where the teenager and the toddler had been kept for 15 months.

Theron said she was stunned to discover that Mowers' hideout was right opposite her farmhouse, concealed by bushes and trees.

"He was right under our noses all that time, and we didn't know it."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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