Cato Manor unit was a death squad, says insider
A former confidant of KwaZulu-Natal Hawks boss Johan Booysen who has turned whistleblower holds the key to unravelling how the Cato Manor unit functioned.
It all started when Booysen bought a computer at Ari Danikas’s electronics store in central Durban in 1998 and asked him to set it up in his home in Amanzimtoti.
Within a year Booysen had persuaded Danikas, who hails from a family of policemen in Greece, to join the reservists under his direct command.
Booysen personally helped Danikas, whose command of English wasn’t great at the time, to fill in his police paperwork and had him transferred from a local station to the serious violent crimes unit under his control.
Later Danikas fell directly under Booysen’s command at provincial headquarters.
Danikas’s official records show his duties for the Cato Manor unit included crime-scene management, bank and cash-in-transit robbery investigations, raiding suspects’ homes, infiltrating syndicates, covert operations and liaising with Interpol.
Booysen often took him along on sensitive and high-profile cases, jumping in a chopper with him or racing to a crime scene together.
Over the years Booysen authorised his promotion and commendations, and arranged for him to be issued with a police firearm, radio, blue lights and a siren to use on his private car.
But Danikas soon got a taste of how Booysen’s men in the Cato Manor unit operated.
“I was invited by one of Booysen’s high-ranking officers. We went into a room where there were two Africans,” he recalls.
“That was the very first time that I viewed the methods of the unit. Those two Africans were stripped naked, tied up and they were beaten. And they were hitting them on the ribs so they don’t leave marks.”
Over the years Booysen and Danikas became close family friends.
block_quotes_start Everywhere you go to you hardly have any survivors. All you have is dead people. And always, Booysen will be there block_quotes_end
Booysen and his family even travelled on holiday with Danikas to visit his parents in Greece and lived with his family in Danikas’s house in Durban for seven months.
Booysen also used Danikas’s home as his love nest, where he spent quality time with his mistress, Captain Adele Sonnekus, who was his subordinate at the time.
This gave Danikas a unique insight into Booysen’s character, including his attitude towards black South Africans. “I remember his exact words: they are killing whites,” he says. “They’re destroying this country. And we have to do something about it.”
A turning point for Danikas’s relationship with Booysen came in 2004. Danikas says he took a video of Booysen’s squad torturing a suspect in the Cato Manor offices. The blurry cellphone footage shows a naked and visibly terrified suspect being humiliated, beaten and suffocated by Cato Manor detectives.
Danikas says he showed the video to Booysen afterwards. “He told me that’s how we get confessions,” Danikas recalls. “We get the job done. That was always the case. We get the job done.”
In April 2007, Danikas witnessed an incident that made his blood freeze. Booysen and Sonnekus were having drinks at Danikas’s house when Booysen got a call.
“There’s this big shootout and there’s a problem,” recalls Danikas. “We get in the cars, [put on the] police sirens and we drive to the crime scene.”
Danikas took photographs of the scene. He only realised later that his photographs revealed the crime scene had been “tampered with”, he says.
One photograph, taken at 9.57pm, shows a dead suspect inside a car slumped over a pickaxe handle with his head against the door. Pictures he took 16 minutes later show the body has been moved, with the man leaning away from the handle and a gun visible near his hand.
Danikas filmed another suspect who was dying while Sonnekus, Booysen and some of the Cato Manor men stood around “making jokes in Afrikaans”.
“They were basically waiting for him to die,” says Danikas.
Danikas claims the men who were shot were lured into a trap with the help of a Cato Manor informer. He says he was told to pick up spent police cartridges to disguise what he believes was an execution.
“They were at the mercy of the team. And they just shot them dead,” he says. “The unit was a death squad.”
It was easy to disguise executions, he said. “It was standard procedure for every member of the Cato Manor unit. If you shoot a suspect, and there’s a problem, it’s unjustifiable — all you do is take the firearm, shoot a few times in the air, take the firearm, wipe it, put it in his hands and there you go: ‘He had a gun, I shot him.’ And they could get away with murder.”
Today, as evidence of their involvement in suspect shootings mounts, Booysen is at pains to point out the squad wasn’t under his control.
Yet sworn statements show Booysen was informed of fatal shootings and made media statements before the squad’s operational commander knew about them. Booysen also attended braais at the Cato Manor offices to which their commander wasn’t invited.
Danikas says Booysen was always phoned first after a killing, often in his presence, and afterwards helped cover up the use of excessive force.
“Every big operation, every high-profile case, Booysen will be there,” he recalls. “If he’s far away, he’ll get in a chopper and fly there.”
“Everywhere you go to you hardly have any survivors. All you have is dead people. And always, Booysen will be there. He’ll go there to manage the scene because he was a master crime-scene investigator.”
In 2008, Danikas’s relationship with Booysen deteriorated and he began to fear for his life.
On September 25 2008, Danikas fled to Greece with his South African wife. They never returned.
“At the time my business was booming, I had no bad debts and my bond was paid with cash my parents had sent me, so financially it was the wrong move,” he says. “But after 10 years with them I knew my time was up. As we say, I knew too much.”
In 2013, Booysen told the Sunday Times he denied all Danikas’s allegations “in the strongest possible terms”. He claimed Danikas never showed him a video of his men torturing a suspect, no one was ordered to pick up spent cartridges in his presence and an ambulance had been dispatched to the 2007 shooting before he arrived there.
Although Danikas has been approached by senior investigators convinced he will make a strong and credible witness against Booysen and the Cato Manor members, he refuses to return to South Africa, fearing he will be killed.
“Booysen’s favourite saying was: ‘I can make people disappear’,” says Danikas. “He’s known for that — I can make people disappear.”
Booysen and Sonnekus declined to be interviewed for this story.