Tales of daring crime uncovers SA's cash-in-transit heist epidemic

Excerpts from 'Heist! South Africa's Cash-in-Transit Epidemic Uncovered', by Anneliese Burgess

22 April 2018 - 00:00 By ANNELIESE BURGESS
In 2014 there were 180 cash-in-transit incidents; in 2017, there were 370 ... It is, without a doubt, a national crime emergency.
In 2014 there were 180 cash-in-transit incidents; in 2017, there were 370 ... It is, without a doubt, a national crime emergency.
Image: Keith Tamkei

THE ACCIDENTAL BUST
Penicuik and Charters Creek, October 2006

To make his 5am shift at the Fidelity cash centre in Richards Bay, Thembiso Sithole usually left his home on the outskirts of Eshowe at 3.30am. He didn't like rushing, and he hated being late, so he would give himself plenty of time to make the hour-long trip to work.

It was an overcast, rainy Monday morning on October 2 2006 when Thembiso nudged his unmarked company vehicle out of his driveway and into the pitch-black North Coast morning. As a tactical support officer for one of South Africa's big cash-in-transit companies, Thembiso was trained to observe detail. His job included planning the routes for cash vehicles, which required him to do extensive reconnaissance to and from cash pickup points, and the necessary tactical planning to keep crews safe and cargo secure. It was a stressful job.

About 25km from a hamlet called Nkwaleni, Thembiso passed an "old-model" grey BMW 7 Series with Gauteng plates. Just after overtaking the BMW, he found himself stuck behind a blue Nissan bakkie. The occupants of both vehicles were male, and the two cars seemed to be driving in convoy. Three weeks earlier, a Fidelity van had been hit along the same stretch of road. Something about the scenario did not feel right.

Thembiso reached over to the cubbyhole, grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down the registration number of the Nissan. About a kilometre further, Thembiso caught up with another two cars that seemed to be driving together.

Once again, the make of the vehicles aroused his suspicion: an old-style BMW and a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. These old, heavy cars are classic "rammers" that are used to crash into armoured vehicles during a heist. He had now seen three of them in the sparse pre-dawn traffic - all with Gauteng plates and between them carrying 14 male occupants.

Thembiso's sixth sense was on high alert. Once again, he wrote down the registration numbers. His trained eye picked up other details that seemed out of place. One of the rear tyres on the Mercedes was so worn that it was running on the steel mesh, creating sparks on the road. The BMW had a piece of plastic covering the inlet where the petrol cap should have been.

Thembiso overtook the vehicles, but watched them in his rear-view mirror. On the outskirts of Empangeni, he pulled into a side street and let them pass. The four vehicles were now very obviously travelling together: when one got stuck at a red light, it speeded up to catch up with the others that had managed to make it across.

Thembiso's suspicions were confirmed; there was no Uno in this convoy ... just three ramming vehicles and a bakkie carrying a suspicious cargo of men

Thembiso had a strong feeling that something was amiss. He called the South African Police Service control centre in Empangeni and provided the operator with the registration numbers he had written down. None of the vehicles had been reported stolen, but one of the numbers belonged to a Fiat Uno. Thembiso's suspicions were confirmed; there was no Uno in this convoy ... just three ramming vehicles and a bakkie carrying a suspicious cargo of men.

It was now around 4.25am. Thembiso wasn't sure what to do next. He had asked a colleague at Fidelity to call the Empangeni Police Station, but they weren't answering the phone. A Fidelity investigator whose number he had on speed dial was also not picking up.

He felt he had no option but to continue his surveillance, but hoped his cover wasn't about to be blown by what could become an obvious tail. He managed to follow the convoy undetected to a homestead in Mzingazi, a suburb outside Richards Bay. It was clear that this was a rendezvous point.

TOO SCARED

Pretty sure that this was a heist-in-planning, Thembiso tried to contact the Richards Bay Police Station, but after being told that they were changing shifts and couldn't help, he gave up and drove to his office at Fidelity. Here he again called the police station and arranged to meet up with two beat cops, the only members available to help. After they heard his story about the house at Mzingazi and the number of men gathered there, they insisted on fetching "backup", saying they were too scared to check out the scene by themselves.

Thembiso never heard from them again. At about 8.30am, he succeeded in raising Kevin Govender, the Fidelity investigator, who put him in touch with a detective from the Richards Bay Police Station. He thanked Thembiso and said his intelligence supported information they had that a cash van was to be hit at the Richards Bay Post Office that day.

Thembiso's unease kept growing through the course of the day. By the early evening, he was unable to control his mounting sense of foreboding, and he headed to Empangeni, to the stretch of the R34 where a Fidelity van had been robbed previously.

On his way, he received a call to say that one of their vans had been hit at Penicuik on the N2. He arrived on the scene at approximately 7.15pm. An armoured Toyota Dyna security vehicle lay on its side - pockmarked by high-velocity bullets. His gut feeling had been right: it had been rammed off the road by the BMW with the missing petrol cap.

Thembinkosi Gumede, a security guard at a local sawmill, had been fatally shot a little while earlier in a nearby timber plantation. His shift had ended at 6pm, and he'd been picked up by two colleagues in a bakkie. He hopped onto the back for the short ride to the base. On the way, they took a short cut through the forest, and happened upon a group of heavily armed men in a lay-by next to the N2.

The heist must have just taken place, because the men were changing cars. When they saw the security bakkie, they obviously thought they had been bust and opened fire, riddling it with bullets. The police would later find a huge bloodstain on the ground where Thembinkosi had bled to death.

Thembiso Sithole was still surveying the scene of devastation at Penicuik when a report came in of another hit on a Fidelity vehicle - this time at Charters Creek, about 15 minutes away along the same stretch of road. He was met with the same tableau of violence, which is so characteristic of cash-in-transit heists.

One of Fidelity's distinctive green HiAce panel vans lay overturned on the side of the road, its windscreen smashed and its roof crudely hacked open like a sardine tin. The van had sustained heavy damage to its rear, where it had borne the impact of the collision with the ramming vehicle - the Mercedes with the worn tyre - which had been abandoned at the scene.

Before the evening was out, Thembiso would also identify the blue Nissan bakkie he had seen that morning - now left behind in a plantation, the surrounding ground streaked with blood from one of the robbers, who had been hit by police fire.

ABOUT TO CHANGE

Thembiso had been right all along. He had predicted a heist 15 hours earlier, but his intelligence had been met with indifference. With the indisputable evidence now strewn across two crime scenes, this was about to change. When Fidelity inspector Kevin Govender arrived at the Charters Creek scene accompanied by police Captain Bonginkosi Mncube, they immediately asked Thembiso to point out the house in Mzingazi where the suspicious vehicles had gone that morning.

It was drizzling quite heavily when Govender and Captain Mncube did their first sweep past the house in a white Corsa bakkie. Between 20 and 30 men were standing in the yard. Some vehicles seemed to be idling, getting ready to leave. A white HiAce had already pulled out, and now a dark-blue BMW was reversing out of the yard, its lights piercing through the rain.

At this point, Mncube was frantically trying to reach the police's 10111 emergency centre, but they did not pick up. A man with distinctive dreadlocks was standing guard at the gate, scanning the street. He was watching their vehicle closely, so Mncube and Govender backed off, deciding the most prudent course of action was to follow the white HiAce filled with men.

The two men knew the window of opportunity to intercept the vehicle was closing fast. Fortunately, two flying squad cars were already waiting at the petrol station

Mncube was now becoming increasingly frantic in his attempts to get hold of the police - any police. He eventually managed to make contact with a flying squad unit on patrol in the area and arranged to meet them at a Caltex garage just outside Empangeni.

All the while they were trailing the white van, until it peeled off onto the N2, heading towards Durban. The two men knew the window of opportunity to intercept the vehicle was closing fast. Fortunately, two flying squad cars were already waiting at the petrol station.

After the sheer scale of the lack of interest and incompetence they had experienced from the police up to this point, it was a huge relief to be dealing with professionals. Only a brief explanation was necessary before Mncube transferred to one of the squad cars and they set off at high speed down the N2 in the direction the HiAce had taken. Govender tried his best to keep up in the bakkie, staying in touch with Mncube via cellphone.

About 80km later, just south of the Tugela River, the van loomed into view. The police decided to stage an interception at the Mvoti Toll Plaza, just south of Stanger. Captain Rezah Matthee and brothers Idris and Mahomed Raoof from the Durban flying squad and the metro police raced to meet the posse at Mvoti.

A petrol tanker that was passing through the one gate that was open was instructed to remain where it was, barring the only way through.

As the white HiAce came to a stop behind the tanker, the police drew up behind it, sirens and lights now activated. Inspector Waldo Herbst, in the lead car, used a loudhailer to order the occupants out of the van. Mncube saw some of the men throwing money over the back seat onto the floor of the vehicle. Then nothing further happened.

By this time, it was raining hard. The police surrounded the car, assault rifles and handguns drawn. There was a standoff for a tense two to three minutes before the driver's door opened and a man stepped out of the vehicle with his hands in the air. One by one, 13 others followed.

Captain Mncube assumed control of the scene. The 14 men from the HiAce were now lying face down on the tarmac, their hands handcuffed behind their backs.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes, another 10 men would join them. In a monumental stroke of luck, none of the other cars had been warned and, one after another, three further vehicles transporting robbers drove into the police trap at the tollgate. Two additional suspects were arrested in the coming days. In all, 26 suspects were charged for the cash-in-transit robberies at Penicuik and Charters Creek.

Had it not been for Thembiso Sithole, the KwaZulu-Natal 26 gang would not have been arrested; they would have regrouped to rob and rob again, as we now know they had been doing for years.

The mass arrests at Mvoti, hailed by police as a breakthrough in the fight against organised crime, were, in fact, an accidental bust. One man's perspicacity had led to the arrest of some of South Africa's most wanted heist criminals.


MORE SHOCKS FROM THE BOOK

Crime emergency

In 2014 there were 180 cash-in-transit incidents; in 2017, there were 370 ... It is, without a doubt, a national crime emergency.

Explosives in arsenal

A virulent new strain of vehicle-on-road attacks has emerged. Gangs attacking cash vans have added commercial explosives to the already lethal arsenal of ramming vehicles and high-powered automatic firearms. More and more cash vehicles are being blown up to access the money in the onboard vaults.

Pavement shoot-outs

Cross-pavement robberies increased by 48% from 2016 to 2017. Once mainly concentrated in the cities, this deadly plague has now spread to every corner of South Africa: small towns, roadside garages and suburban malls. A situation where armed guards are pitted against armed robbers in close combat is a recipe for bloodshed. Once again, the statistics paint a grim picture. Fatalities in cash-in-transit robberies increased by 70% in 2017, with most of these related to cross-pavement incidents.

Harder to anticipate

Classic vehicle-on-road heists are executed by a relatively small number of experienced and organised criminal gangs. Through good intelligence, police often have advance warning of big robberies and can be proactive ... Cross-pavement attacks, however, are far harder to anticipate and are increasingly opportunistic.

"You don't have the same level of planning and expertise going into these attacks," says Dr Alice Maree, a criminologist formerly attached to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre and now an independent consultant. "More and more criminals are resorting to robbing guards as they move with cash to ATMs, bank branches or retail outlets that they are servicing."

- Excerpts from 'Heist! South Africa's Cash-in-Transit Epidemic Uncovered', by Anneliese Burgess

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