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Airport heist saga ends with brazen dash for freedom

Epic trial sees 6 convicted and one man acquitted

THE SIX-YEAR trial after the country’s most brazen heist has resulted in the conviction of six of the gang members, and the arrest of the alleged kingpin as he apparently tried to escape to Swaziland.

With a suitcase full of clothes, the man believed to be behind the R100 million heist at the OR Tambo International Airport was caught in Boksburg just moments after his coaccused were convicted in the Johannesburg High Court of the 2006 crime.

Chris Billings, who was out on bail, had been in court on Tuesday as Judge Nico Coetzee began reading out his lengthy judgment. But yesterday, the man believed to have plotted the robbery in which millions in foreign currency were stolen from flight SA237, left his coaccused to face the music alone as Judge Coetzee finalised his verdict.

A warrant for Billings’s arrest was issued and border security was alerted. But members of the police organised crime unit pounced on him before he could get far and he is expected to appear before

TJudge Coetzee tomorrow, said Warrant Officer Greens Groenewald, the investigating officer.

Judge Coetzee had reserved his verdict on Billings, but he proceeded to find that Ananias Nefumembe and Thokozani Ziqubu were among the gang of armed robbers who pounced on flight SA237 on March 25, 2006.

Ziqubu is serving a 20-year jail term for the 2010 murder of Israeli diamond dealer Michel Bubinek.

Also convicted were Fox Sithole and Eddie Ubisi, of the “KZN 26” gang, which carried out brazen cash heists in KZN. They are serving life terms for a range of crimes.

Judge Coetzee convicted them only of attempted robbery with aggravating circumstances as their involvement in the airport heist went as far as “planning meetings”.
Bongani Mbuyisa was convicted of attempted robbery while Uakareraije Maunda was convicted of being “an accessory to robbery with aggravating circumstances”.

Reiger Park resident Cecil Arendse was acquitted.

“It is highly unlikely that he would have settled for only R10 000 if he had been involved. He would have scoffed at his share, particularly considering that Mrs (Rookaya) Ebrahim – whose participation was much less – received R1.2 million,” said Judge Coetzee.

Ebrahim was one of four who turned State witness. Others were Nazir Ishmail, Sean Soobramoney and Magdalena Moonsammy. Ishmail and Soobramoney told the court that Billings had masterminded the plot, even recruiting gang members and paying Soobramoney R12 000 for acquiring permits to enter the airport.

A teary-eyed Arendse left the court “relieved”, with relatives hugging him outside court.

“It was a heavy burden over the past six years. I lost my job… my belongings,” he said. He had been employed at the SA Revenue Service at the time of his arrest.

The convicted men are expected back in court next Thursday, when lawyers representing Sithole, Ubisi and Ziqubu are expected to argue that their other sentences cannot be considered as previous offences for purposes of the airport heist sentencing, as they committed those offences and were convicted for them after the 2006 heist.

The Star had previously reported that only nine of the 17 initially arrested were now in the dock, with three people having died and four others turning State witnesses. But it emerged yesterday that five people, not three, have died.

They are Tjindunda Uakotoka, Themba Phutitsi and Themba Msikize Magwaza, who all died of undisclosed illnesses; Vusi Dlangalala, who was out on bail when he was killed near Polokwane in 2010 with six others in a shoot-out with police; and Vusi Tshuma, killed in a police chase in Booysens in 2009.

By Omphitlhetse Mooki - omphitlhetse.mooki@inl.co.za
The Star 12/07/12 Early Edition
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