The trial of three men accused of murdering German luxury car dealer Uwe Gemballa is imminent, but evidence suggests that the mastermind behind the crime is still at large.
Garlond Holworthy, Thabo Mogapi and Kagiso Linken appeared in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Monday on charges of murder, kidnapping and theft.
The case was postponed to February 13 to give the defence time to view security footage from OR Tambo International Airport.
A fourth man, Thabiso Mpye, reached a plea agreement with the state in October 2010 after confessing to Gemballa’s murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Mpye pointed out the location of Gemballa’s body in a shallow grave east of Pretoria eight months after he vanished. He had arrived in South Africa in February 2010.
The lead investigator, Inspector Ludi Schnelle, was removed from the case in November 2010 after a laptop that had been seized from the murder scene disappeared from his office. The disappearance appears to have slowed down the investigation.
The laptop went missing shortly after Mpye implicated his three accomplices and took police to a house where Gemballa had allegedly been held before he was murdered.
The house, at 64 1st Avenue in Edenvale, was rented by Ivan Savov, who was Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir’s business manager.
Two police sources, both familiar with the case, said prosecutors and investigators had renewed their efforts to follow up leads ignored for more than 18 months.
Early breakthroughs in the case suggested the possibility of a wider conspiracy.
Before Mpye’s confession police established that Gemballa came to South Africa to meet Jerome Safi, also a Krejcir employee, to discuss a business deal.
Safi told the police in February 2010 that he had approached Gemballa to launch a franchise of Gemballa Sports Cars in South Africa. It appears that Safi did not tell Gemballa of Krejcir’s possible involvement.
Gemballa was founder and owner of Gemballa Sports Cars, which did tune-ups and luxury conversions on Porches and Ferraris. But his business took a knock during the economic recession of 2007 and he was declared bankrupt in 2009.
Safi and Gemballa discussed by email a “tentative business agreement”, which, according to an article in German newspaper Stern, was “supposed to be a life-saver for the financially stricken Uwe Gemballa”.
Krejcir has repeatedly denied any connection to Gemballa and said that he had only a brief discussion with Safi, who had approached him to back the deal financially.
In a 2010 interview Krejcir said: “I told him [Safi] if he will organise the exclusive contract with Gemballa — I am willing to [invest].”
But Safi contradicted this. Quoted on Carte Blanche last year, he said: “The whole thing with Gemballa, I invited him here. But it was on Radovan and Lolly Jackson’s order.”
Jackson, the owner of the Teazers chain of strip clubs, was also Krecjir’s friend and business associate. He was killed in May 2010 — another murder that has not been solved.
Safi, who distanced himself from Gemballa’s fate, told police that his girlfriend, Tenielle Dippenaar, and his uncle, David Safi, had gone to collect Gemballa from the airport, but they could not find him and left.
Police allege that Holworthy met Gemballa at the airport and drove him to the house in Edenvale where he was later killed.
Other evidence pointing to a broader criminal conspiracy includes:
- Mpye, in his plea statement, said that two men who called themselves Kizzer and Madala offered him and his three accomplices R50 000 each to kill Gemballa.
After taking Gemballa to the house, Mpye said: “Madala and Kizzer were very happy; they said that they were looking for this guy for more than five years. I heard that they were communicating with him on computer. I then suspect that these guys were making messages with Gemballa to bring him this side to South Africa. They were saying ‘well done, good job’ to us.”
Mpye described Kizzer as being “very tall with big muscles and long Afro hair” and Madala as “between the age of 50 and 60, with blond, neatly trimmed hair and a full beard and moustache”.
Mpye said he did not know whether Madala was South African but Kizzer was not — he spoke “dirty English with an accent”.
Mpye said he and the accused had placed a black plastic bag over Gemballa’s head while the heaviest of them, Mogapi, sat on his back, suffocating the German.
Mpye later pointed out the house to police. He also gave a detailed description of the layout of the building and the bedroom in which Gemballa was allegedly killed.
It is believed that Mpye’s recollection of the room, which he described as being used by a child, with matching curtains and bedding, fitted the description of a room in the house that Savov was renting.
Savov, a Bulgarian who came to South Africa about six years ago, said that he was out of the country at the time of the murder and denied that Gemballa was killed at his home.
- Mpye said Madala had brought them a black plastic sheet — “like a sheet you use for roofing” — before Gemballa was suffocated, to wrap his body. Apparently the paint splashes on the black plastic used to wrap the body matched paint found at Savov’s house during a police raid. The Sunday Times reported last year that Savov said his house was being renovated.
- It has been reported that Gemballa phoned his wife, Christiane, on the day after he disappeared. Police have linked the cellphone that was used to pay-as-you-go vouchers bought on behalf of another Krejcir associate, Michael Arsiotis.
Records obtained from the Vodacom network indicate that the vouchers were bought at an outlet in the same shopping centre as the Harbour Café in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, which was a well-known haunt of Krejcir and his circle at the time.
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