Lured into the deadly ‘whack house’
In Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored, Mandy Wiener describes the way organised crime and powerful political figures joined forces to subvert the law. In this edited extract, she details the murder of German ‘car tuner’ Uwe Gemballa in 2010
First Avenue in Edenvale is a busy suburban road. It runs past Edenvale and Dowerglen high schools, the Edenvale police station and magistrate’s court, crosses over Linksfield Road and then two separate lanes become one as it runs down towards Bedfordview and the R24 highway. As the roads converge and the middle island disappears outside the Holy Rosary Primary School’s sports fields in Elma Park, there are vendors on the pavement selling handcrafted metal and beaded ornaments.
Directly across from the blue palisade fencing around the school’s fields, at 64 First Avenue, is a nondescript house hidden behind a white wall. It has a grey slate roof and burglar bars on the windows. Today it operates as the residence of a law firm and an accounting company. Four towering conifer trees in the garden distinguish it from the neighbouring properties, which include a Thai massage parlour, a dentist’s rooms and a Montessori preschool. It’s just three houses away from the security boom to the enclosed suburb of Dunvegan. You might have driven past this innocuous house, few of hundred metres from the police station, dozens of times. I know I have.
It is behind these white walls, in the shadow of the tall fir trees, that internationally renowned “car tuner” Uwe Gemballa was murdered in February 2010. The 55-year-old was celebrated as the world’s leading luxury car converter, upgrading high-end vehicles and turning them into supercars with modifications and new parts. He had worked on cars for footballers, movie stars and musicians.
The “whack house” was rented by Ivan Savov, Radovan Krejcir’s business partner, in the name of his company, Scara Technologies. It was in this house that Gemballa was held for several days, his head covered in grey duct tape. His hands were tied behind his body with tape; his feet were bound together. After three days his kidnappers attempted to secure a ransom from his wife, Christiane, in Germany. They put Gemballa on the phone and, speaking in English, he told her to prepare €1‑million and he would let her know where to deposit the cash.
But he never called her back. Inside the house on First Avenue, Gemballa’s kidnappers sat on his back, forcing every last breath out of his body. The German was starved of oxygen, and died of suffocation. They then wrapped his body in a black plastic bag and secured it with more duct tape. The men tossed him in the boot of a car and drove all the way to western Pretoria, where they buried the body in a shallow grave in an old cemetery in Lotus Gardens, near Atteridgeville. Gemballa lay undiscovered for months as the mystery about his disappearance lingered.
It took a combination of German police, Interpol, private investigator Paul O’Sullivan and South African Police Service organised crime detective Inspector Ludi Schnelle to crack the case.
On February 6 2010, Gemballa left Germany and travelled via Dubai to South Africa, where he hoped to open a franchise of his company. Business had been slow and he was searching for opportunities to increase revenue. Gemballa had been communicating with a local businessperson, “Jerome Saphire”, who was apparently passionate about his cars and was keen on being an importer of his products. Saphire assured Gemballa that he had financial backing for the project and the German was so excited by the prospect that he booked a flight to South Africa.
Gemballa arrived in Johannesburg just after 9pm on an Emirates flight from Dubai on February 8 2010. He only intended staying for two days and had booked a flight home. CCTV footage in the international arrivals hall shows Gemballa walking into the passport control area at 9.26pm. Waiting for him on the other side was a man dressed in black pants and a black jacket and wearing a white-brimmed hat with a black band. The man was holding a sign.
White Hat had arrived at the airport an hour earlier in a VW Golf GTI, which he parked in the police section at international arrivals. He then met up with a second man and together they walked into a public bathroom. When they emerged from the toilet, they parted ways and White Hat went off to wait for Gemballa.
At 9.47pm Gemballa strolled through pushing a trolley, and walked right up to White Hat, who seemed to be holding a sign bearing the car tuner’s name. White Hat pushed the trolley to the car and Gemballa accompanied him, appearing not to be in any kind of distress. He got into the VW with White Hat and disappeared. Most likely, he was ferried directly to the whack house in Elma Park.
What Gemballa did not know is that he had been lured to South Africa — and to his death. There was no Jerome Saphire. The emails had been sent by Jerome Safi, one of Krejcir’s associates. It didn’t take long for the police to work this out and they pulled Safi in for questioning. Krejcir arranged for his lawyer, Ian Small-Smith, to accompany Safi to the police station where he underwent a voice stress test and was shown articles about Krejcir’s criminal activities.
Safi had an epiphany; he realised he had been duped but he knew he could not come clean to the police. His life would be in danger. It took two years before he revealed, in a 2012 affidavit, what he claimed was the truth about how Gemballa landed up in South Africa, doing an about-turn on his earlier version.
Safi moved in the same circles as Lolly Jackson and Krejcir and spent many evenings drinking with them on the deck at the Harbour restaurant [in Bedfordview]. The parties would turn raucous, Krejcir once firing several shots into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration. Safi had worked as a manager for Jackson at the Midrand Teazers and met Krejcir through George Louca [who would later be accused of murdering Jackson]. Over time, Safi built up a mutually beneficial relationship with Krejcir by doing odd jobs for him.
One day at the Harbour restaurant, Jackson pointed out Krejcir’s white Porsche parked in his VIP parking spot directly outside the restaurant. It was a 911 with a Gemballa conversion kit. Jackson and Krejcir thought there might be a market for the conversions in South Africa and suggested Safi should get in touch with Gemballa to float the idea. They couldn’t do it themselves because Gemballa might not want to do business with a strip club owner and a fugitive from justice. But Krejcir offered to back the deal with R100‑million and Safi would get a share of the business if he pulled it off.
Safi says that, on the night of February 8 2010, he was having a few drinks at the Harbour with Krejcir and some others. They had plans to go to the Grand later in the evening, but Safi was anxious about Gemballa’s arrival and didn’t want to drink in case he had to talk business with the car dealer. After Gemballa’s scheduled arrival time, Safi tried to call him but the phone just rang. He paced up and down on the deck of the restaurant, just metres from Krejcir. Safi asked his girlfriend, Tenielle Dippenaar, and his uncle Dave to go to the airport and fetch Gemballa, but they were unable to find him. Police would later pick up the girlfriend and uncle on the CCTV footage walking up and down past the international arrivals area.
The following morning Safi tried again to reach Gemballa on his phone but it was switched off. He was growing increasingly anxious. He even tried to contact Gemballa’s office in Germany. The other men had been at the Grand until the early hours of the morning but Safi had chosen not to go. He met with Krejcir and Jackson at the Harbour restaurant that morning, but they appeared indifferent and downplayed Gemballa’s nonappearance. Krejcir suggested that perhaps he had changed his mind and Safi should not chase him. Safi thought it was a peculiar reaction for a man who had been pushing him to get the German into the country to set up a business. Two days later, the police came looking for answers. After that, everything changed between him and Krejcir.
Meanwhile, all the cops had to go on was the call made to Gemballa’s wife. The cops triangulated the call to the Dowerglen-Klopperpark area. A prepaid SIM card had been used. It had only been used to make that single call and the airtime voucher had been bought from the Gardenview Shell garage in Smith Street, right near the Bedford Centre. The cops checked the CCTV footage from the Shell garage and could clearly identify a woman in the uniform of the Harbour restaurant running into the shop and purchasing airtime vouchers.
A waitress identified herself on the surveillance footage but would only say that a customer had sent her to buy the airtime. She was terrified to reveal any further details but ultimately co-operated and told police that it had been Krejcir’s right-hand man, Michael Arsiotis. Arsiotis was with Krejcir and four other men at the Harbour at the time.
The police and O’Sullivan continued to dig for the truth, but it would take months before there was any real breakthrough and the secrets of the nondescript house at 64 First Avenue in Elma Park, opposite Holy Rosary Primary School, were revealed.
Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored is published by Picador