/ 9 April 2023

Thabo Bester: How to catch a man on the run

Graphic Bester 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

The South African Police Service has 623 names on its list of wanted people, including 112 charged with rape and 34 accused of murder.

But fugitive rapist and murderer Thabo Bester is not listed, preventing critical information about his physical appearance from being made known to the public. 

Dubbed the “Facebook Rapist”, Bester is on the run from authorities for the second time. The first time, after he killed his girlfriend Nomfundo Tyhulu in Cape Town in 2011, Bester fled to Durban. Police found him weeks later. 

Now, after staging his death and escaping from Mangaung Correctional Services in May 2022, authorities are once again hunting for Bester. This time he is believed to be accompanied by celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana and possibly a child. 

Thabo bester
Wanted: Thabo Bester was seen on TV during a court appearance. The police have not released a photograph or description of the fugitive. Photo: Shelly Christians/Gallo Images

According to GroundUp, the pair had run a scam construction company called Arum Properties. They convinced several people to pay millions of rands for construction projects, but never delivered the goods. Clients of Arum Properties told GroundUp that soon after signing on and paying their deposits, they started to realise that something was wrong.

The Mail & Guardian asked the police service whether there was an official “wanted” poster of Bester and Magudumana in the public domain for people to be on the lookout for them, but spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe responded: “We have previously indicated that we can’t give [a] blow-by-blow account of this case.”

Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola told media outside parliament on Tuesday that his department was “ready to take the nation into confidence on what we do know and not know”. Asked about whether an official photograph of Bester had been released to the public, Lamola said: “The search and arrest lie with the South African Police Service.”

When a person is listed as wanted, details of their appearance such as height, eye colour, gender, build and so on are released to the public. This assists the police’s search operation.

The police service is under-resourced, with fewer than 190 000 officials serving a country with a population of 60.6 million, according to the latest count by Statistics South Africa. 

The police service is under-resourced, with fewer than 190 000 officials serving a country with a population of 60.6 million, according to the latest count by Statistics South Africa.

The whereabouts of Bester and Magudumana remain unknown. Unconfirmed reports suggest Bester has already fled the country, with myriad possibilities of where he could be hiding.

But what about the other 623 suspected rapists and murderers wanted by the police? 

The M&G knocked on the door of a former police officer who agreed to give a few pointers on how to search for a person on the run. 

The officer requested anonymity because he still provides critical information to the police service. During the course of his 29 years of service, he tracked down three people who had escaped from detention.

One fugitive was re-arrested after following up on information the former officer received after the suspect committed another crime. Another escapee was hiding near the police station and court when the officer sniffed him out. The third fugitive, who managed to disappear for three months, was tracked down through patience and basic police work. 

The expertise of criminologists and psychologists can be useful in finding a person on the run. Simon Howell, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town, said that although these experts don’t necessarily have a step-by-step “how to catch a criminal” curriculum, “we train people to read others’ minds, to predict their movements, to know their thoughts, and to eat their lunch”.

At the start of the investigation, it is important to anatomise every detail about the fugitive to establish a thorough profile of the person. This profile can be critical for guiding the search operation.

“His life must be dissected,” said the former police officer.

Compiling a profile on a person can be laborious and monotonous. It includes mapping out where the fugitive has previously lived, worked and visited; who his parents or guardian are; what work the person has done; what his modus operandi is; where he is most comfortable; what his interests and hobbies are, including details like whether he likes going to the cinema; and what takeaways he eats.

Profiling also includes the fugitives’ mannerisms. If a fugitive’s physical appearance and details about his mannerisms are known to the public, people can help look for him, the former police officer said. 

A profile can be compared with those of former convicts for parallels that might give insight into the fugitive’s next move. 

Generally, a fugitive will make decisions based on short, medium and long-term objectives, the former officer said. This can vary from the physical escape, getting new identification documents and hiding to where he starts a new life by finding a new job or continues with the crimes he was convicted for. 

For those searching for a fugitive, these objectives can guide operations. These include identifying all possible means that a person can use to flee an area, bearing in mind ports of entry, as well as determining how the fugitive will probably travel — by car, bus, train, boat, aeroplane or on foot.

Set processes are in place to search for fugitives, says the former officer, and these are always evolving. They include technology for facial recognition, cell phone networks and satellite tracking.

The former officer believes Bester, who has been a fugitive for almost a year now, is intelligent and will use every possible technique not to be noticed. 

Bester appears to be a master conman who managed a fake business and tricked dozens of celebrities into attending an event in Sandton for a non-existent company called 21st Century Media. The company was made to look like a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox. This shows a degree of how manipulative and how well-organised Bester is. 

The former police officer added that there is a high probability that Bester has disguised himself and those on the run with him. 

The most common ways a person can disguise themselves are by applying makeup, using a wig and presenting themselves as the opposite gender.

The former police officer advises that when hunting for a fugitive, one should use or establish a network of informants who can supply critical inside information on any aspect of the runaway’s escape or future movements. Aside from informants, try to identify a person or people close to the fugitive or who assisted the fugitive to escape. 

The former police officer said it was important to reach out to a fugitive’s immediate circle of confidants and try to get them to cooperate in tracking the person down. 

This was the case with convicted serial murderer and rapist Moyhdian Pangkaeker. He was on the run after committing murder. He was captured after his former wife convinced him to meet her at a hotel, saying she had money for him. The police orchestrated the meeting and after two weeks of being on the run, he was arrested.

Moyhdian Pangkaeker, convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Tazné van Wyk, was handed down nine life sentences by the Western Cape high court. The sentences will run concurrently. (David Harrison/M&G)

In February Pangkaeker, convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering eight-year-old Tazné van Wyk, was in February handed down nine life sentences by the Western Cape high court. The sentences will run concurrently.

Catching a man on the run comes down to diligent and thorough police work. 

As the former police officer noted: “A good detective does the donkey work, step by step by step.”