Former police commissioner Bheki Cele struggled to hold back tears on Tuesday when describing in court how he had been threatened with death in the same way as his friend, musician Lucky Dube.
Cele was testifying in the Durban Regional Court where his tormentor, Nigerian John Lotuchi, 27, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after pleading guilty to a charge of extortion.
Testifying during arguments for sentencing, Cele told the court about the threatening SMSes he received from Lotuchi who said he was hired to kill him. He was told the only way to prevent this was to pay more than R4 000.
“I must admit I took the death threats seriously because of my former job as police commissioner. I have buried colleagues who had died after receiving threats so I had to take this seriously,” Cele testified before magistrate Anand Maharaj.
When he was asked to read out some of the threatening SMSes, Cele paused before revealing one that had particularly affected him. It referred to the death of Dube and inferred that Cele would die the same way Dube did. He was murdered during a botched hijacking in Gauteng in 2007.
“This was the most traumatic experience,” Cele said while trying to hold back tears as he spoke about the murder.
“I was the Safety and Security MEC in KZN at the time and we had to repair the international perception of the country. Dube was an international icon. Everyone loved him and I knew him personally. He was brutally killed and anyone would be scared if that happened to them,” he said.
While Lotuchi claimed he had sent out SMSes randomly to people and had not known that one of them had been sent to the former police commissioner, Cele said he did not believe it was a coincidence. The court agreed.
According to the charge sheet, Lotuchi induced fear in Cele from December 17 last year to January 10. He repeatedly phoned him and said he was hired to kill him for R3 000. The only way out was for Cele to pay R4 000.
In his written plea, read out by his attorney, Thobile Sigcau, Lotuchi said he came to SA from Nigeria in 2012 to seek employment. He had worked for a nightclub in Cape Town which later closed and he had then worked for a restaurant. Lotuchi and his brother, Samuel, lived together and in October last year were both introduced to a scheme of sending threatening SMSes to unknown people demanding money or else they would be killed.
According to the statement, they were taught to dial random cellphone numbers and if someone responded they would follow up by sending threatening SMSes saying if the person did not want to be killed they needed to pay.
Lotuchi said both he and his brother would make these calls and SMSes while another group of people would be involved in another scam sending out congratulatory SMSes to people saying they had won money and needed to pay money to receive their winnings.
He said that on December 17 Cele’s cellphone number was randomly selected. He said he had sent the SMSes while his brother, who could speak various languages, telephoned Cele, who agreed to pay the money.
Lotuchi asked for the court’s mercy in sentencing, saying he was a first-time offender and had used the money to support his father, wife and two children in Nigeria.
In return for leniency, he had promised to help the police arrest the other culprits involved in the scam and had apologised to Cele for his actions and threats.
Warrant Officer Rajen Matthews Govender and his colleagues from the KZN Specific Crimes Task Team arrested Lotuchi in Cape Town on January 10. The court heard that Govender had traced Lotuchi’s cellphone and had also become a victim of the same threatening SMSes when he had called that number.
Lotuchi was arrested at the place where he is alleged to have worked and taken to the flat he had shared with 20 other people, all foreigners. The SIM cards he had used to contact Cele were found in his possession at the time of the arrest.
Testifying on Tuesday, Cele said he had received two missed calls on his cellphone and had returned the call, thinking it was someone in trouble, as he often still received calls for help.
“The person who picked up the call asked me to call back in 10 minutes’ time. I must admit I felt irritated because they had tried to call me. I said, ‘I hope you know who you’re speaking to’ and he said he knew very well who I am and insisted I call him back. I didn’t. He later called me back and said he knew who I was and where I lived,” said Cele. “I again told him about my former job and he interrupted me, saying he didn’t need to know what I did. He never mentioned my name.”
Cele said the man told him he had been sent to kill him for R3 000 but that if Cele had a better offer he would not be killed and would be “blessed” with the name of the person who wanted him killed.
“I thought it was an attractive offer. The low amount did puzzle me but (I) thought ‘I am an old man on a pension’, so I offered R4 000 and he accepted,” Cele quipped although he took the threat seriously.
He said he used his police training to keep calm and that his wife, who was sitting next to him during the telephone call, was unaware of the contents of the conversation.
He opened a case and the next day received a follow-up telephone call and was sent the banking details by SMS. Cele said he made the transfer but was not given the name of the person who allegedly wanted him dead. When he contacted the caller he was told he was safe and not to be in a hurry for the name.
“I was requested to put in a further amount of money to speed up the process and I was also asked to pay R2 000 a month for my own protection,” Cele testified.
“They didn’t say for how long I would have to make these payments.”
He said that during the festive period the SMSes became more frequent, more threatening and abusive. The threats were also now directed at his family.
Cele said he had taken note of Lotuchi’s apology, but felt that people should live with the consequences of the choices they make.
He also wondered what other victims of the scam would do in these circumstances and questioned if anyone had died as a result of receiving the threats.
Cele said: “I served this nation. My prime prize was to ensure this nation was safe. The country, my family and myself would be safe if these people are removed from society.”
In sentencing, Maharaj said the persistence and nature of the SMSes showed that the crime was pre-meditated. “He (Lotuchi) not only threatened Bheki Cele, but his family,” he said.
The magistrate also commended the police on the swift arrest and said this would act as a deterrent to other possible offenders.