Durban - The sacrifices and consequences of fleeing the country – leaving behind a pregnant wife, being sequestrated and disbarred, and subjecting himself and his family to negative publicity – was far greater than an alleged verbal threat from a man never convicted for violence, it was suggested to Ian Stokes on Thursday.
Stokes, who ran a busy La Lucia Ridge law practice when he left South Africa in November 2000, is under cross-examination in a trial before Durban high court Judge Esther Steyn in which he is charged with theft of trust money involving R7 million.
Stokes has pleaded not guilty and claims he fled because of threats from his former best friend Garth O’Connor, who threatened to “take him out” if he did not give him R1m by the end of that day.
O’Connor has denied making any threats.
The trial is in a “trial within a trial” to determine the admissibility of alleged admissions Stokes made in support of O’Connor’s R5m claim to the Attorneys’ Fidelity Fund.
The fund paid out, but is suing for the money back because, after Stokes was extradited in 2004, he made a further statement saying he had lied under duress and the money was actually a loan from O’Connor’s Jet Therapy and never “in trust”.
Stokes alleges that O’Connor has a history of associating with “large debt collectors” and has threatened others, including an advocate and an attorney who would still testify.
He said on the day he left, a mutual friend had told him that O’Connor wanted to “take him out” and, at a face-to-face meeting, O’Connor had suggested: “I know how he collects money”, referring to violence he had witnessed during debt collecting.
He also made reference to a local attorney who, it was alleged, he had threatened. This prompted him to get on a plane to London. But two days later O’Connor phoned him and said he was “a dead man walking”. Believing O’Connor knew where he was and would hunt him down, he went to America.
Under cross-examination by state advocate Attie Truter, Stokes conceded that on his own version the first real threat by O’Connor had been at the face-to-face meeting on the same day he left.
“But you had to be there. I had witnessed his personality change and I had a real fear that he was going to lose it and do something irrational… I really believed he would kill me,” he said.
When it was suggested that O’Connor was perhaps referring to “taking him out of business”, Stokes said that was definitely not what he meant.
Truter suggested that Stokes’s reaction, to leave the country, was extreme.
Asked if he had told his wife, who was seven months pregnant, that he was leaving, Stokes said he had only told her there was a situation, his life was in danger, he needed to go away for a few days and his brother would explain more.
He had bought a return ticket and he believed that if he had not received the threatening call in London “my over-reaction may have calmed down and I would have come home and sorted it all out”.
“I always wanted to come back. I tried to negotiate my return on several occasions with (the trustee of his insolvent estate) Piet Schoerie and through (former business associate) Robbie Sevel.”
Initially he had no idea he had been sequestrated and struck from the roll and he believed both applications had no merit “but the bottom line is I did not oppose them”.
He agreed with Truter that in his version he had made a “huge sacrifice both personally and professionally” when he decided not to return to South Africa, but said being sequestrated and disbarred was not comparable to death.
The trial continues.