Durban - Breaking his silence in public for the first time since he fled the country 14 years ago, disbarred attorney Ian Stokes broke down frequently on Wednesday while telling how he made a split-second decision to leave South Africa because of threats on his life.
“I picked up my laptop and walked out of my office. I had a return ticket and always intended to come home when sanity prevailed,” he told Durban High Court Judge Esther Steyn.
But he claimed the threats from his former best friend and best man, Durban North businessman Garth O’Connor, continued.
About two days after arriving in London he received a call on his cellphone from O’Connor who told him he was a “dead man walking”.
Stokes is facing a charge of theft of R7 million from his trust account, with O’Connor’s claim making up R3.5m of that.
O’Connor came to court this week to give evidence on behalf of the State in a “trial within a trial” to determine the admissibility of evidence of “admissions” Stokes had made in support of O’Connor’s claim to the Attorneys Fidelity Fund which resulted in him being paid out.
After he was extradited, Stokes claimed he had lied for O’Connor because of the death threats and the money was never in trust, but was a loan from O’Connor’s Jet Therapy business. The fund is now suing for the money back.
O’Connor has denied claims that he threatened Stokes and claims he still regards him as a friend.
Yesterday Stokes recounted two events he allegedly witnessed in which O’Connor and two burly debt collectors had threatened and roughed up people.
He also said that a local attorney, acting for a bank which had sequestrated O’Connor, had been forced to hire private security guards after O’Connor told him he would “take out” him and his family.
“There were two sides to him. He was a nice guy to be around, the life and soul of the party. But he was not always that person and he was not a person to cross,” Stokes said.
A few days before he left South Africa, O’Connor had demanded R1m - a demand which was contrary to the agreement that should he need money he would give a few days notice.
O’Connor persisted with his demand and during one conversation said: “I am going to come over and we are going to have our first fight.”
Stokes said he was contacted by Russell Edmonds - who would still testify at the trial - who also warned him that O’Connor was “going to take me out”.
“I went to meet O’Connor and asked him about the threat, but he was dismissive saying ‘you know how I collect money’.
“I went back to my office… and I decided to leave, to remove myself physically from the situation. I got up from my desk, took my laptop and left that day.”
That was in early November 2000 and his return ticket was booked for the end of the month.
He said after O’Connor’s threatening call he had also been contacted by Edmonds who said O’Connor had told him he knew where he was and he was going to kill him.
He left London and went to the US. Believing the danger extended to his family, his wife and their two children joined him.
He said he had agreed, via a third party Gilbert Bell, to assist O’Connor in his fidelity fund claim and to lie for him to “get him off my back”.
E-mails from Bell, which are exhibits before the court, reflect that “the threats emanating from Garth will stop if he is paid out by the fund”.
“If you sign this (affidavit), Garth will not harm you or your family,” Bell says.
In another e-mail he refers to “Garth going absolutely ballistic if he does not get paid” and says “I have enough influence over him to believe he will leave the matter alone if he gets paid”.
“I am fully aware that for you, this is a matter of life and death,” Bell says.
Stokes said even after his extradition, the police in South Africa had been aware of the threats against him and had organised for him to be kept in undisclosed police cells.
“I recall one of the investigating officers saying the police had spoken to Garth and warned him. They told me there was no way he would harm me now because they would know who had done it.”
Under cross-examination, Stokes said he and O’ Connor were on good terms right up until one week before he left.
Asked why he had handled all the finances for Jet Therapy, he said O’Connor was insolvent and he did not want his trustee or the taxman “to become aware of his gains”.
He said the members of Jet Therapy were O’Connor’s wife and Bert le Clos “but they were just puppets and passengers” and the business was run entirely by O’Connor.
The case continues.