Convicted robbers celebrated with their families, shaking hands, hitting high fives and laughing after they escaped life sentences for their part in a cash-in-transit heist that left three dead.

The five members of the gang were each sentenced in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Wednesday to an effective 30 years in prison.

The men, one of whom is a former police sergeant with the Ladysmith dog unit, were sentenced after a 30-month trial in which they steadfastly maintained their innocence.

Jerody Mthimunye, Philemon Nhleko, Ewat Ndubuko, Zikethela Sokhela and police sergeant Siyabonga Nkwanyana were found guilty of a cash-in-transit heist on the N11 between Newcastle and Ladysmith on October 10, 2009.

A total of R692 132 was stolen after a G4 security vehicle was rammed with a Toyota Dyno truck and the van’s safe was blasted open with explosives.

G4 van driver George van Tonder, security guard Sibusiso Phakathi, and an alleged member of the heist gang, Ottoman Mhlekaze, died of injuries they suffered when the truck collided head-on with the cash van, shoving it off the highway.

Another guard, Johannes Mokoena, was injured.

Judge Anton van Zyl sentenced the men to five years for the theft of the Dyno, 10 years for contravening the explosives act, 10 years for the attempted murder of Mokoena, 15 years for the murders of Van Tonder, Phakathi and Mhlekaze and 20 years for robbery with aggravating circumstances.

The judge ordered that some of the sentences run concurrently, making the effective sentence, for all five men, 30 years.

Judge Van Zyl said the robbery might have been pre-planned and brazenly executed, but the death of the three victims was not desired or intended by the accused.

All three died as a result of the impact of the collision.

The judge said this was supported by the evidence: the accused had to improvise after the collision, removing their accomplice from the truck and commandeering another vehicle to transport him away from the scene.

The robbers also abandoned a second safe, which contained a much larger sum of cash, and left behind a handgun and a bag of explosives.

Judge Van Zyl said the deaths of the victims were caused by the unintentional recklessness of the accused.

“A life sentence for the murders would therefore be disproportionate to the crime as the moral blameworthiness of the accused is diminished,” he said.

However, the judge found that the robbers had carefully planned their crime, inspecting routes beforehand and predetermining locations where they would hijack the G4 vehicle.

“Robberies have become a scourge of our society. Cash heists in particular have become far too prevalent. These are calculated exercises that need to be stopped,” Judge Van Zyl said.

The judge viewed as aggravating factors the lack of remorse from the accused, as well as the fact that the motivation for the robbery was pure greed.

All five men were gainfully employed at the time the robbery was committed.

Phakathi’s sister, Gladys, said her family was shocked and disappointed about the sentence.

“These are dangerous men. They deserved to get life in jail. My brother was a good, respectable man, killed while doing his job. I do not think that this was justice,” she said. - Daily News