Fourteen years after fleeing South Africa amid fraud allegations, disbarred lawyer Ian Stokes is on trial in the Durban High Court. File picture: Peter Duffy

Durban - Almost 14 years since they were in the same room, disbarred attorney Ian Stokes and his former best friend Garth O’Connor faced off in the Durban High Court on Monday.

But the pair, once “inseparable”, could barely look at each other.

O’Connor, who describes himself as an “inventor” and who owns a business selling Jet Therapy (blood stimulation treatment) franchises, accuses Stokes of stealing about R3.5 million from him.

But Stokes denies this and alleges the reason he fled South Africa in November 2000 was because of serious threats O’Connor was making against him and his family.

Stokes - who returned to South Africa from America in 2004 after an unopposed extradition process - is facing a single R7m charge of theft “by general deficiency” from his trust account, which involves deposits allegedly made by O’Connor and other clients in his law practice and investors in his separate Road Accident Fund claims business.

O’Connor claimed from the Attorneys Fidelity Fund and was paid out, but the fund is suing him for the money.

The State wishes to introduce into evidence statements Stokes made and a video interview of him, and the case has now moved into a “trial within a trial” to determine their admissibility.

O’Connor, 58, said he met “Stokesie” - 10 years his junior - through his nephew in about 1988.

“This was not an ordinary friendship. It was two guys that the whole of Durban knew were virtually inseparable. I was on holiday with him in Greece when he proposed to his girlfriend. I was the best man at his wedding,” he told presiding Judge Esther Steyn on Monday.

Being led by State advocate Attie Truter regarding allegations of threats he had made, he described his “complete humiliation” when, after standing surety for a truck for another company, it had gone into liquidation and, because he could not pay the R70 000 owed, he had been sequestrated.

The lawyer acting for the bank had been “demanding and aggressive”, but while he had “not spoken to him like he was my best friend”, he denied ever threatening him.

He also denied threatening an advocate.

He said that until the time Stokes left, “there was no change in our friendship”.

“I never threatened him. After he left, no one knew where he was. I got a telephone call from him one night.

“He said: ‘Garth. It’s Stokesie. I am sorry for what happened.’

“I begged him to phone (attorney and law society president) David Randles because he would help him. But he said he did not trust anybody and I never heard from him again.”

O’Connor alleged his franchise business had been run through Stokes’s trust account and when Stokes fled, there was “not one cent left”.

Under cross-examination by defence advocate Jimmy Howse, he denied telling anyone that he would report Stokes to the law society and the police unless he got R500 000 by the end of business that day.

When it was pointed out that in his statement to the fidelity fund he had admitted saying this to Stokes’s brother, he said he could not recall the date when that happened but it was before Stokes had “confessed”.

O’Connor admitted that after Stokes returned to South Africa he went to the Durban North police station and asked to see him.

“ I wanted to ask him why he had done this to me.”

Howse then read from the charge sheet of Stokes’s first court appearance which recorded that the prosecutor had asked that he be kept at an undisclosed venue “because of threats”.

“I am instructed that those threats were particularly by you,” Howse said.

O’Connor replied: “That is absolutely untruthful.

“I have never said one word to him since he was extradited.”

The trial within a trial continues.

The Mercury