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 - Durban North businessman Garth O’Connor - who accuses his former best friend, disbarred attorney Ian Stokes, of stealing more than R3 million he deposited in his trust account - was a man with a history of surrounding himself with “large men” and threatening violence.

This was the picture painted during cross-examination on Tuesday when in spite of O’Connor’s “dramatic denials” that he had ever threatened anybody, defence advocate Jimmy Howse suggested that several witnesses would come to court to say differently.

Among these are a lawyer, an advocate and a businessman. Another witness, now living abroad, was prepared to return to South Africa to testify that Jet Therapy owner O’Connor had once told him he would kill Stokes if he did not pay him.

Stokes left the country in November 2000 amid allegations that he had stolen millions from clients in his La Lucia Ridge-based law practice and investors in a separate Road Accident Fund business. He returned four years later after an unopposed extradition process and is standing trial before Durban high court Judge Esther Steyn on a charge of theft “by general deficiency” of R7m from his trust account.

He has pleaded not guilty.

This week Stokes and O’Connor - who was once his best man - came face-to-face, - Stokes in the dock and O’Connor in the witness stand.

O’Connor is giving evidence for the state in a trial within a trial to determine the admissibility of evidence of certain “admissions” Stokes made in support of O’Connor’s claim to the Attorneys Fidelity Fund which led to him being paid out.

The fund is suing for the money back.

Stokes alleges he fled to America because of threats of violence from O’Connor and had made the admissions out of fear. O’Connor said this was a “blatant lie”. In cross-examination, he admitted being in partnership with a “very, very fat man” called “Steamy” in a debt collection business.

Howse said Stokes, when he gave evidence, would say he had once gone to a business in Pinetown with O’Connor and Steamy where Steamy had grabbed someone and pushed him against the wall while O’Connor “shouted and threatened him with physical harm”.

He had also once gone with O’Connor to the uMhlanga home of a Lebanese man who, O’Connor conceded, was a “huge monster of a man”.

Stokes would say that in discussions about a debtor, the man held a silver platter in one hand and a silver gun in the other and told O’Connor “you will either have the money on the platter or his (the debtor’s) head on the platter”.

O’Connor responded: “I have never heard such nonsense in my life.”

Howes said the combination of incidents proved to Stokes that O’Connor personally, or through “large individuals”, was capable of inflicting harm.

The trial continues.

The Mercury