The law catches up with a thug

2008-04-18 00:00

HE lived the high life when times were good — booking into hotels and blowing money, not caring about the misery he sowed.

But last Friday it all came to an abrupt end for Sipho Hlongwane as he lay bleeding next to a sewer, felled by a police bullet.

On Wednesday last week, Detective Inspector Keith Caswell of the SAPS Organised Crime Unit’s house robbery unit got a call from one of his many informers.

A gang responsible for dozens of violent crimes, including kidnappings and rapes, were partying in kwaDabeka near Pinetown.

Caswell knew that the gang —who used rape as a torture instrument — never stayed in one place for long. They were always armed and extremely suspicious. Leading a raid on the tavern where the thugs were partying would be pointless.

So Caswell hatched a plan. Driving to the offices of Durban security company Enforce Investigations, he asked a female private detective to contact the gang pretending to be smitten with their playboy lifestyle and ask for a date.

One of the gang members promised to pick the woman up for a night on the town. Police lay in wait for the gangster, but much to Caswell’s shock, the man arrived with two of his associates close behind.

Caswell grabbed the man who had been duped into the meeting, but the other two thugs ran away.

Then on Thursday morning, newspapers carried the controversial news that Deputy Safety and Security Minister Susan Shabangu told police that they must “shoot to kill”, exhorting them to “kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community”.

A relative of Sipho Hlongwane, one of the house robbery unit’s most wanted men, decided that it was time to turn him in.

Said Caswell: “The relative came to us of their own accord. While interviewing the witness, I pointed out that Sipho was armed, that he was a violent criminal who would not hesitate to resort to violence and that it was very likely that Sipho was going to resist arrest and be shot.”

According to Caswell, the relative immediately agreed to set up Hlongwane, saying that they feared he would indeed be shot dead — just as Shabangu had exhorted to police to do.

Caswell and his team had been on the trail of Hlongwane for weeks.

Captain Ronald Pillay, commander of the house robbery task team, told Weekend Witness that it was with the kidnapping and rape of two young women outside Westville pub Waxy O’Connor’s that Hlongwane first gained notoriety.

Last July, the two women were accosted by three men when they left the pub at around 11.30 pm and forced into the back of their own car at gunpoint.

The women were taken to a shack in KwaDabeka — where, after draining their bank accounts, the gang raped the women.

Later, Hlongwane took the lead in hijacking a Cowie’s Hill family at gunpoint, threatening to rape the mother and children, before making off with wallets and valuables.

Hlongwane was also the leading man in the hijacking of three men and a woman at Cowie’s Hill on April 4.

He repeatedly threatened to rape the woman, but was persuaded against doing so by his accomplices who argued that this would spark a huge manhunt.

In all three incidents, the modus operandi of the gang was similar.

Around-the-clock investigations by Caswell and his team revealed that in many recent violent house robberies, car hijackings and rapes, several common denominators were present.

Similar vehicles were involved and many victims described the leader as having very bad teeth.

Rusted firearms also featured in all the attacks, while both the Waxy O’Connor’s rape victims and the Cowie’s Hill hijacking and kidnapping victims were taken to kwaDabeka’s shack lands.

Fearing that Hlongwane might run — and knowing he had promised he would shoot it out rather than surrender — the Police Air Wing were asked for assistance, the plan being that a police helicopter would wait out of sight, ready to chase Hlongwane should he run.

“He’s definitely going to shoot,” were the last words Caswell said as the little convoy of unmarked vehicles approached the place where Hlongwane was to meet his relative.

Hlongwane was supposed to be waiting inside the house, but as the convoy turned the last corner, he was already outside.

Hlongwane ran as soon as he saw strange cars and heard the helicopter, knowing it could only mean the police had come for him.

Caswell, Pillay and other detectives jumped out their car and began to chase him through a series of small vegetable plots.

At first, the police helicopter hovered overhead — pointing in the direction Hlongwane ran.

But then the shooting started. Hlongwane first shot at Caswell, before taking aim at the helicopter.

But the Air Wing have teeth.

Seconds, a couple of minutes at most, after the chase began, it ended as the navigator of the police helicopter used an R1 rifle to shoot Hlongwane. The single bullet ripped his abdomen open. Hlongwane tried to climb out of the sewer, but collapsed.

It is a scene of some considerable horror: no Hollywood movie can prepare anyone for the sight of the terrible damage caused to human flesh by a high-velocity rifle bullet.

Pillay called an ambulance — more than Hlongwane ever did for his victims.

Pillay, a detective with years of experience, had no desire to see the man who tried to kill him and his detectives die. “We needed this man to come to our office and give up his other friends. He’s no use to us dead,” he said.

As Caswell and other members of the house robbery unit were filling in paperwork at Folweni Police Station, the SAPS radio crackled with news that Hlongwane had died on the operating table.

His reign of terror had come to an end.

Caswell told Weekend Witness he is hot on the trail of two of Hlongwane’s accomplices.

“I aim to lock them up soon, but neither of them are … as dangerous as Hlongwane.”

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