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Is a Good Cop Being Destroyed?

03 July 2014, 08:56
It's the biggest Knysna skinder of the year but for ex-Warrant Officer Johann Burmeister and his family it has been tragedy and challenge.

On February 26 2014, Burmeister, a 28-year veteran in Knysna and known nationally for the R2billion cocaine bust on the Knysna Waterfront, was arrested by a fellow police officer and charged with not returning a recovered, stolen laptop to the police station.

The arrest and chain of events that followed proved this to be no common story of yet another South African cop turned bad. Instead, considering these facts and questions, it has been overwhelmingly viewed by the local public as bad cops trumping up a reason to destroy one of the few good cops left in town:

1. Burmeister was strangely transported from Knysna and locked in a cell for 2 days in Plettenberg Bay where his ex-Station Commander, Colonel Michael Nolans, was the new chief. Strange because cops have been suspended (not imprisoned) for far worse.

2. The laptop was not found when his house was searched without a warrant. It's still missing.

3. Radie Dippenaar, the man who opened the housebreaking case  in which the laptop was stolen (and later recovered from White Location), has allegedly refused to lay charges against Burmeister, saying that Burmeister had found and returned his stolen goods before and that he doesn't believe him guilty.

4. Burmeister's wife was refused permission to see her husband while he was under arrest.

5. No warrant of arrest was produced and, over 4 months later, has yet to be produced. It is still unknown who signed it.

6. Was the docket investigated appropriately before the arrest?

7. Who was the investigating officer?

8. Who authorised the arrest?

9. 2 months after Burmeister was dismissed from the SAPS he has yet to receive documentation to that affect.

His wife, Denise Burmeister, has quickly become known in local media, winning the hearts of local citizens with her fierce defence of her husband and even fiercer criticism of the Knysna SAPS. Without their main breadwinner's salary, it has been a difficult time for her and her 2 daughters. She has sought answers but both Captain Bernadine Steyn (SAPS Media Centre) and Arno Lamoer (SAPS Provincial Commissioner) have been unhelpful.

I've been repeatedly questioned about my silence, this story inserting itself into daily conversations. I'm normally quick to blog about Knysna's most controversial stories, often to the detriment of myself. Here, however, i deliberately held myself back, partly substantiating that there was only one side of the story, that of Burmeister's as told through others (he's kept quiet). The Knysna SAPS' version was so slim so as to almost not exist i.e. allegedly Burmeister stole a laptop (that was it!). To be honest, there's often only been one side, suggesting the other has something to hide, a motivation for pursuit. But chasing police is infinitely harder than chasing erring citizens.

A second reason for reticence was me not wanting to appear biased. It's common knowledge that i've had poor experiences with some of Knysna's not-so-fine police. Burmeister's case just seemed too easy for me to use as a weapon against an institution that so often seems to be more of an enemy than a friend to our town. The 'bandwagon' was waiting but i didn't jump on... until now.

Today, Burmeister's third court appearance made me angry. The State's disregard for Burmeister's rights and the Court was the only evidence presented. Thibedi, the Senior Prosecutor from George, was extremely late - the court came into session 100 minutes after the scheduled 9am.

A few minutes before, Burmeister had told me that all he wanted was his name to be cleared and for all this to be over but Thibedi began by asking for another postponement. There was immediate frustration and muttered curses amongst the 10 friends and family of the accused who sat on the benches next to me.

Thibedi stated that it was impossible for the case to proceed without 2 state's witnesses, Captain Michelle Lesch (who was on leave) and Jandre Dippenaar (who was in India).

Defence advocate, Eduard Bruwer, then made a passionate and detailed argument why the trial should proceed.

He said that the State had had plenty time to prepare and had even chosen this date. He said that Thibedi must prove that the missing witnesses would influence the case and that he, Bruwer, was willing to bet that they wouldn't because neither had testified in the internal department inquiry that had led to Burmeister losing his job. Furthermore, Thibedi had gotten his witnesses mixed up i.e. he was wanting to call Jandre Dippenaar, the son, rather than Radie Dippenaar, the father, who had opened the housebreaking case that had been the breadcrumb leading to this court room. At this stage, Prosecutor Thibedi had clearly been caught with his pants down. He admitted that he hadn't read the departmental inquiry documents and didn't have the phone number of Dippenaar Snr. He also failed to provide reasons why those witnesses were integral to the case. Was it deliberate or bumbling of the highest order? It seemed to be both.

Captain Lesch was actually on leave in Knysna and willing to testify!

I was told that Thibedi was the original prosecutor who decided that the case must be tried. I can't help but wonder if no other prosecutor wanted the case considering that it eventually landed back in his lap.

Despite Thibedi's disgraceful presentation and that other witnesses were ready, Magistrate Derek Torlage, with seeming difficulty, granted the postponement. Torlage was obviously uncomfortable with the situation, sympathising with Burmeister's difficult situation and saying, in Afrikaans, to Bruwer, "I must admit that i'm not happy too." He added that if he withdrew the case, it was possible that the prosecutor may simply file charges again which would delay proceedings further. He disagreed with Thibedi's request for a 2-month delay and expressed that a speedy trial would be in the interests of justice.

The trial is set for July 22-24.

With so much irregularity making this a stain on Knysna justice, i'm tossing my impartiality off the 'bandwagon' in the hope that Johann 'Burmie' Burmeister is found innocent.

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