Burglar kings brought down

2008-03-15 00:00

As police and private detectives were recovering thousands of rands worth of stolen property from Sabelo Cele’s modest home in kwaDabeka outside Pinetown, they had no idea that Cele, leader of a gang of prolific cat burglars, was lying dead in a morgue while his friend and alleged accomplice Fred Mkhwanazi lay paralysed from a bullet in the spine.

The pair met their fate when they challenged an armed and alert homeowner while robbing a secure residential estate in Ballito — ironically at the same time as police and private investigators were seeking to arrest them on dozens of counts of housebreaking and armed robbery.

Police and private detectives from Enforce Investigations had been hot on their trail for nearly a week since they arrested another suspected cat burglar, Sandile Nxele — also from kwaDabeka.

The men are all allegedly part of a new generation of violent housebreakers who specifically target gated communities and secure residential estates, which they rob at night while armed with knives and firearms.

Nick Noome, head of investigations at Enforce Security, told Weekend Witness that, ever since some of his clients had agreed to pay rewards to anyone prepared to rat on cat burglars, his investigators and police have enjoyed great successes.

For more than a year, secure estates in Hillcrest, Kloof, the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, Shelley Beach on the south coast and Ballito on the north have been terrorised by a spate of housebreakings.

In most cases, burglars gained access to the properties by tunnelling under perimeter fences, then spent hours burgling homes, piling up their stolen property in a secluded spot on the estate until ready to pack up the loot and go.

Jerry Marten, an investigator with Enforce Investigations, pointed out just how easy burgling secure estates can be.

“If anyone tells me that they were burgled by someone who forced open a window to gain access, I know that more likely than not they are lying for insurance purposes. Inside these estates people have become so complacent about their security that virtually nobody secures their windows and many people don’t even lock their doors. Most residential estates don’t allow burglar guards and the people who appreciate this most are the robbers.

“You must realise that people who burgle at night realise there is a good chance that someone will be home. That means they are prepared to use violence to kill or intimidate their victims. Many of them carry guns, but some also carry knives so as to be able to kill silently.”

Last Friday, Enforce investigators Marten and his partner Nico Potgieter arrested Sandile Nxele — a man their company had crossed swords with many times. Nxele was, at the time of his arrest on Friday, out on bail with 35 burglary charges pending against him.

The records of Enforce Investigations show that, after initially being arrested on 20 counts of burglary last year, Nxele received bail. The following day, police recovered Nxele’s fingerprints at one of seven homes that were burgled inside a secure residential complex in a single night.

A search of Nxele’s home revealed a treasure trove of stolen property, including plasma televisions. At other locations that Nxele used to stash his loot, police recovered four firearms, which had been taken from residential estates in robberies where entire gun safes had been removed intact.

Nxele, who was neatly dressed in imported designer clothes at the time of his arrest, boasted to police that he is the “general of all housebreakers” in the kwaDabeka area. Nxele boasted that he is the most professional of housebreakers and that he can outsmart any burglar alarm and defeat any wall or fence.

Nxele boasted of having committed robberies around Johannesburg, but said that he specialises in robberies around Durban, Umhlanga and Pietermaritzburg. Nxele did not name any specific suburbs to investigators, ensuring that his boasts will be difficult for police to investigate as, in order to tie robberies to him, they will have to trawl through hundreds of cases.

Police from the Saps Organised Crime Unit told Weekend Witness that break-ins at night and on secure residential estates are prevalent in the more affluent outlying suburbs of Pietrmaritzburg as well as Howick.

Among other things, Nxele’s cellphone accounts will be analysed to establish where the phone was used, which may indicate areas he has been active in.

Within hours of Nxele’s arrest, KwaDabeka police, detectives from the Saps Organised Crime Units Housebreaking Task Team and Enforce were hot on the trail of Nxele’s foot soldiers and accomplices, among them Cele.

The Saps Organised Crime Unit set up the Housebreaking Task Team some time ago and, according to Inspector Keith Craswell from the unit, any housebreaking where the accomplices are armed receives their attention.

“In most cases, burglars will try to strike when nobody is home. But many of them go around their business armed with knives or guns and if someone is home they are not averse to using extreme violence.”

Cele had, like Nxele, been arrested several times before. When police visited his family home, it was not the first time it had been searched and his mother and brothers all seemed unfazed.

While police searched the Cele home, several toddlers who had been left to sleep on a bed covered in allegedly stolen goods looked on while one chewed on a pair of imported and allegedly stolen gold sunglasses.

Although Cele himself was not home, police recovered plenty of stolen property. After a thorough search of Cele’s home, the search team moved on to his friend, Senzo Mbhunu.

As police knocked on his door and showed identity cards, Mbhunu made his appearance — jumping stark naked out his rear window in an apparent attempt to flee. His luck had run out, however, as he tripped over a pile of computer equipment, suitcases and bank statements that had been discarded outside.

Included among the bank statements were several identity cards and receipts — all of which belong to victims of housebreaking attempts. Mbhunu was charged with being in possession of stolen property when a search inside his shack revealed, among other things, a solid gold 25 years’ service presentation watch awarded to a Mrs Schoeman by Metrorail.

When Mbhunu’s girlfriend was questioned, police became suspicious of her silence. Their suspicions were confirmed when she started to choke, having not been able to swallow the gold necklaces hidden in her mouth. Police suspect Mbhunu, a man known to be violent, threatened her in order to secure her co-operation and she was not arrested.

With Mbhunu arrested and a police van loaded with recovered stolen property, detectives next set about checking recovered cellular phones, cameras and video cameras for potential evidence.

Almost unbelievably, many of the recovered cameras contained footage of robbers filming themselves and their families — many of the recordings carry imprinted electronic tags showing the recordings were made only a few hours after the goods were reported stolen. These will all be used as evidence.

A search of cellphone records and more tip-offs from informers led Noome and his team to a market outside the Durban Station from where stolen laptop computers are allegedly exported.

Marten said he believed that, with the help of KwaDabeka police his company were largely successful in breaking the syndicate responsible for a year-long reign of terror around Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

He appealed to anyone with information on housebreaking gangs to contact Nico Potgieter at 083 297 0141 or by e-mail at investigations@enforce.co.za.

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