Case cracker

2011-10-05 00:00

CAPTAIN “Pipes” Haffajee has a quiet demeanour and sitting opposite him in his office, I get the impression he has me fully sussed in about five minutes. I’m the one asking the questions but as he answers, I feel him observing me and summing me up, by the very questions I ask. Paranoid? Maybe. Luckily, I have committed no crime, but if I had murdered someone, I would hope Haffajee and his team would not be assigned to the case. For them, murder, most foul and tracking the violent perpetrators are all in a day’s work, and a successful conviction is the reward they crave.

Maalthie Mownchan’s fatal flaw was that she was too generous. ­Haffajee reveals that her previous gardener, Justin Mjoli (19), had told another gardener — subsequently his co-accused Mandlenkosi Dlamini (26) — that she was paying him double what Dlamini received as a wage from his employer. Mownchan had also helped Mjoli with money towards his schooling. In the course of this discussion, the pair decided that Mownchan (65) was rich and, looking to make a quick buck, a plan was hatched to rob her. Her generosity indirectly led to her brutal murder on September 6 at her Samana Road home, at the hands of the youngster she had helped get through school.

“She trusted him,” says Haffajee, gazing out the window of his pin-neat office.

Something that lingers in his mind is that there was a little sign on a pot plant in Mownchan’s garden that read: “Listen to the silence”. He said Mjoli had spoken of this sign after his arrest, saying he could not get the phrase out of his mind.

Haffajee says there are some cases that he will never forget — the ones that stick in the minds of him and his team, niggling relentlessly. His team comprises six detectives, one woman among them. He is full of praise for them, saying they put their cases before anything else, sacrificing family time and often paying for informants’ expenses from their own pockets. “Our success comes as a ­result of team work.” And dogged determination. “We caught the killers of Elaine Anderson on the basis of one fingerprint left on her car door, by the suspect who was convicted as a juvenile for possession of dagga.”

He describes the difficulty of tracing a suspect when his or her address at the time of a previous conviction many years ago was simply expressed as “under the induna at Elandskop”, for example. “That area may have grown immensely by now, and he may have left many years ago. We just have to go door to door, asking people: ‘Do you know Ngcobo?’ and someone will say the Ngcobos live in a group at the informal settlement down the road, and that area is a jungle itself. There is a lot of foot work, but it’s a tried and trusted method that works. After we have worked the neighbourhood, even going undercover at times to mix with people in the community, we come back to the office and talk through everything. We take notes and say what we heard and what we think. We must share information and see what’s common, and bridge it together.”

He said the Mownchan case was frustrating because no one knew Mjoli. “Even the daughter did not know him, because he had not worked there for the past three months. The daughter knew her mother’s new gardener, an identikit of whom was printed in the newspaper. He was not the perpetrator, but we did not know that at the time. The gardening tools had been taken out, so the assumption was made that it was the current gardener. We went door to door in the neighbourhood on the off chance that someone else may have employed him too.”

Haffajee said the very well-spoken gardener, now convicted, knew Mownchan had lived alone and did not realise that her daughter was at home at the time of the robbery and subsequent murder.

Haffajee plays his cards close to his chest when describing the processes used to track the suspects. He asks The Witness not to reveal some of the methods they use, simply because the subtle yet very effective traps that they lay for criminals may be foiled once they are revealed. Suffice to say, these are related to a wide range of tactics from high technology to common-sense methodical ­detective strategies to uncovering feelings of remorse and guilt. It’s clever stuff. These detectives should be given honorary doctorates in psychology, and awards for sheer grit and resolve.

In the Mownchan murder, after days of hard slog, they managed to trace one of Mjoli’s two girlfriends to a Sappi compound in Richmond, and an aunt in an informal settlement in Ohrtmann Road. Mjoli himself was finally pointed out by the one girlfriend, and arrested on September 21. Detectives lay in wait for his accomplice at the New England Road municipal dump, where he went often to pick up scrap metal.

Haffajee said that once the suspect — in this case Mjoli — admits his part in the murder, a whole new process kicks in.

“We take him to the district surgeon to be examined, then we get an officer who has not been involved in the case to take his confession. After we have the confession, he goes back to the district surgeon so that they can see he is okay. This prevents the suspect from changing his mind about the confession later, and saying that it was beaten out of him.”

The other suspect took a little longer to confess, and wanted to consult with his family.

Finally, on September 26, the pair pleaded guilty in the High Court to the murder — a mere 20 days after the murder.

Haffajee said the tragic case of Raelin Devnarain (six), who was murdered in a hammer attack also by the family gardener, was cracked in 14 days. Both men received a life term for murder, 20 years for attempted murder and 15 years for robbery. “We are trying to break our record and get a conviction and sentence in three days now,” he said.

A wry sense of humour, with a no-nonsense attitude but a hint of a sensitive streak, Haffajee tells it like it is, and sticks to the bare facts. He seems slightly distrustful of me at first, but as we begin talking and getting to the essence of the work his team does, he relaxes a bit and begins to answer my probing questions more openly, trusting me not to quote him when he says: “Don’t write this down.” He was quite a tough nut to crack, but maybe my interrogation techniques aren’t too bad either.

Who is Pipes Haffajee

A FAMILY man who switches off the murder and mayhem by switching on to the wonders of other faraway worlds. “I like the Discovery channel.” Perceived as a hardened detective, do cases still get to him? “Definitely. Sometimes after a day at work I can’t sleep. It affects you, but that feeds the determination to solve the murder, and when that happens we can relax. You never get used to the scenes you see. The worst are children and females.”

He says the job has a profound effect on the families of the detectives. “They have it rough. There are many times when you have to put the case above your family.”

Why “Pipes” as a nickname? He grins sheepishly. “I used to play the recorder at school. It just stuck.” Even though he hasn’t played the recorder for years now.

Successful convictions of the serious and violent crime unit at Mountain Rise from the beginning of this year to July 22, have resulted in jail time of 198 years for 12 suspects for cases of murder, robbery, culpable homicide and rape.

The informers

Haffajee says that each detective builds up a network of informers, whose identities are never revealed, even among the police working on the case. He says the informer provides the information, then it’s up to the detective to get the evidence to prove what the informer has said is true.

“Informers are very important. They are often criminals themselves who have been caught for non-serious crimes, and they hang out in the shebeens and the dens. Often a case has been dormant for years, and a suspect will get drunk in a shebeen and brag about the killing years later.”

He says that informers are paid by the state, using established criteria to determine how much is paid out, depending on if there is an arrest and conviction. The case, the time spent, what kind of information was provided and if there was property recovered are all considered.

He says the relationship bet­ween the detective and the informer must be built up and nurtured for future assistance. “There is a stigma attached to an informer. It’s very dangerous. You don’t meet them openly. Everything is clandestine. They are seen as being police spies, and you have to be very sensitive in dealing with them. There is a difference between being an informer and a witness. With a witness, you get a written statement, but with an informer, you have to get evidence to back up every piece of information yourself.


The Murderers - why they do what they do

“It’s mostly fuelled by greed, alcohol and drugs. They want to make a quick buck often. There are people who plot and target their victim, but here it’s mostly about greed. If they think you have money, you could be their target.”


Employing people off the street

Haffajee recommends getting a copy of their ID and taking a photograph of your employee. “Take a picture with your cellphone if necessary. Photograph them with family members. You don’t know who you are taking on. As soon as you allow someone into the confines of your home, it’s very important to be able to identify them. In a lot of cases, the robbery or murder could have been solved if we had an ID document to work on because the fingerprints of the suspects have to be taken to get an ID.” He also recommends taking your children’s fingerprints. “We are also moving towards a national DNA database, and that will help a lot.”

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