Check first, be safe later

2009-09-19 00:00

THE full horror of what can go wrong when people spend fortunes on personal security — and then employ strangers off the street to work in their homes, was brought home this week when the gardener of up-market Sandown Retirement Village in Pinetown appeared in court charged with the murder of 87-year-old Sheila­ Hesk in August.

Hesk, a wheelchair-bound widow was bound hand and foot, beaten and tortured to death — allegedly by Sphamandla Cele and his friend Ayanda­ Mthembu.

Cele was employed by the management of Hesk’s retirement village even though he had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for burglary and assault. Arrested last week while on the run in KwaDabheka west of Durban, Cele is said to have admitted to murdering Hesk — but showed no remorse at all. Cele and Mthembu appeared in court earlier this week and were remanded into police custody until September 22.

The murder of Hesk, inside a secure retirement home, shocked Durban. Sandown’s own website boasts: “The level of security at Sandown Village should give you added comfort too. The entire property is walled and there are security officers on patrol at night, which means [that] you can feel totally confident of your home’s security when you go on holiday.”

Since Hesk was found near naked, bruised and bloodied, speculation has been rife as to the identity of her attackers. However, the SAPS have been hunting for Cele since minutes after being called to the scene of Hesk’s murder.

On August 26, Hesk’s body was found by the Sandown estate manager Mike Roberts. Neighbours of the wheelchair-bound woman had heard noises from her flat during the night but they had not been alarmed.

However, when her door remained closed the following morning they alerted Roberts.

Hesk’s flat had been ransacked. However, a small safe remained unopened and had clearly resisted attempts to force it off the wall. It is suspected that Hesk could not remember how to open the safe and so, convinced that she was holding out on them, her attackers tortured her to death by repeatedly stabbing and punching and kicking her.

Until now the identity of her killer has been a mystery to the public and residents. Closed-circuit television cameras did not show anything suspicious the night of Hesk’s murder and no alarms went off.

Within minutes of arriving at the scene of Hesk’s death, the SAPS had positively identified a suspect from fingerprint and forensic evidence left at the scene. Various items belonging to the gardener at the estate were also found inside Hesk’s flat, while the gardener’s spade is believed to have been used to force apart her burglar guards.

Fingerprints found inside Hesk’s flat were matched to the gardener within seconds.

A simple check on his prints or identity document number would have revealed that Mthembu, the 22-year-old gardener, had an extensive criminal record with arrests for assault, housebreaking and a string of other crimes.

Late last year Petros Mthethwa, named as “South Africa’s most violent house robber” by the KZN house robbery unit at the time, was sentenced to several life sentences for a series of violent house robberies, rapes and murders, most committed with a traditional Zulu spear.

Mthethwa favoured a spear over firearms even though he had several firearms.

He was known to enjoy tormenting his victims by stabbing them repeatedly before administering the coup de grace with his spear.

Mthethwa, an expert knife fighter, was on the run for well over a year after escaping from custody by overpowering two armed policemen and stabbing them repeatedly with a knife smuggled into his cell. During the time that he was on the run he travelled between Gauteng and Durban taking occasional employment as a gardener or builder’s assistant.

During Mthethwa’s trial Detective Inspector Keith Caswell of the house robbery unit gave evidence that Mthethwa had attacked and murdered­ at least one of his employers.

“I simply cannot understand why people hire unchecked staff knowing that horror stories can so often be the result,” said Lane.

AMANZIMTOTI-BASED private investigator Carol Lane of Lane, Van Staden and Associates said that while her company is often requested to undertake background and credit checks of potential tenants, no residential development had ever hired her company to check the backgrounds of their staff. Nor had any private person ever asked her company to check out their domestic staff.

“That always amazes me. Domestic staff are trusted with our homes, our children and our lives and yet nobody bothers to do even the most basic background check on their domestic help. The vast majority of domestic staff are absolutely honest, decent people — but if they are hired straight off the street they could well be violent criminals.”

Nina de Winter, CEO of international investigations company Kroll, said that her company was very rarely asked to conduct background checks on domestic helpers: “We have had such requests, but many people do not realise that this can in fact be done. In this day and age the cost of performing such a check is nothing compared to the price you might pay for not doing so. The price you may pay for hiring unknown help could be your life.”

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