Houdini strikes again

2014-05-21 00:00

NOT even leg irons and handcuffs could stop the man they call “Houdini” from busting out of the Ixopo court cells, not once, but twice yesterday.

But Sthembiso Vincent Shabalala proved to be no match for members of the Hawks and Ixopo police officers who responded in “James Bond” style, even smashing a police car through a locked gate in their determination to halt his flight to freedom.

A witness said Shabalala — who is known to police as a serial escaper — took everyone by surprise when he stormed out of the courtroom while it was in session yesterday.

He was appearing there on charges of armed robbery, attempted murder, possession of an AK47 and a 9 mm pistol and escaping from custody, related to crimes committed in the Bulwer area in 2010.

He earned his “Houdini” moniker in December last year when he staged another amazing escape from the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court on December 2 that had police baffled.

As far as the authorities were aware, Shabalala had boarded the prison van with his fellow prisoners to return to jail after appearing in the regional court. But when the van got there he was missing.

Investigators who re-arrested him a month later said it turned out that there was no magic involved in that escape. Instead, they learnt that Shabalala had jumped under the prison van as the prisoners filed into the back, clung to the chassis underneath and when the van stopped at the robots just outside court, he dropped to the ground, rolled away and fled.

Yesterday, Shabalala succeeded in getting into a car that had been left idling in wait for him outside the courthouse by an as-yet-unidentified accomplice.

But as he prepared to reverse and drive off, members of the Hawks, under the command of Colonel Johan Meeding, and local police jumped into a police vehicle, drove straight through a locked gate and cut off his escape route.

Police surrounded the getaway car and managed to grab hold of Shabalala inside it.

The Witness was told that after “quite a scuffle” he was subdued and returned to the court cells, this time securely handcuffed and chained with leg irons — or so they thought.

About 20 minutes later, to the amazement of the authorities, Shabalala came “barging” back into court again minus his chains, at the exact moment the court orderly unlocked the door to fetch prisoners and bring them into court.

Police were too quick for him, however, and succeeded in arresting him before he got away again.

The discarded leg irons and handcuffs he’d worn earlier were retrieved from the court cells after Shabalala’s escape attempt.

Police are now investigating how he managed to get them off.

Initial inquiries also established that an unknown man had parked Shabalala’s “getaway” car outside the court with the keys in it and the engine idling shortly before he came charging outside and tried to drive away.

The driver allegedly told people on the street that the vehicle had broken down and he was leaving it there while he went to find help.

Last night, Shabalala was reportedly safely back behind bars in his prison cell at the Pietermaritzburg New Prison.

He is due to appear in court again in the Pietermaritzburg high court next month in connection with multiple charges, including the murder and robbery of Richmond farmer Rob Anderson.

Police said the latest escape attempts by Shabalala bring to four the number of charges for escaping he faces.

He is regarded by police as a dangerous criminal who is facing numerous counts of murder, hijacking and other forms of armed robbery.

In Pietermaritzburg, he faces a total of 10 charges, including hijacking a Toyota bakkie from Rajsingh Ramdalal at Umzinto in November 2009, escaping from the Donnybrook police cells in March 2012, robbing Sadanund and Vanitha Dhaja (and their 12-year-old child) of their car outside their flat in Umzinto in July 2012, and the murder and robbery of Anderson on his farm at Richmond on August 7, 2012.

Shabalala is also charged in that case with the assault on his former girlfriend, Angeline Ngubane, by “striking her and biting her” on August 17, 2012.

The state alleges that Shabalala was part of a “syndicate” that was formed to rob people of their cars or steal cars.

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