R100m airport heist mastermind convicted
AFTER what seemed like a desperate attempt to avoid prison when he could see the writing on the wall, the mastermind behind one of South Africa's most lucrative and daring heists was convicted in the Johannesburg High Court.
Christopher Billings was convicted of masterminding the R100-million heist of an aircraft carrying foreign currency at OR Tambo International Airport in 2006.
Billings, who at the latter stage of the trial abandoned his legal counsel and started representing himself, absconded from court on July 11 when Judge Nico Coetzee handed down judgment. Police said they found him in Boksburg later on the day.
"It is unthinkable that a friend of many years would stoop so low as to implicate (you) falsely," Coetzee said, adding he found Cecil Arendse, Billings's long-time friend, was a reliable witness.
Arendse had implicated Billings as having had a bag full of money shortly after the heist.
Coetzee dismissed Billings's claim that cellphone records that showed 5690 calls to his girlfriend, mother of his child, employee, lawyers and sister was made by his friend Nazir Ishmael, an airport employee.
He also dismissed Billings's claim that lack of legal representation had disadvantaged him.
"The court leaned backwards to ensure that you had legal representation. You are an intelligent person. Your cross-examination on those who you managed to do was to the point. You were not prejudiced by not having an attorney," Coetzee said.
He pointed out that at one stage Billings claimed to run out of money but when Legal Aid rejected his application, he had suddenly come up with R100000.
Coetzee had earlier found Fox Sithole, Eddie Ubisi and Ronny Mbuyisa guilty of attempted robbery, while Ananius Nepfumembe and Thokozani Ziqubu were found guilty of robbery with aggravating circumstances.
Sithole and Ubisi are already serving life in prison for an unrelated armed robbery, while Ziqubu is serving 20 years for murder.
Uakareraije Maundu, who was found in possession of $19000 of the stolen airport money, was found guilty of being an accessory to robbery.
Arendse was acquitted. Four other men implicated in the robbery have died.
Coetzee said evidence brought before him showed not all of them had physically taken part in the robbery.
After Billings's conviction, the Asset Forfeiture Unit's Feroze Latif obtained a confiscation application from the court and informed the criminals that the state wanted to strip them of the fruits of their mischief.
It was ordered that the men submit an affidavit detailing all their possessions for the unit to assess how much, if any, they had benefitted from the proceeds of crime.
The gang colluded with airport employees Ishmael, Sean Soobramoney and Magdeline Moosa in the robbery. They turned state witnesses in return for lenient sentences.
Ishmael, who is serving a 20-year suspended sentence, testified that Billings came to him with the idea of robbing an aircraft, a claim that Coetzee dismissed.
The case continues with pleas for mitigation today. - email@example.com