14 July 2024 | 01:14 AM

Police minister’s ‘confidant’ embroiled in Hawks human trafficking for sex probe

Key Takeaways

  • The vehicle of Shantal Redhi, Marimuthu’s daughter who works for the police’s covert crime intelligence unit, was allegedly used to transport the victims
  • The house from where the women were freed is listed by Marimuthu’s son, Lovendren Marimuthu, as his home and business address
  • Despite the seizure of forensic evidence, the Hawks investigation has dragged on for nearly two years with no arrests or end in sight.

Controversial businessman Panganathan “Timmy” Marimuthu, a former drug dealer previously recruited and paid by crime intelligence – allegedly to influence police minister Bheki Cele – is a person of interest in a Hawks trafficking-for-sex investigation.

A joint investigation by TimesLive and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism has uncovered documents, including victims’ statements and a signed affidavit by Marimuthu, which show that detectives focused attention on him after authorities raided a multi-storey Durban North mansion in March 2022.

During the raid on 59 Stirling Crescent, five Johannesburg women were rescued after allegedly being trafficked from their Eldorado Park homes to Durban. A sixth woman managed to escape from the house shortly before the raid.

The raid occurred after one of the victims used her cellphone, which she had hidden, to call a friend for help. 

The women, aged between 19 and 27, were allegedly lured to Durban with promises of jobs but then told they would have to perform in online international video sex chatrooms, according to written statements seen by TimesLive/amaBhungane.

The rescued women cannot be identified because of the nature of the alleged crimes.

Despite the raid nearly two years ago, at which time Durban Organised Crime detectives obtained evidence including witness statements, computers, cellphones and external hard drives, the investigation has been grinding on with no apparent end in sight.

None of those implicated has been arrested, despite police having registration details of at least one of the vehicles allegedly used to transport the women to the house after a bus journey from Gauteng.

National vehicle licencing data shows the car – a white Audi SUV – is owned by Marimuthu’s daughter, Shantal Redhi, although it appears it was being driven by someone else at the time of the incident.

Online searches show that the Stirling Crescent property was listed as a contact address for Marimuthu’s son Lovendren, although he was not identified as one of those involved.

Marimuthu himself was allegedly identified by at least one witness as “the boss” who owned the property.

Among the documents seen by TimesLive/amaBhungane is an affidavit by Marimuthu giving permission for his two Samsung cellphones to be scanned for evidence. 

A police source with knowledge of the investigation suggested the case was being obstructed because of the family’s close connections to senior KwaZulu-Natal officers.

Redhi was one of ten people, including his wife Neermala Moodley, who were linked to Marimuthu and who were allegedly irregularly appointed as members or agents of crime intelligence in 2011. (See linked story)

TimesLive/amaBhungane have established that Redhi and Moodley are still listed as employees of crime intelligence.

National Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Thandi Mbambo told us that “it has been confirmed that the investigation as per enquiry number provided, which is prosecution guided, is at an advanced stage and due to sensitivity of the case, we are unable to disclose details of an ongoing investigation.”

KwaZulu-Natal Director of Public Prosecutions Advocate Elaine Harrison, who is monitoring progress in the matter, revealed that there had been “complexities” with the investigation, which was still ongoing, and that no suspects had been arrested.

She said that after a criminal case docket was registered, the matter was allocated to the provincial National Prosecuting Authority’s Organised Crime Component (OCC), which deals with human trafficking cases. Only once all investigations were complete would a decision be made on whether a prosecution would be instituted.

Neither Marimuthu nor his implicated family members responded to our calls or written questions.

A man identifying himself as Jeff who answered one of Marimuthu’s three cellphones (the numbers of which are listed in his statement) said he knew Marimuthu and would get him to return our calls.

In a telephone call, Marimuthu’s lawyer Mohommed Jabeer Moideen confirmed that he represented Marimuthu, “but only in a few civil cases”.

“He is a client of mine in certain matters.”

Told that the affidavit that Marimuthu had signed granting police permission to analyse his cellphones was signed in his [Moideen’s] presence, Moideen asked that questions be emailed to him.

“Of course I cannot give any answers without consulting with the client.”

The email address Moideen provided is the same email address used to send questions to him last week.

We sent questions to police minister Bheki Cele about his relationship with Marimuthu and the lack of progress in the investigation.

Cele’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, responded with a Whatsapp message: “All of the above questions have got nothing to do with Minister Cele both in his personal or work capacity. All operational questions must be directed to SAPS and the persons of interest.” National police spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe declined to respond to detailed questions about the current status of Marimuthu family members previously linked to crime intelligence, merely stating that “the SAPS does not discuss information related to intelligence in the media space.”

The Durban North mansion

The wealthy Marimuthu clan has courted controversy for years.

Marimuthu, a construction and trucking tycoon and evangelical preacher, was implicated in the looting of the crime intelligence slush fund after it was revealed that he and his family had been irregularly employed within the police’s crime intelligence unit. 

Once employed, millions of rands were irregularly paid to the family in salaries, as well as from the questionable rental, sale and purchase of properties as police safe houses.

Through interviews, affidavits, an analysis of property and company registry data, and internal police documents TimesLive/amaBhungane have established that:

  • Lovendren Marimuthu (son) – whose business empire includes nightclubs, as well as entertainment, property development and construction companies – has listed the raided mansion at 59 Stirling Crescent as both a home address and a business address;
  • The house was purchased in 2013 by the L T Family Trust for R6.2-million, although TimesLive/amaBhungane were not able to trace the trust documents;
  • Shantal Redhi (daughter) – a prominent KwaZulu-Natal construction, transportation and investment businesswoman and founder of a women’s empowerment organisation – is permanently employed within the police’s KwaZulu-Natal covert crime intelligence, ranked as a Lieutenant Colonel;
  • Marimuthu’s wife, Neermala Moodley, is permanently employed, with the rank of Colonel, within the crime intelligence section that coordinates the police’s KwaZulu-Natal secret service account. This account is used for funding crime intelligence operations; and
  • On the day of the raid, Timmy Marimuthu agreed to surrender his cellphones to detectives for digital forensic analysis.  

A source with knowledge of the sale confirmed that the house was sold to the L T Family Trust.

“The buyers introduced themselves as Sandy and Tim. Their surname began with an M.”

Asked if the surname was Marimuthu, the source said “yes”.

The source added that Marimuthu was “loaded”.

“The Stirling Crescent house was not the only house he had. He wanted to buy the house for his wife because his wife liked the garden, he was going to put his kids in there. I think he had a son and a daughter. “It was an award-winning garden… but after the sale it went completely to the dogs.”

The March 2022 raid

A police source said interest in Marimuthu and his children was sparked when detectives learnt that one of the alleged victims had photographed Redhi’s white Audi Q7 shortly before it drove some of them to the property. 

After Marimuthu had been identified by a witness as the person introduced to the women as “the boss”, it is understood that detectives summoned him back to the property, where police questioned him.

Marimuthu’s affidavit, deposed by Lt-Col Gavin Jacob of the Hawks Durban Serious Organised Crime Office just hours after the raid, shows that he granted the Hawks permission to analyse his cellphones “with the sole purpose to allegations of human trafficking and/or the keeping of a brothel /soliciting for the purposes of prostitution”.

”I have no objection to the police going through my phones and extracting or downloading information that has a bearing on the investigation,” his  affidavit which was signed in the presence of his lawyer, Moideen, reads.

Notes from the investigation diary of one of the investigating officers, Sgt Nomfanelo Mabaso, reveals that Jacobs instructed her to open an inquiry into a case of suspected human trafficking following the rescue.

A case of human trafficking and prostitution was registered.  Mabaso’s notes also show that during the raid officers seized 208 blank rounds of .38 special ammunition, 294 airgun pellets and four computers. The computers were sent for forensic analysis along with Marimuthu’s cellphones.

The ‘human trafficking’ scam

Two statements written the day of the raid were crucial for helping detectives understand how the victims were lured to Durban.

The statements reveal that the women were promised work with iClick Mobile in Durban, at a call centre where they were supposed to sell sim cards to casino players.

One of the victims claimed that a friend, “Judith”, lured her with the promise of work.

“During the lockdown I lost my job late 2021 … Judith told me she has a friend in Durban, who was hiring girls for a call centre in a casino.

“[In] February 2022 Judith contacted me and informed that her people in Durban confirmed that they still need people for the job… Judith sent me the acceptance letter with my name on it as proof that I was hired.”

However, TimesLive/amaBhungane have established from one of iClick’s owners, Kholani Mkhavele, that although the company was registered in 2012, it was never operational.

“I opened it in 2012, but it never did any business. We did not even have bank accounts for the business,” he said.

Speaking to TimesLive/amaBhungane, a third victim said: “I was approached by a friend, who said he had work for me in Durban… He told me I needed to get eight other girls. I told him I can only get four.

“He showed me documents for iClick Mobile.  I was initially suspicious because the offer was out of the blue, but I found the company’s website. It looked genuine.  We were given letters of employment. I really thought we were going to be working in a call centre.”

The statements – one of which is signed, one unsigned – suggest that the women traveled by bus from Johannesburg to the Durban central bus station, where they were met by two men – one of whom was driving Redhi’s car – and driven in two vehicles to the Stirling Crescent house.

“I was expecting to meet my friend who recruited us, but we were met by a stranger driving a fancy white SUV. When I asked where my friend was, he said all he knew was that he was to collect us,” the third victim said.

Suspicious, she says she photographed the car and its numberplate and sent them to her mother, saying she was worried.

At the mansion, the women were met by an Indian lady who introduced herself as their new manager.

“We were taken to a room. It was weird, there were computers fitted with cameras. The woman told us they were for us to use.  There were also beds but they had no blankets or sheets on them. They were still wrapped in plastic.”

The women were allegedly told to “put something sexy on” as the big boss, who owned the house, was coming to meet them. While they were getting undressed, the so-called homeowner walked in on them.

“The Indian guy, which is the boss, came in without knocking on the door,” the second unsigned statement reads. “He did not apologise or cover his face. He said we were to come one by one to the next room so he can interview us. I was the first one to go. It was a room which had a bed. He closed the door and asked if I knew what I am there for. I told him I am there to sell simcards … He started touching my breast and bums. I pushed him away and he said I must go back to the room and call the next girl and not talk to anyone in a very threatening manner.”

The third victim corroborated this: “When [she] came back we could see something was wrong. She looked terrified. By the time I got there Timmy was furious. He was shouting at me. He demanded to know if I knew why I was there and what I had to do. I told him to work at a call centre and a casino. His cellphone rang and that is when he left.”

Shown a picture of Marimuthu by TimesLive/amaBhungane she identified him as “Timmy”: “His hair was very short at the time.”

After this “the boss” departed, leaving the female manager to explain: “She said she was going to be straight forward … we were going to be on webcam … where you meet overseas guys, that pay us tokens … to undress and [have] online sex with these guys.  She said we might have to meet them in person,” the second victim is alleged to have told police.

According to the first victim, they were promised R40 000 each and told the syndicate’s wealthy clientele would select women from a database of naked photographs. “[We were told that] the only people who will view our pictures are the American people. Boss lady said all of us will be in our own private rooms during which we will take off our clothes and follow all the instructions given by the viewer (client) … She instructed us that we must do everything that the client requested.”

The rescue

The first victim told the Hawks that they were instructed that for their “own safety” they could not leave the house. They were also warned not to tell anyone where they were, and that if they called anyone, their possessions would be taken away. “We felt threatened and scared of losing our lives.”

However, when the manager tried to take their phones, the third victim intervened: “I managed to stop her.  I told her one of the girls was not feeling well that she had her period. I took her upstairs. While we were upstairs she sent a message and our location to her friend.”

The third victim said Marimuthu was called back to the house shortly after the Hawks raided the property: “The woman boss was told to make up a story to get Timmy back to the house. When he came back that’s when the police caught him.” In an official statement released after the raid by the Office of the Provincial Commissioner KwaZulu-Natal, SAPS alleged,  “It was during the meeting with the boss where the story changed and they were informed that they were going to be involved in the sex trade business… According to the ladies there was a time where the boss had called them in one by one and had touched them inappropriately. The statement did not identify Marimuthu as “the boss”.

A case going nowhere?

The third victim said that after their rescue they were questioned by the Hawks for two weeks.

“We were kept in Durban at a shelter.  We had to give statements, both written and in front of a camera. Our phones were taken by the police and they downloaded all the photographs that we had taken of the vehicles.

“We were taken to a prosecutor who deals with human trafficking cases. We gave her the information on what happened to us. She has the information from our cellphones, including the photos we took.”

Mkhavele, one of the owners of iClick Mobile, told TimesLive/amaBhungane last year that the Hawks had contacted him around June.

“Officers said they needed to see me urgently. I didn’t know if it was criminals pretending to be police. They gave me a case number and police at Sandton checked it out and confirmed that it was a legitimate case but they couldn’t elaborate on it as it was listed as ‘classified’.

“I was shocked. I met the investigators at Sandton Police Station and gave them all my company and business records showing iClick never operated. They asked me lots of questions about the business, how it operated, who operated it. They asked about the girls who were taken to Durban and promised jobs with iClick. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about.”

“The police told me about the company’s letterhead on the offers of employment but we never had letterheads, business logos and we never employed anyone.”

Mkhavela said he had no idea why his business would have been targeted by the syndicate. “I am continuing to cooperate with the police.”

Nearly two years later, however, the case seems to have gone nowhere.

A source close to the matter claimed that the investigation into Marimuthu had dragged on unnecessarily: “We have been asking ourselves why there has not been progress. When you ask around, other members tell you that it’s because Timmy is connected to senior police officials.”

For the victims though, waiting is torture.

“These people are still out there. None have been arrested,” the third victim told us. “I still see the guy, who trafficked me and got me to recruit the other women, on the street. I was questioned by the Hawks two months ago. It was the third time they took my statement, yet despite this, and what happened at the house, no one has been arrested or gone to court. “No one can tell us why nothing has happened to these people.”

Marimuthu’s colourful history

Graeme Hosken

Convicted drug peddler and outed bogus crime intelligence agent, Panganathan “Timmy” Marimuthu, is without a doubt a highly controversial person. 

Over the decades the self-proclaimed trucking and construction business tycoon slash evangelical preacher, along with his family, have become increasingly notorious.

This includes a long running  and extensive battle with the South African Revenue Service, which is currently trying to claw back R400-million in taxes from the Marimuthu clan.

The taxman alleges that the family tried to dodge its tax responsibilities by launching bogus business rescue and voluntary liquidation processes for a number of their companies and attempted to hide their assets.

Marimuthu’s first foray into public controversy occurred in 2006 when he was thrust into the limelight by the Jali Commission report into corruption within South Africa’s penal system.

That report found that prison officials were suspected to have been bribed to ensure that Marimuthu never served a day behind bars after he was convicted and sentenced to four years imprisonment for possession of mandrax.

While Marimuthu should have been imprisoned in 1998 after he lost two appeals against his conviction and sentence, the Commission found “sinister and extraordinary manoeuvrings had taken place behind the scenes” to ensure that he remained a free man and that “the suspicion remains … that money changed hands somewhere”.

Marimuthu has always denied this, but his notoriety has grown over the years.

In 2010 he was once again in the spotlight, this time through his own doing.

At a presentation he gave in the US, where he was sharing the secrets of his business success with the followers of the charismatic Christian outfit the Joseph Business School, he revealed that he had serious connections with members of the South African government.

Said secrets included how Marimuthu had over the years been able to become incredibly close with “a friend in government”. 

“In a Christian vocabulary we must not use ‘bribery’ and ‘corruption’… your money must make room for you: if you don’t bless somebody to get a job, then the heathen will do that and you’ve lost out,” he told the audience.

Following the “friend’s” advice, Marimuthu’s wealth apparently exploded, with the tycoon claiming, at one point, to own dozens of houses and luxury vehicles.

It was in late 2010 that Marimuthu first became involved with the SAPS crime intelligence unit, thanks to now disgraced former head Richard Mdluli and former CI chief financial officer Major General Solly Lazarus, who controlled access to the police covert fund.

In 2019 Mdluli was jailed for kidnapping and assaulting his former lover’s husband. He was paroled in 2022, but still faces charges of fraud and corruption in relation to looting the covert fund, alongside Lazarus who was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2020 for another case involving covert funds.

The abuse of police covert funds, including to benefit Marimuthu, emerged in 2012 following the leak of an explosive report to the Inspector General of Intelligence.

According to evidence at the Zondo Commission, both Lazarus and Mdluli wanted to use Marimuthu to ingratiate themselves with Bheki Cele (then serving as police commissioner) and arranged for Marimuthu to be recruited into the crime intelligence fraternity.

It was not only Marimuthu who was recruited, but also his wife, Neermala Moodley, daughter, Shantal Redhi and a host of other close and distant relatives.

AmaBhungane has recently learnt through internal police records that Moodley and Redhi are to this day listed as permanently employed within the crime intelligence unit.

The records show that Redhi joined the SAPS in January 2011 while Moodley joined in May of that year.

Moodley works within the section of the KwaZulu-Natal crime intelligence division which coordinates the highly secretive covert fund – the same fund previously abused to benefit Marimuthu – while Redhi is employed within the covert crime intelligence unit.

In 2013, Marimuthu once again became a household name, this time for his role in the fall of former SARS commissioner Oupa Magashula, who was caught on a compromising audio recording discussing the potential employment of a young woman within the revenue service.

The call was made on Marimuthu’s phone and the woman happened to be a member of Marimuthu’s church. It was leaked to City Press, prompting an inquiry that led to Magashula’s departure. 

It would not be the last time that Marimuthu would be recorded having discussions with senior government officials.

In 2021 recordings of conversations between Cele – now police minister – and Marimuthu were leaked, revealing exactly how high up in the echelons of policing power his reach and sway extends.

Those recordings showed that Cele was noncommittal as Marimuthu attempted to re-ingratiate himself by providing purported information about what Zuma and his allies were up to.

Cele has never denied the connection with Marimuthu.

In an interview with author Greg Ardé, Cele said of the recording, “I will take a call from whoever at any given time because of my job.”  Timmy Marimuthu might be scorned, he said, but “he knows what people don’t know” and I need to be at the epicentre of that knowledge”. 

When approached recently by amaBhungane with questions on their relationship, Cele refused to comment.

Instead Cele’s spokesperson Lirandzu Themba said that the “questions have got nothing to do with Minister Cele both in his personal or work capacity. All operational questions must be directed to SAPS and the persons of interest”.

Once again, Marimuthu finds himself caught up in controversy, this time in an investigation into a human-trafficking for sex syndicate which for nearly two years has gone nowhere.

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