The trial started off as somewhat of a theatrical spectacle with the state’s previously key witness in the trial, Thabiso Mpye, playing the starring role.
Mpye has already been sentenced to 20 years in jail after he pleaded guilty in October 2010 to Gemballa’s kidnapping and murder.
Mpye entered into a plea and sentence agreement with the state after he was convicted of Gemballa’s murder. In return for his guilty plea and a confession in which Mpye implicated his co-accused, who are now on trial, he received a less harsh prison sentence.
The spectacle soon turned into a farce, however, when Mpye recanted his 2010 confession and denied that the three men on trial were involved in Gemballa’s murder.
Mpye also claimed he was tortured into confessing his own involvement in the murder.
Following this dramatic about-turn, Mpye was declared a hostile witness. But his courtroom antics did not stop there. On Wednesday this week Mpye refused to continue being cross-examined by the state, unless, he said, the court made an order that he be returned to Johannesburg Prison, known as Sun City, after he was moved to Leeuwkop Prison last week.
His alleged accomplices in Gemballa’s brutal murder, Thabo Mohapi, Kagiso Ledwaba and Garlond Holworthy are being held at Sun City.
Mohapi has pleaded not guilty, while Ledwaba and Holworthy refused to plead, so the court has entered a not-guilty plea on their behalf.
On his first day in court, Mpye wore reading glasses and came across as quite meek, but his demeanour soon changed when he sat down in the witness box. No longer wearing his glasses, he became cocky and arrogant.
He told the court that the accused, although known to him, were not his friends, and they were not involved in Gemballa’s murder.
However on Thursday, the state’s second witness, Mpye’s ex-girlfriend, who asked that her name not be printed for privacy reasons, told the court that she had received a phone call from both Holworthy and Ledwaba when Mpye was arrested for the murder in 2010. She said Holworthy had told her to “pass on a message to [Mpye] to not say anything to the police or to anyone”.
She testified that Holworthy told her to tell Mpye “he should stick to what they had spoken about” and that he had offered Mpye the use of his lawyer.
On Wednesday Mpye, who complained of having lost his privileges, such as having a kettle in his cell, when he was moved to Leeuwkop, told the court he had considered “taking poison”. He complained he did not have access to his sleeping medication and was feeling depressed.
It was on this basis that he demanded the court send him back to Sun City.
Contempt of court
An astounded Judge George Maluleke eventually convicted Mpye of being in contempt of court and sentenced him to an extra year in jail, all within 20 minutes.
But while the men allegedly involved in Gemballa’s murder appear to have no regard for the magnitude of the crime nor it seems, the charges they are facing, Gemballa’s family are left waiting for answers, more than three years since he first disappeared.
When state prosecutor advocate Riegel du Toit tried to cross-examine Mpye, he just ignored him and read a book and asked to leave the court.
Outside of the courtroom, Mpye lay on a bench and made jokes about it while his handcuff chains clanged against the floor – seemingly without a care in the world.
Mpye’s attitude and the general demeanour of the three accused, who laughed and joked during court adjournments, has lent a cockamamie feeling to the whole trial thus far.
Of the three murder-accused who are on trial at the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court, only one – Holworthy – currently has only this case to defend after he recently completed serving a sentence for burglary.
While his co-accused Mohapi and Ledwaba are in jail for other matters.
Mohapi is carrying out a 32-year sentence for robbery, while Ledwaba is due to stand trial on charges of murder and robbery relating to the killing of a policeman during a botched cash-in-transit heist.
Mpye also brazenly admitted to the court that he had been a full-time criminal, something he did not appear to be ashamed of.
When he was arrested for the murder, Mpye was already facing charges for the possession of an unlicensed firearm.
After his arrest, Mpye confessed and pointed out the shallow grave where Gemballa’s body had been buried in February 2010.
Mpye also identified his alleged accomplices and gave police details on how the German businessman was kidnapped from OR Tambo International Airport and taken to a house before he was suffocated to death.
Gemballa ostensibly came to South Africa to discuss a proposal to open a franchise of his business, Gemballa Sports Cars, which did tune-ups and luxury conversions on Porsches and Ferraris.
Gemballa had contacted an associate of Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir’s, Jerome Safi, about the deal before he arrived in the country.
Safi, who is also set to testify in the murder trial and who was interviewed by police, reportedly said in early 2011 that he had been in email contact with Gemballa about his trip, and that he had told Gemballa he had “people ready to finance” a Gemballa franchise in South Africa.
The funding, of up to R100-million, was allegedly going to come from Krejcir and slain Teazers boss Lolly Jackson.
The trial has been postponed until the end of September.
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