It seemed a rapid slide from gruesome tragedy to cruel farce. The trial of three men accused of suffocating German businessman Uwe Gemballa in 2010 faltered at the outset this week, when the state’s key witness abruptly recanted all his previous evidence.
Thabiso Mpye was the first witness to testify in the trial of Garlond Holworthy, Thabo Mohapi and Kagiso Ledwaba in the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court. He had earlier implicated the three accused as his accomplices in Gemballa’s murder.
The three face charges of kidnapping, murder and theft.
Mohapi pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, and the court entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of Holworthy and Ledwaba when they refused to plead.
Following Tuesday’s unexpected about-face, Mpye, who has not yet been declared a hostile witness by the state, began to spin a new version of what happened.
Claiming that he had been tortured by police and forced to implicate the accused, he denied they were his accomplices and that he was involved in the murder.
Yet in October 2010, he pleaded guilty to Gemballa’s murder in a plea and sentence agreement with prosecutors and pointed out where Gemballa’s body was buried. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Gemballa arrived in South Africa from Germany in February 2010, ostensibly 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.
Mpye, now serving his sentence in Diepkloof Prison, described in great detail in his 2010 plea statement how Gemballa’s head was wrapped in duct tape while his killers sat on his chest to suffocate him. His body was wrapped in a plastic sheet before it was buried in a shallow grave in Lotus Gardens, near Pretoria.
Gemballa’s brutal end is one of several mysterious murders, including those of Teazers boss Lolly Jackson and Cape Town strongman Cyril Beeka, which exposed a tangled web of connections between the Johannesburg and Cape Town underworlds. The murder victims all seemed connected in some way to Radovan Krejcir, a fugitive from justice in the Czech Republic who arrived in South Africa in 2007 and is now seeking refugee status.
Gemballa had contacted an associate of Krejcir, Jerome Safi, about his proposed luxury car franchise before arriving in the country. Safi, who was interviewed by police and will testify at the trial, reportedly said in early 2011 that he had told Gemballa in an email that he had “people ready to finance” the franchise.
The funding, of up to R100-million, would allegedly come from Krejcir and Lolly Jackson.
There appeared to be some overlap between Mpye’s testimony this week and his 2010 police statements, most notably his allusion to two men he called “Kizzer” and “Madala”.
In 2010, Mpye told police that Gemballa was kidnapped from OR Tambo International Airport and handed over to Kizzer and Madala.
Mpye said Gemballa was taken to a house – which police found was rented by Krejcir’s business manager, Bulgarian national Ivan Savov – where he was killed. Savov claimed he was out of the country at the time and denied that Gemballa had died at his home.
Police also linked a cellphone used to phone Gemballa’s wife, Christiane, to pay-as-you-go vouchers purchased on behalf of another Krejcir associate, Michael Arsiotis.
Following an overnight adjournment for state prosecutors to regroup, Mpye testified on Wednesday morning that he knew “the body of [Gemballa]”. He denied however, knowing anything “about the murder of Mr Gemballa”.
Mpye testified that when Gemballa’s “body came to me”, he was already dead and that four men – “Abdul, Kizzer, Madala and Thabang” – had approached him to help to hide it. The trial continues.
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