18 April 2024 | 12:40 PM

Suspect: Jeff Wiggill was being stalked

Key Takeaways

The man suspected in First Strut boss’s death swears he’s innocent, hints at contract killing.

“I didn’t kill First Strut’s Jeff Wiggill,” his alleged assassin told the Mail & Guardian this week.

Wiggill’s murder precipitated the implosion of the industrial company, leaving thousands without jobs and banks potentially hundreds of millions of rands out of pocket.

First Strut’s sudden demise has delayed work on the construction of the Medupi power station and the contracts it held with companies such as Sasol.

Although banks are still counting the cost, institutions including First Rand, Standard Bank, Nedbank and Investec are expected to recover only a fraction of the money they loaned to First Strut. Already being wound up, First Strut is set to be the biggest corporate bond defaulter in South African history.

Speaking for the first time about the murder, alleged trigger-man Thulani Cele proclaimed his innocence. “I intend to plead not guilty to any charge relating to the death of Jeff Wiggill,” he said.

Cele also claimed that he was tortured by the police to make him confess to the murder. “When I was arrested, the two police officers tortured me with electric shocks on my private parts and hands demanding to know where I put the firearm which they say I used to murder Jeff,” Cele said in a statement his lawyers supplied to the M&G.

To date Cele, who is out on bail, has maintained a low profile while the evidence against him mounts.

Face down

Investigators claim that Cele was with Wiggill when he was shot near Soweto in the early evening of June 19 this year. The businessman’s lifeless body was discovered face down in a pool of blood about four hours later in front of his black Bentley.

But Cele told the M&G this week, by way of his lawyers, that:

    • He did not receive money to kill Wiggill;

 

    • He did not help the executive to plan his own death; and

 

  • He can cast little light on the final hours before Wiggill was shot several times in the head.

Yet Cele’s version of events has been described as “nonsense” by First Strut’s group manager for risk and loss, Arrie Snyman, who has been central to the investigation into Wiggill’s death.

Snyman said there were a number of unanswered questions about what Cele knew, especially about the events leading up to Wiggill’s death that evening in June.

The torture allegations are unlikely to go any further as Cele appears disinclined to press charges or demand an investigation.

“Unfortunately, they used rubber gloves filled with water,” said attorney City Seokane of Seokane Lesomo, Cele’s legal representative. “Without any visible marks, it will be a he-said, she-said type of situation. He hasn’t given us any instructions to lay complaints.”

Wiggill insisted that Cele be employed at First Strut just weeks before his death.

Dismissed

Cele’s version of the events running up to Wiggill’s death, though roundly dismissed by sources close to the investigation in which he remains the primary suspect, casts some doubt on the prevailing theory of how Wiggill died.

That theory is based on a tapestry of physical evidence at the crime scene, CCTV footage from cameras near Cele’s apartment, data from the vehicle tracking system in Wiggill’s two-seater Bentley, cellphone records and emails.

These, investigators believe, show that Wiggill — aware that he could no longer hide years of fraud — intended to die, and had allegedly approached Cele to make his death look like a simple murder in order to secure massive life insurance payouts for his family.

Cele’s version of events corroborates Wiggill’s state of mind.

“During early 2012 and shortly before his death, Jeff told me that he had problems with some business matters and that he knew that he was being investigated for some wrongdoings he committed whilst doing business,” Cele said in a statement provided to the M&G.

“I can recall him conveying to me that the problems were serious and that a real risk existed that he could be arrested and possibly sentenced for the wrongdoings.”

Although Wiggill has been implicated in massive and long-running fraud since his death, by, among others, his business partner of two decades, Andy Bertulis, the M&G has found no indication that he faced a formal investigation.

Footage

On the night when Wiggill was shot, Cele said, the businessman did indeed collect him from his residence shortly after 6pm, but then Cele’s version veers from what video footage appears to show, saying Wiggill “was being followed by a vehicle with at least two black male occupants”.

That isolated statement has renewed speculation that Wiggill may have been killed because of hitherto undiscovered personal debts, or because he could implicate others in his criminal enterprise, a belief not uncommon among those who knew him.

Tracking data shows that, after picking up Cele, Wiggill took a direct route to a deserted area near Protea in Soweto, where his body was discovered. Cele said the executive appeared drunk or under the influence of drugs, or both.

What happened next, Cele said, he did not know. Scared of Wiggill’s driving, he asked to be taken home, and ultimately convinced Wiggill simply to drop him off by the side of the road near Protea, then made his way back to Auckland Park near the centre of Johannesburg.

“I suspected his death was related to the problems he kept telling me about,” Cele said in his statement.

How well that version stacks up with other available evidence is likely to be the subject of a courtroom battle.

Cele’s lawyers are expected to argue that tracking logs must show that Wiggill stopped at traffic intersections during the more than 30km drive, and that Cele could have left the vehicle during one such stop.

The M&G understands that the murder weapon has not been found, and that forensic evidence that could potentially place Cele or others at the murder scene has not yet been processed.

Tears

But Cele is set to face some tough questions about why he did not come forward with information before his arrest, something Cele’s lawyers said they could not speculate on.

“The morning after [Wiggill’s murder], Thulani [Cele] heard about Jeff’s death and he burst into tears,” said Snyman, First Strut’s security man. “He told his maintenance supervisor that he saw Jeff just the previous afternoon, that he went to the office to thank Jeff for giving him a job. It’s nonsense.”

Snyman, who spent 16 years in the police force, tracked Wiggill’s car, identified his body, and collected the evidence that led to Cele’s arrest. After many hours of pouring over footage and data, including office-access logs, and interviewing company staff, he is convinced of Cele’s guilt, and claims that Cele’s version will not stand up in court on several counts.

“While they were driving, while Jeff and Thulani were in the car, Jeff phoned a company executive and they had a business conversation. There was no mention that he was under the influence … No, this guy is lying.”

Most damning, though, according to Snyman, is the after-the-fact revelation that Wiggill may have been followed, pointing to a planned murder.

“If we hadn’t linked this suspect through the video footage, we would never have discovered him,” said Snyman. “This is a man who gave him a job, whom he loved for it, and he didn’t come forward to say that before he was arrested? I definitely don’t believe it.”

Cele is due to appear in court again at the end of the month, although his trial is not expected to commence for several months.

Ex-suitor rescues First Strut unit

Energotec, a small operating unit of First Strut, has become the first business to find a new home amid the crumbling empire built by Jeff Wiggill before his death, as more than a dozen divisions and thousands of workers scramble to secure their future.

The nearly 700 workers directly employed by Energotec and its supply contract for electrical and instrument work for Sasol now seem safe.

But in a peculiar twist, its new home is Stefanutti Stocks, one of the construction companies tainted by fallout around the construction cartel – and a one-time would-be buyer of Cosira, a steel manufacturer with major contracts to supply components in the construction of the Medupi and Kusile power stations.

Cosira was instead bought by First Strut, and some have blamed that acquisition for the demise of what was one of the country’s largest privately-held businesses.

In another peculiarity, the acquisition of Energotec by Stefanutti was approved in a matter of hours.

Record

The Competition Tribunal on Wednesday said it had taken only four hours, a clear record, for it to receive notice about the merger between the two businesses, consider it, and grant approval.

“The tribunal approved the deal on the basis that Energotec, and ultimately First Strut, are in a precarious financial condition and are currently under liquidation,” the competition body said.

“If the merger had not been approved, the 667 staff employed by Energotec would have lost their jobs.”

As a condition of the approval, Stefanutti may retrench no more than 16 of the Energotec staff members over the next two years.

Stefanutti’s attempt to buy at least a large stake in Cosira before First Strut did so has raised questions about what the construction company knew about what is now alleged to have been severe irregularities in Cosira’s accounts.

But this week Stefanutti said it did not get a look at the books.

Another offer

“Our assessment of Cosira did not even reach a due diligence phase because, while we were still in preliminary discussions with them, they received another offer,” Stefanutti Stocks chief executive Willie Meyburgh told the Mail & Guardian.

Although details, including a purchase price, were not disclosed, the structure of the Energotec acquisition will bring its people and assets into the Stefanutti fold, while leaving potential liabilities behind. That may make it a low-risk and potentially lucrative deal.

“Energotec was never a bad company, and it did okay,” said a manager with intimate knowledge of First Strut’s inner workings this week.

“When they wanted to buy Cosira, Energotec ended up carrying all these extra executive salaries, and it started losing money; it was carrying overheads it shouldn’t have. Without those costs it should be fine.”

Energotec was one of more than two dozen companies under the First Strut umbrella, and has not been directly linked to what insiders now allege was decades of widespread fraud, in which banks were duped, suppliers and customers bribed, taxes evaded and documents forged.

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Phillip de Wet is an associate editor with the Mail & Guardian; Sally Evans is an investigator with the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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