Student’s abductors jailed for 10 years

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Makhanda (Grahamstown) would collapse if people felt it was no longer safe to send their children to school and university here. Magistrate Tembela Mata said this, handing down judgment in the April 2018 kidnapping and robbery of a Rhodes University student. The student was unharmed; however, the sentence was a strong message that in Makhanda the courts will act on threats to the community’s social and economic health. Mata also reiterated his call for the return of specialised narcotics police.

Regular rendezvous between students and their dagga supplier in the Makana Botanical Gardens, allegations of a detective’s vendetta, questions about security camera footage from Pepper Grove mall and calamine lotion have provided colourful testimony in the case of the kidnapping and robbery of a Rhodes student in April 2018.

Rhodes University student Ryan Morley on 11 March finally gave evidence – nearly a year after he reported being abducted in the Makhanda CBD at knifepoint and taken to a house to smoke drugs.

Testifying in the Regional Court Morley said on the night of 11 April 2018, Jamie de Jager had shown him a knife at the corner of Somerset and African streets and instructed him to walk the 2km distance along African Street and over the flyover to the Albany Road area. There, De Jager and accomplice Andre du Plessis had held him against his will and instructed him to call his parents or a friend to send money.

Among the more vivid details Morley shared was that ‘Jamie De Jager’ was written in red paint on the wall of the room where he’d been held, and that the second accused, Andre du Plessis, had toyed with a fist-sized rock in a sock to intimidate him. When Morley couldn’t get hold of a friend, or his parents, to send him money, they’d insisted he smoke with them. Morley was then instructed to get some sleep and they would resume the bid for cash in the morning.

Morley had waited for the men to fall asleep before fleeing barefoot and empty handed from the house in the middle of the night, he told the court.

De Jager and Du Plessis were robustly defended by Katya Offerman, from Legal Aid South Africa. Offerman argued of the 2km abduction walk that the alleged threat all along African Street was not imminent since the knife was not visible: “… even if the court should believe his version that due to his very sensitive nature he couldn’t function optimally, the facts alone certainly don’t support a conviction of kidnapping – not by any stretch of the imagination…”

De Jager testified during the trial that he regularly sold drugs to students, who would phone him to arrange the handover in the Makana Botanical Gardens. Offerman noted that it was unclear what motive De Jager would have to intimidate and rob “the very clientele they need to make a living”.

Mata, in his judgment countered, “Those who use cannabis sometimes use the services of people who live in the township… Why would [Morley] lose an important contact? What does he stand to benefit by… subjecting himself to the court process?”

Mata was sympathetic to Morley’s fear at the time of the incident. “He didn’t just want to escape, but to escape safely,” Mata said.

Stealing to pay for drugs

The Magistrate took into account the men’s personal circumstances.

Both lived with their parents.

De Jager, 30, had a learning disability and had left school after Grade 4 “effectively uneducated”, Offerman had presented. He worked as a tiler on contract. He admitted that he was a drug user and that sometimes, when he didn’t have money to pay for drugs, he would resort to stealing things he could sell or barter. He’d had nine previous convictions.

Du Plessis was 34 and had completed Grade 9. He’d left school for financial reasons and now did casual work as a construction worker, painter and gardener.

Offerman had said earlier in mitigation of sentence, “This is a harsh place to be. Unemployment in Grahamstown is as high as 80%. If you don’t have family to support you, or if you don’t qualify for a grant, your means of survival are very limited.

“They are both in that trap. Uneducated, unskilled and unfortunately with previous convictions, their chances of becoming gainfully employed are becoming less and less.”

Both had been in custody since 13 April 2018. “They abandoned bail because the charges were so serious and they’d had previous convictions,” Offerman said.

Mata noted that De Jager had nine convictions from 2011 to 2017, including being in possession of stolen property, theft and domestic violence.

Du Plessis had four previous convictions between 2011 and 2013, including possession of stolen property.

Parents’ fears

Laurence Merrick led the prosecution, but was unavailable on the day of sentencing, Robert Ludic, standing in for him, motivated for a strong deterrent. The offences committed by De Jager and Du Plessis’ were the kind that would keep parents awake at night, he said.

“If they send their children to Rhodes University to study, their biggest fear will be that their children will be kidnapped and robbed at knifepoint.”

Mata took this up in his sentencing.

“Employment in Grahamstown is scarce. People work at Rhodes, high schools, the High Court. That is what is sustaining this city which is in deep financial crisis,” Mata said. “These institutions support the businesses here. Parents send their kids to schools and university here. They support the businesses of Grahamstown. They are the ones who occupy the flats in Grahamstown. The property business is supported by them. Business is supported mainly by the students.

“Therefore it is the duty of the court to consider that their interests are jealously guarded and protected through the sentences that the court hands down.

“The city will collapse if people feel the students are not safe, the kids are not safe, they can no longer send them to the institutions here. When that suffers, even the accused themselves are likely to suffer,” Mata said.

According to a study by the Rhodes Economics Department, the University contributes 60-65% of the total GDP of the area under Makana Municipality. The university has around 8 500 enrolled. Of those, around 4 700 live off-campus.

De Jager and Du Plessis were on 28 March 2019 convicted of kidnapping, and robbery with aggravating circumstances. There is a minimum 15-year direct imprisonment non-discretionary sentence for the latter.

Commenting on the circumstances, however, Mata said, “These are youthful offenders, they have been in custody almost a year awaiting trial. The complainant was not injured, and there is no evidence that the trauma he experienced would have caused permanent psychological scars.”

In addition, the value of the goods stolen – the laptop, cellphone, backpack and keys – was not very high.

On the first count (kidnapping), each received three years imprisonment. On the second count (robbery with aggravating circumstances) they were given 10 years imprisonment. Mata ordered that these run concurrently, meaning an effective 10-year prison term.

This means their possible maximum sentence was effectively cut by half.

 

WHAT THE DEFENCE QUESTIONED

  • Morley’s failure to seek help from people at three open businesses on the African Street route of the kidnapping during Wednesday evening prime time (Oscars restaurant, SPAR supermarket and BP fuel station).
  • The timing and procedural details of the photographic identity parade, as well as how the photographs were selected. Offerman questioned that De Jager, whom Morley had described as a short coloured man with facial lesions was photographed for the ID album with calamine lotion on his face;
  • The unexplained withdrawal of two additional charges of kidnapping and robbery with aggravating circumstances originally brought by another student.
  • That a fist-sized rock in a sock that Du Plessis toyed with during the three hours Morley sat with the men in De Jager’s house was threatening enough to persuade him to smoke an unknown substance with them.

 

In the defence’s heads of argument, Offerman argued of the 2km abduction walk that the alleged threat all along African Street was not imminent since the knife was not visible and was not wielded by the perpetrator. “He simply [walked]along African Street because he [was]told to do so…

“The complainant’s version that he was so scared he couldn’t seek help, under these circumstances, is so preposterously improbable that it cannot possibly be held to be true… even if the court should believe his version that due to his very sensitive nature he couldn’t function optimally the facts alone certainly don’t support a conviction of kidnapping – not by any stretch of the imagination…”

 

CALL FOR SPECIALISED DRUGS UNIT

In his sentencing statement, Mata reiterated a call he has made before for the police to put more resources into combating drugs.

The free availability of drugs was a major factor in the city’s crime and social problems, he said.

“The view seems to be that there’s no need [to pay attention to illegal drug use]– ‘no one gets injured’,” Mata said. “But the free availability of drugs is the main cause of our problems and is the thing keeping us very busy in the courts.

“It is a challenge other stakeholders need to address,” Mata said. “They need to empower people by informing them of the dangers of using these substances. SAPS needs to come on board and deal effectively with these matters in the way that one of the units that was closed down – SANAB – used to.”

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