Friday, January 13, 2006

Murky underworld of hired killers

Murky underworld of professional killers for hire

Publication Date: 1/14/2006

Police believe it's easy for anyone with a motive to have another

Most people know the criminals among them; and the criminals are often the first contacts for neighbours desperate to settle scores.

"They are the links between ordinary citizens and the complicated underworld of professional killers," CID public relations officer Gideon Kibunjah told the Nation on telephone yesterday.

Usually for a small fee, they introduce a person to a hit man, who in turn depends on the village criminal to determine if the "customer" can be trusted. Informers often pose as clients to help police reach deeper into the world of crime. They are spared prosecution or have their punishment lessened on condition that they remain informers and keep away from crime.

They are a big worry for hit men, who now avoid contact with any potential client unless recommended by intermediaries.

But once the link is established, they demand a down payment. Usually they prove themselves capable of carrying out the task by showing the "customer" a gun. They then ask for details of the target, including economic status, prominence and vulnerability. These help criminals to understand the risk, and to fix their charges.

At this stage, the hit man can still reject or take up the assignment.

Finally, both parties agree on how the execution is to be carried out so that it masks the motive.

Crime experts agree that some criminals make a living by executing others. Most work for anybody, so long as the money is good, and chances of being caught slim.

Those hiring hit men are always cautious not to be double-crossed. They demand proof of the killing before making full payment.

After getting a down-payment and details of the target and where they are commonly found, the hit men then work on the plan of trailing and trapping the target.

Detectives are generally agreed that a murder without a motive is the most difficult to crack. They are convinced that putting a finger on the motive – the reason or excuse that leads one to do evil – is the key to resolving the puzzle.

Knowing the motive opens the doors wide, not only to the killers' hideouts, but also to their prison cells, because a conviction is almost assured.

But professional killers are known to cover their tracks and those of their paymasters by masking their link through creating many motives, including robbery, carjackings or business rivalry.

A former police investigator told of a case which everybody believed was suicide until a postmortem examination revealed otherwise. The man had been strangled.

He said he also handled cases that at a glance are believed to be road accidents until further investigations reveal something different.

Pursuing the wrong motive is frustrating for detectives. If the wrong suspects are pursued, the detectives waste time gathering evidence, assembling witnesses and seeking conviction. By the time they realise they are on the wrong track, most evidence will have been wiped out.

In the case of Nairobi University lecturer and delegate to the Constitutional Conference at Bomas, Dr Crispin Mbai, the pressure mounting on the detectives was to investigate the political motive.

However, a detective based at the Kilimani police station said that motive led nowhere. Later, they concentrated on robbery as the main motive.

"Although there was no conviction, the case flopped on a technicality, and I'm convinced the former lecturer was killed in a bungled robbery," he said.

Controversy still surrounds the August 2000 death of Catholic priest John Anthony Kaiser. The widely-held belief was that Fr Kaiser's was an assassination due to his political bent. On investigations, the police – assisted by America's Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) – deduced the priest had committed suicide. The political motive was far more appealing to the public who could not believe it could have been suicide. An inquest is still in progress.

Another police investigator based in Eldoret said an obvious hint that hit men are involved is when nothing is stolen from the victim, or when they undergo prolonged questioning or torture. In other cases, the hint comes through an ominous phone call, letter or emissary.

"If a gun is used, most victims are shot at point-blank range. This and the evidence of non-resistance lead police to classify such a killing as an execution," he added. Again, the brute force used, like pumping many bullets into victims or slashing them many times may point to an execution.

"It is like they want to tell the world: 'We were not only out to kill this man, we were out to teach him a good lesson and let the world know it all'," said a top detective.

These are the kind of hit men who, whether they use a gun or other weapons, show their fury by performing gory, bizarre and spine-chilling things on the body like dismembering it, gouging out the eyes, slicing out the ears or beheading. Others extract toes and fingernails or drive in nails into the head of their victim to inflict maximum pain before death.

Police say confessions by some hit men reveal either elaborate plans and bungled ones. Their pay depends on their professionalism and the targets involved. "We have heard of cases where some hit men get only Sh10,000 while others are paid millions to accomplish a mission," said the policeman.

The daring ones are those seemingly shielded from the law. These, however, are not just mere hit men, but accomplished assassins. In this league are the killers of politicians Tom Mboya in 1969, J.M. Kariuki in 1975 and Robert Ouko in 1990. In these cases, top officials in government and the police are, more often than not, involved.

Some hit men do not seem to worry about the setting, especially if the message is meant to echo loud to the victim's friends and neighbours. In fact, most seem to relish the publicity they get, and will smoke out their victim even from the most public place.

A case in point is that of top military intelligence officer, Lt Col Augustine Kunyiha, who was shot dead by four hit men opposite Nation Centre on December 30, 1994, as he waited for a friend at about 6pm.

They engaged him in an argument before grabbing his gun and shooting him four times in the head and chest. As they shot him, they shouted at him: "Toa hiyo kitu (bring that thing)". They are said to have retrieved a package from his car and fled in theirs as the crowd watched. The case never went anywhere.

A few metres from the spot, Nairobi councillor S.M. Maina was shot by a gang that was out to get his life. He died a year later in London where he was taken for specialised treatment. The motive was widely linked to his anti-corruption crusade at City Hall, but no suspect was ever arrested.

Still in the city centre, a lawyer representing suspects in a Sh96 million heist from the Standard Charted Bank, Moi Avenue, Mr Samuel Ndungi, was shot dead as he came out of a cafe on Moi Avenue opposite Jeevanjee Gardens on April 22, 1997.

He had claimed he had been summoned by a top police officer who, he said, told him in no uncertain terms that he was not amused by his role.

Other cases of gangland style executions include that of a Ngong lawyer and human rights activist Elijah Marima Sempeta, who was sprayed with bullets as he parked his vehicle in his compound in March, last year. The motive was suspected to be his role in some controversial ranches. More recently, senior roads engineer Francis Moindi Nyaega was killed in the same area.

Former Kilome MP Tony Ndilinge too, is believed to have been executed, although no suspect has ever been convicted. Mr Ndilinge was found murdered in Githurai, Nairobi, in August 2001.

In February last year, a suspected hit squad shot Mr Pankaj Shah dead in Mombasa as he drove into town centre for dinner with his wife.

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