|Charles Omondi is escorted to court.|
By BEATRICE WAMUYU
There are many ways of getting rich. But grabbing Sh54 million and coolly walking away is apparently not one of them.
Ask one Charles Omondi. On the night of January 5, 1997, he walked into the offices of Kenya Airfreight Handling Limited at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. He told the guards that he had been sent by Citibank to pick the cash, which had been sent from New York.
Guards handed him the dollar bills, just like that. Then, he disappered, only to be arrested one year later minus the cash. It remains one of Kenya’s most perplexing robberies. No guns, no shots.
Years after serving time for the heist, Omondi showed up to claim he had no riches.
The theft excited the nation and baffled investigators. As police and the Central Bank of Kenya scrambled to investigate the theft, a reward of Sh250,000 was offered and Omondi’s photo circulated. It was later increased to Sh1 million.
The money was in an 11-kilogramme bag, belonging to the bank’s Fedha Towers, Muindi Bingu Street branch. The money is equivalent to about Sh85 million at today’s exchange rate.
The bank usually brought in foreign currency in dollar bills freighted as ordinary cargo. However, investigators wanted to know why the bank could not use more modern methods of transferring huge sums of money, such as electronic transfers. Omondi, a prime suspect, owned a firm known as Chaco Inter- Afric Enterprises, according to media reports.
The money was normally collected from the airport, where it was stored in a strong room, on Mondays. A city security firm was responsible for this task. As usual, the city security firm’s personnel went to collect the money only to find it missing.
However, the matter was kept secret. Indeed, local dailies only reported the heist on Wednesday.
“The whole set up was very funny. How did the man walk to where the money was kept and asked for the cargo without raising suspicion of the three men on guard,” posed a police officer.
The Citibank country General Manager, Mr Ian Fletcher, confirmed the theft, but declined to give more details.
How did a bank bring in such huge amounts in cash? It was argued that the interbank market would normally satisfy such demands.
On January 10, 1997 the police indeed confirmed that the suspect had fled to another country.
Trail of lost money
The stolen money was in 100 dollar bills ranging in serial numbers between AE60742001-AE60752000A. All banks were asked to report to the Central Bank fraud section if those notes were found, in the hope of picking up the trail of the lost money. Telephone numbers of the bank and the police were circulated. Omondi was later traced to Tanzania.
“Detectives have traced the suspect to the neighbouring country. He used the road, contrary to earlier reports that he flew out of the country. He was followed by the police to the border between Kenya and Tanzania,” a senior officer said. His arrest was as dramatic as the theft. On March 12, 1998, police raided a house in Nairobi’s Buru Buru estate and arrested him.
Apparently, he had sneaked into the country several days earlier, only to find his wife had moved from a house in Umoja to Buru Buru. He had come in by road from Tanzania and kept shifting from lodgings and houses to avoid arrest, according to media reports. Some reports indicated that neighbours called the police when they heard a commotion of some sort of a domestic fight in Omondis’ house.
“Those who called officers from the Buru Buru Police Station were concerned about the fight. Policemen who went to the house had no idea about the person they were going to arrest,” a senior officer said.
Now, policemen were advancing two theories about how he was arrested. Some said those who made the report could therefore not get the Sh1 million reward.
After a lengthy trial, he was jailed for three years. During trial, he protested his innocence but the court did not believe his story: a man called Martin Njoroge of Citibank once called on him, made him an agent of the bank and gave him false ID documents. He used these to collect the cash, and did not know the man was a con, he said.
“I went through the normal clearing procedure,” he claimed. He later handed the money to Njoroge, he said.
Omondi was released from jail following a presidential pardon in 2002.