|Abdul Karim Popat (centre) with Nairobi provincial CID officer Slim Ali after he was rescued by police officers.|
By BEATRICE WAMUYU
Who are Kenya’s dumbest gangsters? The jury is still out. But a gang that kidnapped a Nairobi tycoon in 1998 could easily grab the top spot.
Three people – a computer programmer, a university graduate and a tycoon’s former employee – committed what is arguably Kenya’s first high profile kidnapping, and regretted it.
Abdul Karim Popat, then chairman of Simba Colt Motors and Imperial Bank, did not consider himself a very rich man. But the three thought they could easily get a Sh200 million ransom when they seized him and holed up in a home in the leafy Karen neighbourhood.
Although they were unemployed, Alois Kimani, James Muriithi Wamae and Kenneth Kimani Kinyanjui had rented the house just for the job.
Popat, 72, was seized as he left work at around 5.30pm, accompanied by the bank’s Managing Director Abdul Mohammed and driver Stephen Kamau. One of the kidnappers, Kimani, had worked at Simba Colt for six months before quitting, arguing that he disliked Asians, according to police.
It was suspected that as the group’s leader, Kimani had provided details of Popat’s movements. For nearly a month, they tracked him as they worked out the kidnap plot. Kimani had a criminal record and had been sentenced to death for robbery with violence, but was released on bond upon appeal. At the time of the kidnapping, he faced a car theft charge.
On Thursday, April 30, they parked their car near Popat’s home and lay in wait. Immediately they saw the Mitsubishi Galant Saloon car approaching, they forced it off the road. As it landed in a ditch, they pulled out Popat, his driver and the managing director and forced them into their car, a BMW 320. They then took him to the Karen homestead.
And so started a kidnap saga peppered with drama, comedy and wicked humour. It lasted for three days.
At the home, they treated him well, even allowing him to call his wife and assure her he was safe. His driver, Kamau, was kept in a separate room. He tried to escape through the roof and fell. The ‘kind’ kidnappers rushed him to Kikuyu Mission Hospital and even gave him Sh3,000.
In the meantime, they asked Popat for Sh200 million. They wanted the ransom dropped off at the Nairobi War Cemetery or City Park, Parklands. After tough negotiations, they agreed on Sh6 million, after which they would set him free.
The gangsters could not leave anything to chance and insisted they write a ‘contract’ stating those terms, which Popat signed.
“If I don’t pay you, you know where to pick me,” Popat told them. Promising to drop him off at a place of his choice, they gave him Sh1,000 to use for a taxi home. However, the plot did not work, as they found the spot teaming with policemen.
Meanwhile, police had launched a major manhunt and had searched several homes near the spot where the BMW was found abandoned. The thugs had dumped Mohammed after taking him and three other employees to the bank in IPS Building and retrieving cash from the safe.
They were now using his mobile phone. Unknown to them, police were using the phone’s signal to track their whereabouts.
Kenya was just adopting mobile phone technology, but only a few rich people could afford them. While today’s thugs know that they can be tracked via phones, few understood how this worked. It would become one of the well-documented cases in which detectives used a mobile phone signal to apprehend criminals. One would say the gangsters were naive, ignorant, dumb or even daring. Listen to this: They called several police stations, outlining their demands. But they were kind to Popat, who they even gave President John F Kennedy’s Profiles of Power to keep him entertained.
Search for fame
Theirs was not only a search for quick riches, but for glory, too.
They brought him copies of daily newspapers with coverage of the drama. One quipped: “You see, our actions have made history.” In the same vein, their capture would make history.
They were quite friendly, according to Popat, and looked like young men desperate for jobs. There were casual conversations and a few scary moments.
“When they captured me, they asked where I had been for three weeks they had been looking for me. I told them I was in Cairo,” said Popat. At the house, he tried to persuade them to abandon crime.
They were guarding him in turns. At one point, the man keeping guard dozed off, only to wake up and find his gun lying next to Popat. He sprung up in a panic.
“He told me, ‘don’t use my gun to kill me’, but I told him crime was not my way of life.”
By Saturday night, police had zeroed in on the source of the mobile signal, then provided by Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation. Just before dawn Sunday morning, police stormed the house and set him free without an iota of resistance from the stupefied abductors.
They just stood there as if rooted to the ground.
“What shall we do now? What shall we do? We shall shoot ourselves,” cried one of the kidnappers. It was Popat who persuaded them not to, but to surrender. However, Kimani was shot dead when he came back from patrolling nearby alleys, only to find police in the house.
Police recovered an AK-47 rifle, two pistols and several rounds of ammunition. And so ended the kidnap drama that not only shocked the country but also entertained it.