Police are investigating kidnappings and robberies targeting women in parts of Central Kenya. A suspected criminal gang of four has been luring their victims into a six-seater mini-van then ferry them to unknown places.
The mini-van is a common mode of transport across the region used to ferry passengers for short distances between towns and local estates.
According to victims and police, the gang members pose as passengers and target women travelling alone in the early morning, especially on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays when they could be in a rush to head to work or church.
One of the victims encountered the gang at 7am on July 28. Sarah Koigi said she was alone at the Giakanja PSV stage when the mini-van approached. She thought it was an acquaintance offering her a lift and since she was in a hurry, she only glanced at the front seat where she saw a woman passenger.
The door opened and seated in the back were two men, one in the passenger seat behind the driver and another behind her.
"I thought they might have recognised me but they didn't look familiar. It looked like the town service PSVs, so I got inside, thinking the other people were passengers heading to town," she said.
To her surprise, a few minutes after the vehicle got onto the highway, the man seated behind her grabbed her by the neck while the other man blindfolded her.
"It was terrifying, but they promised not to hurt me if I cooperated. The woman in the front seat ransacked my handbag and took out my bank cards and IDs and robbed me of money," she said.
They demanded her pin numbers to unlock her ATMs and phone details and proceeded to withdraw money from her bank accounts through mobile money transfers.
"I did not know where they were taking me but we drove for long while I was blindfolded. They eventually dropped me off and told me I was in Ragati, Mathira constituency, as they drove off," she said.
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She found a boda boda rider willing to take her to Karatina where she called her husband for help.
"They had already withdrawn money from my accounts. I lost Sh60,000. I made a statement to the police OB number 55/28," she said. Still traumatised by the incident, she vowed never to take a lift to town again.
Another victim told The Standard on condition of anonymity that she was attacked on July 18, around 7:30am while waiting for a matatu in Mathari estate when a white minivan arrived.
"I didn't quite see the details. I got into the ca, which had a driver and passenger next to him and two men also boarded the vehicle," she said.
After two minutes on the road, the passenger sitting next to the driver turned to her and asked for everything she had in her handbag.
"When I got into the car, I wasn't keen, I was on the phone texting, so I didn't look at these people keenly. I gave him my handbag and phone and knew I was being robbed. They started robbing the other two passengers and harassing us," she said.
"One passenger refused to give up his pin number and they beat him up several times until he complied but they later threw him out of the car and then started harassing me," she said.
The victim said she was forced to give up her pin number and bank details. They transferred all the funds to mobile accounts.
She lost Sh140,000 from her various accounts. They later dumped her several kilometres away.
"As they drove off, they had the car boot door open wide so I couldn't see the license plate of the vehicle, and they left me in an isolated place where I couldn't seek help," she said.
The gang was armed with one machete and rungu, and blindfolded victims. According to police, the gang targets women mostly more than 40 years of age.
Detectives working on the case said they had been receiving at least two reports per week for the last two months with the number doubling on Sundays.
"They seem to be posing as passengers and many women often trust that if a woman is in the vehicle they will be safe, only to fall victim to the kidnappers," one detective said.
Vehicles involved in the crimes are new and automatic and so many victims report that they recall the door sticker by the handle 'Do not bang the door'.
According to detectives, another challenge to investigation is that the victims can hardly describe the attackers or give details of the vehicle due to shock.
Nyeri Central Sub County commander Paul Kuria confirmed they had received reports of such incidents across the sub-county, targeting mostly women.
"We would like to warn the public to be careful when waiting for vehicles at designated bus stops. They should keep off free rides," he said.
He said the gang poses as passengers, and are targeting women who are travelling alone.
"They are robbing their victims and forcing them to transfer of funds from bank accounts and phones to them, then they drop them off in different towns or regions," Kuria said.
"So far we are following up on several leads and will soon apprehend them. In the meantime, we would like to ask our residents to be on high alert," he said.