Continued from yesterday.
In this second and last instalment, Charles Omondi, a man who was accused of carrying out a million-dollar heist, recounts to David Odongo how his life changed after he surrendered and served a jail term.
The police had cordoned off his office and were going through documents in his filing cabinets.
“They tore my office apart, held my employees for questioning. My employees were so innocent. They didn’t even have an idea that I had cleared a consignment on Sunday. They knew I was in Tanzania on business since I had another office in Tanzania.”
By the end of the week, Omondi was all over the news with his photograph prominently displayed in the Daily Nation with a headline, ‘Cool thief picks up one million dollars’
“I didn’t enjoy the notoriety. My name was on everyone’s lips. The worst bit about being on the run is that it is very expensive. You aren’t in your country so everything costs money…and people know you have money,” says Omondi, shocked that he had a Sh250,000 bounty on his head.
The Central Bank of Kenya later increased the reward money to Sh1 million. He adds that it would take not less than seven people to plan such a heist.
“Two weeks after I went to Tanzania, I didn’t have to hide, because the police came to find me. I spoke to them. They knew where I lived and after a few days, they left and came back to Kenya without me,” he said, without admitting that he had an arrangement with the police.
“It’s not my duty to arrest myself. It’s the duty of the police. They came and they found me. They left me and came back home without me. And I stayed in Tanzania for one year and three months. If they wanted me they could have picked me anytime.”
After the heist, seven people were arrested and two were eventually taken to court and convicted.
On May 11, 2001, Judge JK Mitey set free the principal cargo officer Simon Karanja Nduashey who handed over the money to Omondi, and his boss Julius Lelgek Rotich.
The judge said “there was no scintilla of evidence to show that the accused had a common intention with the appellants. The conviction was unsafe. The learned State Counsel in my view rightly conceded the appeal. I allow the appeal, quash the conviction and set aside sentences. The appellants will be set at liberty forthwith unless they are otherwise lawfully held.”
Frank Sabwa was an executive at Citibank and remembers the heist, saying it wasn’t the bank’s fault.
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“The ease with which it was planned and executed was interesting, catching many guys in the banking industry unawares. Omondi was in clearing and forwarding, so this wasn’t an oversight by the bank but by logistics companies,”Sabwa says.
“He simply noticed a pattern that had a loophole, mastered the pattern and exploited it. The matter is still being talked about today in banking circles.”
The heist and the subsequent lifestyle Omondi led has been an urban folklore, told in villages, exaggerated by drunkards, admired by men with no guts to pull off such a feat, and frowned upon by a few.
Stories abound of Omondi enjoying life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, being serenaded by rhumba bands that sang about his generosity as a bevy of beauties surrounded him.
He laughed when asked about that.
“I only went to the DRC on business. And I stayed in Tanzania because of panic as the police and media were all over the case,” he said.
According to finance expert Dominic Omondi, it’s wrong to quantify the amount of money stolen from Citbank as Sh110 million going by today’s exchange rates.
“If you were to look at the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the cost of living index, Sh50 million in 1997 is worth Sh229.3 million today. This is because the purchasing power of the Kenyan Shilling loses value faster than the dollar,” Dominic says.
“If you had 100 dollars in 1997, what it would buy is more than its equivalent value in Kenya shillings.”
Omondi’s mother Elseba Oyugi is now 78 years old.
Her home is barely 500 metres from her firstborn son’s home. She visits her son every day. A staunch Anglican Church member, she describes herself as a prayer warrior.
“My son is innocent. People have said so much about him, but I am the one who gave birth to him, and I know him well. He is a generous man,” she said, adding that she is the one who convinced him to come back to Kenya and surrender.
“People were bothering me. They thought if my son had the money, then I must also have some. As a family, we had nothing, and my son was hiding in a foreign land. It was such a difficult period,” she said.
Omondi said when he came back to Kenya, his intention was to surrender.
“I had been on the run, and I was broke. It’s expensive being on the run. I came to surrender. Media wrote a lot of untruths about how I was arrested.”
According to the police, who gave the information to journalists, officers had been called on a domestic brawl.
A man was fighting with his wife and neighbours called the police. Upon being arrested, the police at Buruburu identified the man as Charles Omondi.
The police said Omondi had sneaked back into the country, and found that his wife had moved from Umoja to Buruburu. He then got into a fight with her on why she moved houses in his absence.
“That’s their theory. The truth is my house was still in Donholm. My wife was away in America, so which woman was I fighting with? I surrendered. I was not arrested. I took myself to the police and they wanted a juicy story to tell the media.”
Prison life is bad
A week after being arrested, Omondi was charged with theft before Nairobi Senior Resident Magistrate Christine Meoli. Six months later, he was handed a three-year jail sentence.
“Being in Kamiti was the worst part of my life. When I was in the dock, and the magistrate handed out the sentence, I felt my whole world had collapsed,” he said.
“I saw my mother break into tears when I was sent to jail. My brother and my friends had all come to support me and they did support me all through my jail term.”
He said he made more friends in prison. “Some used to come to me with business ideas, thinking I have money to help them invest. Others came asking me if I have any money so that they can keep it safely for me. Kenyans are funny people.”
A story goes that Omondi left Sh20 million to his local church bishop for safekeeping. After he came back to Kenya, he went to the bishop but the man of God had bought several houses with the money.
Outraged, he went and bought a panga, came back and threatened the bishop who quickly transferred some houses to him. Omondi denied all that. He doesn’t want to speak about it, saying the bishop died a long time ago, and he doesn’t want to dwell on the past.
Although sentenced to three years, Omondi got a presidential pardon and walked out of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, a reformed man.
He refused to admit that his influential friends pushed for a presidential pardon. “I didn’t do anything; God just came through for me.”
On the day he walked out of Kamiti, only his brother was present to receive him. He never told his other family members or friends because he didn’t want any publicity.
“The first thing I did was go to the nearest hotel and order my favourite meal. Ugali and kuku. I then went to my house, packed clothes and went to the village to see my mother. I stayed with her for a week and then one of my very powerful and influential friends booked me in a five-star Mombasa hotel.
“For two weeks, I enjoyed everything I had missed in prison, including my whiskey, sun and the beach,” he said.
After two weeks, another wealthy and influential friend gave him Sh300,000 as capital, so that he could start a business.
“I went to Tanzania in 2002 and set up a new clearing and forwarding firm. My name had been tarnished in Kenya so I needed a new home. I left Kenya a broke man, and in a few years, I was back to my old self. I could afford to buy a showroom Range Rover. One thing about money is if you have made it before, you can still make it again even if you lose everything like I did.”
He flourished in Tanzania until 2012 when he came back to Kenya with ambitions to vie for the Ugunja parliamentary seat.
“I burned my fingers when I joined politics. I used all my money and halfway between the campaigns, I quit and went back to Tanzania. Once again in my life, I had nothing and I had to start afresh.”
Omondi spent another three years in Tanzania and left permanently on October 25, 2015. It was the day the late John Pombe Magufuli won presidential elections.
“I didn’t think my policies and Magulfi’s policies were in tandem. I knew business under his regime would be difficult, so I closed shop and came back to my village. As a man grows older, his heart desires to be at the place he was born.”
Currently, Omondi is a philanthropist and a businessman in Siaya.
There is no feminine touch in the building or furnishing in his house, and there seems to be no fire in his kitchen as he sent a young boy to buy soda and biscuits for us. That was our lunch.
Asked if he is still married to the wife of his youth, Omondi laughed. “I am a Luo man. A Luo man has wives, not a wife.”
A very busy man, widows who need help and orphans who need school fees troop to his home.
Richard Okoth, a retired chief of the location where Omondi resides, said Omondi is the strongest pillar in Ngunya village.
“He has a big heart, he has helped so many people and he is one of our sons whom we are very proud of,” Okoth said.
Omondi lives quietly in Ngunya village. He is not a poor man but he is diabetic so he no longer drinks alcohol.
Three of his children work in Nairobi. The last one is a teenager. He drives his white W211 Mercedes to the gym every evening.
As he saw us off, he held my hand whispered: “I cleared the money and handed it over to them. I didn’t steal. I was a legally appointed agent of Citibank and I handed over the money to the bank’s manager, Njoroge.”