In May 2015, three gunshots shattered the uneasy peace of a dusty feeder road off the busy Mombasa Road, snuffing out the life of James Maina Karanja.
Karanja was an internal auditor at Nakumatt Holdings and had just unearthed a complex web of fraud within the retail giant’s top management.
Could his killing have been the beginning of the end of what was once East Africa’s biggest chain of supermarkets?
James Maina Karanja’s murder two years ago as he left work at Nakumatt Supermarket’s head office reads like a crime bestseller.
It is a story of how far greed can drive workmates into killing one of their own.
Going by testimonies filed in court, a rogue police constable based at Loresho Police Station is the key suspect in the death of the former Nakumatt internal auditor, whose killing was intended to serve as a warning to other workers keen to stop the bleeding of the now limping retail chain.
Suppliers and senior officials, it was discovered, had colluded in forging deliveries before payments were hastily made, possibly setting of a chain of events that have driven the company into financial trouble.
Boda Boda operator Daniel Nyongo Daudi, a key witness to the murder, narrowly escaped being an accomplice, perhaps because he could not ride his own motorbike fast enough. This is the motorbike which the killer later used to escape.
Daudi’s friend and now a co-accused is said to have been the rider on the fateful Thursday on May 7, 2015 when the rogue constable allegedly fired three bullets at Karanja’s black BMW as he left work for the day, killing him instantly.
The weapon was a Ceska pistol assigned to Newton Osiemo, a wealthy pilot who works for Wilken Airlines based at Wilson Airport.
Osiemo is listed as a prosecution witness following his own 4.40am robbery in November 2014, when he was driving in his Range Rover to work from his home in Karen. A white car, a Toyota Probox, suddenly blocked his way along Koboitos Road. Three men jumped out, pointing a gun at him, his statement reads in part.
Two robbers opened the doors of Osiemo’s car and must have been pleasantly surprised to see a wad of notes — Sh30,000 to be exact — a pistol wrapped in a nylon paper bag and a MacIntosh laptop computer.
They made away with these items, jumping back into their car and speeding off.
But they must have argued about how to share the loot that they dropped the pistol which was picked up by a guard reporting to work nearby.
The guard, out of fear of victimisation had he surrendered the gun to Hardy Police Station, opted to take the longer route through a friend who knew an officer working as a bodyguard of Nairobi gubernatorial candidate Peter Kenneth.
It is the bodyguard who happened to know the police constable hoping that he could help return the gun to the rightful owner, or at least to the police. The rogue police constable decided to keep the gun, according to Daudi, and often leased it out to criminals who ravaged the neighbourhoods around the upscale Loresho estate and the Kibarage slums.
Daudi, acting as an informer, told Loresho Police Station Commanding Officer Siameto Memusi about the police constable’s criminal ways and that his illegal firearm was behind the spike in robberies.
Days before Karanja was shot, Daudi had been commissioned by the rogue police man to trail the internal auditor to his home, because he had supposedly refused to settle a Sh500,000 debt. Twice, Karanja was able to shed Daudi off in traffic as he was a very fast driver — a proposition made by his wife in another statement also filed in court.
The police constable’s determination to finish the assignment was clear that whole week, the prosecution argues. He woke Daudi up at dawn two days before the murder, and drove to Nakumatt’s head office off Mombasa Road shortly before 7am.
Daudi was to be shown Karanja’s car as he drove in for the day, so that he could trail him later in the evening to establish his place of residence. A few minutes before 8am, Karanja arrived at his office premises driving his black car. Daudi took the registration numbers and marked the car.
As instructed, he arrived at the spot before 5pm and waited till Karanja drove out but was unable to keep up with his speed.
The same sequence of events happened the following day, and this got the rogue constable worked up considering that he had received a down payment worth Sh80,000 for the dirty job.
One of Nakumatt’s senior accountants, who also faces murder charges, allegedly commissioned the execution. An unknown balance would be paid after the task was completed.
On the third day the rogue police constable asked to use Daudi’s motorbike but with Daudi’s friend — the co-accused — as the rider. The duo set out from Kangemi for Mombasa Road at around 2pm. They had removed the registration plates from Daudi’s motorbike to conceal its identity.
Daudi was also asked to drive behind in the rogue police constable’s white saloon car, a Mitsubishi Lancer, to the agreed spot near Nakumatt offices. The car was to act as a back-up getaway means should the plan go wrong.
He got to the Nakumatt premises after 5pm, long after the police constable and Daudi’s friend had arrived because traffic across the city centre was slow.
The police constable, who was all the while wearing a motorcycle helmet and a black leather jacket, told Daudi to wait in the car and follow the motorbike when summoned.
When Karanja arrived, Daudi’s friend started the bike as the police constable hopped onto the pillion. They trailed Karanja’s car for a few metres.
As they overtook the black BMW, the police constable allegedly drew out his gun and allegedly fired three bullets into the right hand window of the car — killing Karanja instantly, sending his car swerving since his leg was still on the gas pedal.
Daudi told the court that his friend took off at high speed towards Mombasa Road. Karanja’s car had blocked the narrow road ahead of him.
Nakumatt’s employees were among the first to arrive at the scene before the police were called in to remove Karanja’s body and car from the crime scene. Daudi would make it to Kangemi at about 11pm to find the rogue police constable waiting for his car.
Earlier the following morning, Daudi’s friend had handed to him Sh10,000 to buy his silence. Later that day, Daudi, who was well known by the other riders and youths in Kibarage slums as a police informer, disclosed the events of the previous evening to Mr Memusi.
The OCS came up with a trick that would place the firearm in the hands of the police constable and confirm that the pistol was actually for hire. He instructed Daudi to ask the police constable for the gun, pretending that he had a robbery job at a mobile money outlet within the slum, and that the loot was estimated at Sh300,000.
The police constable obliged, but only after coaching Daudi how to protect himself should the robbery go wrong.
He would also be on standby to salvage the situation by reporting the gun to another police station as having been recovered from thugs who fled a crime scene. But only if the plan failed.
Memusi had succeeded in confirming his fears about the gun hiring and swiftly arrested the police constable.
Back at Nakumatt, an email hit the mailbox of several senior officials informing them that Karanja was the first in a row of marked employees who were stepping on an unidentified person’s toes.
“Last year, we warned James Karanja but he did not listen, now see what has happened to him,” read the warning from one Bernard Momanyi. Police are yet to indicate who the real sender is or where the email was sent from.
Other threatening emails have since been sent to the same senior Nakumatt officials after the death of Karanja, then 27, warning them of elimination should they carry on with investigations into fraud.
“James was a young man the age mate of Gilbert and intelligent but his life is no more, Michael is a young man with a young family. I will deal with them. Mr Kimondo will follow suit. I am watching,” the terse email warning copied to four senior official reads in part.
It was sent about two months after the death of Karanja, a father of one.
Latoya Kaka, Karanja’s widow, did not mention whether her late husband had divulged any threats to his life in her statement that is also filed in court.
Investigators have narrowed the motive of the killing down to Karanja’s persistence at stopping mega fraud perpetuated by senior staff and suppliers, and which was costing Nakumatt tens of millions of shillings.
“The motive of the deceased’s death was due to the fraud investigations he was conducting at Nakumatt Holdings Ltd,” Investigating Officer Julius Kiema told the court.
No names of the fraudsters have been given in court yet.
It is also not possible to determine whether the supposed fraud is responsible for the financial mess that the giant retailer finds itself in currently, even though the management has cited various reasons for the difficulties that have threatened the closure of Nakumatt branches.
Daudi is listed as the first prosecution witness in the murder because he places the main suspects, the rogue police constable and his friend, at the scene.
He has also linked a senior Nakumatt accountant to the murder by having witnessed the conversation with the rogue police constable and the actual handover of the Sh80,000 down payment.
Justice James Wakiaga is hearing the case where 16 witnesses have testified so far.
Next hearing is scheduled for September.