I hated my life as a grave robber
By James Mwangi | June 26th 2015
Why did you turn to crime at such a tender age?
My parents separated while I was a young boy and my mother remarried and relocated to Nakuru. There, my stepfather mistreated me and denied me education. I had to fend for myself when I was still in class three. I was the first born in a family of five.
At the age of 11, I stole Sh150 from my aunt to buy food and I ended up at the Shikusa GK Prison for delinquent children in Kakamega for six years.
What happened at Shikusa that turned you into a hardcore criminal?
In those days, you would go to jail as a chicken thief, but come out more hardened. I was taught a lot by the hardcore inmates.
I left Shikusa in the mid-1990s and became a regular in police cells and prison. I joined the gang of (the infamous) Wanugu, Wacucu and Rasta. We robbed banks, hijacked motorists but they were all killed as I escaped with gun wounds. I then formed my own team.
You went on with high-profile crimes. At what point did you shift to robbing the dead?
One of my fallen gang members left his girlfriend and kid to my care. I used her to pose as a prostitute to lure and rob motorists. But in 1999 at Westlands, police ambushed us and gunned her down. I escaped by a whisker. I am still bringing up her son. I decided to try stealing from graves and I was surprised at how safe and easy it was. I had a gang of eight. At the graveyards, you can’t bump into police, you only had the dead to contend with. This ‘business’ had no complainant and was stress-free. And because the Bible says you come to this world empty-handed and will leave the same way, we justified our crime that we were fulfilling the scriptures.
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How did you identify the graves to rob?
We relied on newspaper obituary pages. We checked daily and from the size of obituary to the description of the family. That way, we knew where to pounce. We would attend the burial meetings and on establishing the cost of the clothes and coffin, we then planned the raid. Actually, we contributed a 10 per cent of the coffin price to the family prior to the raid.
After digging up the grave, we took away the coffin and other valuables. We threw some bodies back into the grave, while others we left in the open. We however preferred cemented graves as they were not filled with soil, making our work a lot easier. We dug up over 1,000 coffins, including one that cost Sh500,000. We usually got about Sh100,000 for our effort. An Asian coffin shop owner provided a ready market.
So you went on with grave robbery without any hitches?
Yes. For a long time, we remained a mystery to police and the public. Everybody was scared. But we smoked bhang to embolden ourselves during robbery. We never feared that spirits or ghosts would haunt us for disturbing the bodies.
Our major worry was police, whom we knew would not dare challenge men carrying a coffin at night. They too are fearful.
What happened then? Was there a time you disagreed over the money?
We remained intact but four of us were lynched in Maragua, Murang’a when a grave robbery was foiled. Apparently, the locals were aware of our mission and laid a trap. Luckily, that day I was ‘off-duty,’ otherwise I would have died there.
And so the grave robbery squad collapsed?
No. We did not stop there. The remaining four of us escaped death narrowly when we attempted to raid the grave of Ibrahim Akasha (the Mombasa drug tycoon), but it was heavily guarded. We almost died in a scuffle with armed police.
When did you stop robbing graves?
In June 2000, we excavated a grave at Lang’ata Cemetery but the getaway vehicle delayed and by morning, it was too late to ferry it. We abandoned it but at Lang’ata Road, we came across a newspaper van and carjacked it.
We kicked out the driver and as my three colleagues sat in the front, I was in the cabin where I went on dusting the casket with the day’s newspapers. Police were alerted of the carjacking incident. They trailed us and started firing at the car along Kenyatta Avenue. I guess over 15 bullets hit the van killing my three colleagues. I jumped inside the coffin and feigned death. As police removed the casket, I jumped out and amidst the confusion, scared both the police and crowd as I melted away. Hours later, I surrendered my pistol at Kamukunji Police Station and at Makadara Law Courts, I was imprisoned for six months. I quit crime and even confessed my eerie past in a church in Githurai. I gave out all my proceeds from crime, including a building in Kawangware.
As you reformed, what precious thing do you remember losing?
I had a fiancée I wanted to marry, but her father cut short the wedding when we were about to take our vows. He had seen me in the newspapers and could not accept me as his son-in-law. The church was bewildered. I don’t know where she is today. I am happily married with two kids. My mother was killed during the 2008 post-election skirmishes in Kawangware.
What excites you today after quitting crime?
I am happy that about 15 years on, no one has ventured into the bizarre crime. I hate the days I was a robber. It doesn’t pay at all. I have used my story to inspire the youth to shun crime. I have helped police to mop up firearms from youths by merely talking to them. Besides preaching in the streets against crime, I am also a motivational speaker.
I chronicled my crime life in a DVD to help criminals change their ways. I have also toured several countries courtesy of UN-Habitat to promote a crime-free society.
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