Westgate hero Stephen Lelei leaves behind controversial legacy

Chief Inspector Stephen Lelei. [File, Standard]

Life is fickle, and for a journalist, nothing is more heartbreaking than planning an interview with a source who dies before they get to share their story.

Chief Inspector Stephen Lelei died on Saturday due to heart complications, leaving behind unresolved accusations that he firmly believed were fabricated.

Lelei had agreed to a TV interview to clear his name after years of refusing media overtures.

He was ready to dispel the image that had built around him, of a brutal cop full of hate - one labelled a murderer.

That interview did not happen - will never happen.

Lelei will soon be buried, taking with him secrets the world may never know. He had been accused of murdering two people in Mlolongo and was serving interdiction at the time of his death.

"My dad was a good man, just misunderstood and fixed by the system he diligently served," said his eldest son, Clinton Kiptoo, an advocate of the High Court, in an interview with The Standard.

I first met Lelei early this year in Kayole, Nairobi's Eastlands. A large man limping from a gunshot wound he suffered during the Westgate terror attack, he simply introduced himself, "I am Lelei."

He looked frail and beaten, as he made glances behind a face mask. He loved his tea.

“This is what keeps me going, just tea, I don’t drink alcohol,” he told me.

Prior to this meeting, we had had a couple of phone calls. The last phone call was in May and we set up an interview at the end of June, just ten days away.

"Are we still on course, Francis? I want KTN to come and air my story. I want the truth to come out," he had asked. "Yes, sir, it's all planned out," I assured him. But death came earlier than expected.

Lelei died quietly at his home in Chokaa estate, Nairobi, shortly after being discharged from Lifecare Hospital in Kikuyu. A week ago, he had attended court for his murder case.

"He started feeling unwell, and we took him to the hospital. His pressure was high, and he was placed in HDU. He stabilized, and we brought him home, where he died," Kiptoo explained.

Who was Stephen Lelei? To some, he was a brash, trigger-happy cop. To others, he was an ordinary officer caught in extraordinary circumstances. But to his son, he was a rock and a pillar, a loving father whom the world misunderstood.

Lelei's name became prominent in September 2013 during one of Kenya's worst terror attacks. A courageous father of three, he was among the first responders, taking command as the senior officer on site.

His bravery came at a high cost; he was shot in the leg by the heavily armed terrorists at Westgate Mall.

The injury left him with a life-long limp.

President Uhuru Kenyatta honoured him with a Silver Star (SS) for his valor, earning him the nickname "Ocampo," after the stern International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo.

After Westgate, Lelei was transferred to Busia, serving as the officer in charge of the weighbridge, before returning to Nairobi's Industrial Area Police Station and later Mlolongo station.

But while recovering from the Westgate ordeal, tragedy struck again. His wife, Matilda Muroso, died mysteriously when their car caught fire on Thika Road near Safari Park Hotel.

Lelei survived by jumping out, but his wife did not. He later told investigators that an unidentified vehicle had been trailing them before the incident.

Three years later, while serving as OCS Mlolongo, Lelei faced another severe challenge. He and his former junior colleague, Fredrick Leliman, were charged with the murder of a couple, Jacob Mwenda Mbai and Elizabeth Nduku, in May 2016.

The case turned his life upside down. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) took up the case and recommended both be charged for murder. However, during the trial, a ballistic expert testified that none of their pistols were involved in the killing.

The infamous murders of June 2016 of lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda, and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri happened while Lelei was the OCS at Mlolongo. 

According to a written statement by a police informer involved in the case, the brutal killings were orchestrated by four officers from the Mlolongo Administration Police post. 

Ngugi revealed that he met one of the officers in the murder plot before it was executed, through his friend, OCS Lelei.

The late officer's son represented his father in the murder trial together with two other lawyers. 

Lelei had previously served as an OCS in several stations, including Mlolongo, Industrial Area, Pangani, Soweto, and Kabete. He also worked at the National Police Service headquarters at Vigilance House in the personnel office.

Known for his unique approach to dealing with criminals in Eastlands, Nairobi, he often gave offenders bus fare to return to their villages instead of facing fatal consequences in the city.

"We worked with Lelei in community policing," said a community leader in Soweto. "He had a distinctive way of dealing with criminals. He’d warn them, speak to them, and then give them bus fare to go back to their villages. This diplomatic approach worked well."

Lelei's son, Kiptoo, says his family is willing to forgive but will never forget.

Now, he must navigate life without his father's guidance.

Lelei will be buried in Eldoret, leaving behind a legacy shrouded in controversy and a story that remains untold.