CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — A convict serving a life sentence for murder and rape who escaped from a top-security prison in South Africa by faking his own burning death likely got warders to help smuggle a corpse into his cell, a parliamentary hearing was told Wednesday.
Thabo Bester’s elaborate escape happened nearly a year ago — when he was formally declared dead by suicide — but has only been made public and pieced together in the past three weeks. Critics allege that officials intentionally covered up the story.
New details emerged in Wednesday’s hours-long parliamentary hearing into security failures in the breakout, as lawmakers questioned senior officials from the prison and British private security company G4S, which has a long-term contract to run it.
Bester, who was convicted on one count of murder and two counts of rape and sentenced in 2012, was finally re-arrested in Tanzania last weekend along with his girlfriend, a celebrity doctor and socialite, police said. Police are in the process of bringing the two back to South Africa.
Three prison employees, the prison’s night supervisor and two warders in the security camera control room, have been fired on suspicion of helping Bester escape amid the confusion of the pre-dawn blaze in his cell on May 3, 2022. One of them faces a murder charge over the body of the unidentified man that was left burned beyond recognition in Bester’s cell.
The father of Bester’s girlfriend also was charged with murder. Police said the unidentified man died of a blunt force trauma to the head before being burned.
But lawmaker Glynnis Breytenbach said Wednesday she suspected more warders and officials were bribed to get the body into the cell and help Bester escape from Mangaung Correctional Centre in the central Free State province.
“How many palms were greased?” Breytenbach asked the prison and G4S officials. “Are you honestly telling us this escape of Hollywood proportion was done with the assistance of only three people?”
The prison and G4S officials conceded under questioning that a TV cabinet big enough to possibly hide a dead body in was brought into the prison in an unauthorized vehicle on May 2 last year, hours before Bester broke out around 4 a.m. the following morning. Neither the cabinet nor the vehicle was searched.
They also said top prison officials had given Bester permission to be transferred to a single-occupant cell three days before his escape “for his own safety,” because he claimed he was being threatened by prison gangs. His new cell was situated next to a fire escape through which he’s believed to have fled, in a part of the prison where security cameras had a “blind spot,” according to lawmakers.
Lawmaker Xola Nqola said it was “not a coincidence” that Bester was moved to that cell at that time.
An internal investigation by G4S found the prison’s security camera recording system had a “power interruption” around the time of the escape, according to documents the company submitted to the hearing.
For months after Bester’s escape, he and girlfriend Dr. Nandipha Magudumana, whom police identified as his “accomplice,” lived in a mansion in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, driving luxury cars while running a company that defrauded businesses out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to media reports.
Authorities only announced publicly last month that Bester hadn’t died in his cell and had escaped, and that only after South African news organization GroundUp broke the story that the charred body found in the cell wasn’t Bester, according to findings from the autopsy. GroundUp also reported there had been recent public sightings of Bester shopping at an upmarket mall with Magudumana.
Those reports and heightened public interest in the story appeared to have spurred Bester and Magudumana to flee the country. After a two-week hunt, police announced the couple had been arrested Saturday near the border between Tanzania and Kenya, more than 2,000 miles away.
The sensational story unleashed heavy criticism against authorities for failing to warn the public that a dangerous criminal was on the loose.
While Wednesday’s hearing focused on the initial prison failures, more hearings are scheduled on what police, the Department of Corrections and South Africa’s Ministry of Justice knew about Bester’s escape and when they found out, amid allegations of a cover-up.
Bester was already a renowned criminal known as the “Facebook rapist” for using the social media site to lure his victims to meetings, claiming he could get them modeling contracts. He was found guilty of murder for stabbing his girlfriend, a model, to death in 2011 and raping two other female models.
Magome reported from Johannesburg.
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