The three men suspected to be behind the theft of Sh52 million from the Thika KCB Bank branch arraigned on November 27, 2017. PHOTO | ERIC WAINAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Tea, planning and precision the hallmarks of KCB heist
On Monday, November 20, as Kenyans waited to hear from the Supreme Court whether there would be another repeat presidential election, there was interesting news coming out of Thika.
Samuel Ng’ang’a, the manager of the Kenya Commercial Bank branch in the busy industrial town 40 kilometres north of Nairobi, had walked into the strongroom and was met by an unusual smell.
Instead of the smell of new banknotes, the room smelt of smoke, as if there had been a fire in what is usually the most secure part of the bank.
Kiambu Police Commander Adiel Nyange would later give the routine briefing, saying:
“He reported the issue to Thika police station. The police then immediately visited the bank’s strongroom and discovered that items stored there had been disarranged. They also found an uncovered hole that had been dug inside.”
More than Sh50 million had been passed through that hole on the floor of the strongroom.
What the police would later discover, according to their records seen by the Sunday Nation, is that the theft was the culmination of a well-executed plan launched in July, and it all happened metres from the doorstep of their station.
Since then, officers have been evasive about their investigations but have arrested and charged four men – Halford Munene Murakaru, Charles Mwangi Murakaru, Julius Ndung’u and Shem Karani Kirimi – with offences related to the theft. All of them pleaded not guilty.
Officers who spoke to the Sunday Nation asked not to be named because the matter is still in court.
It started, according to investigating officers, with a meeting at a restaurant early in June to discuss business ideas.
There were three young men at that meeting and soon after, they were joined by three other men.
As they talked and brainstormed, one of the two men suggested the digging of the tunnel into the bank and, as they discussed how to accomplish that task, it was suggested that they rent stalls at a building near the bank and pretend they sell stationery.
They rented two stalls and branded them Sky Web Concepts.
After some time, the company’s owners realised they needed more space and rented two others, taking the total to four.
Three were covered with Sky Web Concepts’ branding material while the one designated as an office was left uncovered.
Neighbours running businesses in the same building would later say they thought that the operators of Sky Web Concepts were in the business of selling books and their covered stalls were stores.
“The guys seemed to be doing well. They were not very social. They were not the kind of neighbours that greet us every morning.
“So I never bothered to engage them more. They seemed busy and in good business of supplying books to schools because they kept loading cartons into their cars for transport to the various schools,” a stall owner in the building told the Sunday Nation.
Police say from their investigations that the crew had, within the first three weeks of June, assembled all the tools and equipment they needed to drill the tunnel.
They say the tools included diamond cutting and soil drilling bits, an oxygen gauge complete with nozzles, assorted spanners, metallic and wooden bars, safety gloves as well as tracking devices and Central Processing Units.
The drilling began early July, according to the officers, and the diggers did not have a hard time as they were not doing the job by hand.
This, they say, is evidenced by the round cuts in the concrete and the perfect round shape of the hole in the stall and in the strongroom of the bank.
Statements by the suspects arrested state that Shem Karani Kirimi was brought in when the need arose to dump the accumulating soil from the dig.
Although he said in his statement that he was not aware that the “goods” he was transporting in a pick-up were in fact soil packed in cartons until he looked closely as they were being emptied in a vast piece of land near Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, detectives believe he was part of the scheme from the start.
After digging 30 metres, they accessed the strongroom on Sunday, November 19, according to police records, and went about carrying out the heist, one of the largest in Kenya’s history.
It is not yet clear to police how they were so precise in locating the strongroom.
According to sources within the bank, empty cartons had been placed on top of the bank’s two safes in the strongroom, blocking the alarm from sensing the movements of the intruders.
The thieves limited their movements to specific locations within the strongroom and managed to cut through to the two safes to access the money.
“It’s like they knew the boundaries to cross and the ones to avoid. So they opened the safes on the sides undetected,” the source added.
After accessing the cash, they went back to their stall, packed the money and spent the night in the building until Monday morning.
The stalls were opened about 7.30am and they left without causing any suspicion.
At first, police arrested a woman, an attendant at one of the stalls, and two men – the caretaker and the custodian of the keys – to help with investigations.
It is still not clear how the police got the information that led to the arrests but they said the money was kept at a house rented by a woman in nearby Juja town.
The plan was to keep the money in that house for a few months and share the loot later. But that did not happen.
Detectives are, however, tight-lipped on how they managed to track the trio.
The three were later arraigned in court and charged with two counts of breaking into the bank and stealing the cash between November 18 and 20.
The cash was in local and foreign currency comprising Sh52,650,000, 95 Australian dollars, 185 Euros, 1,630 Great Britain pounds, 271 thousand Tanzanian shillings, 947 thousand Ugandan shillings, 5,781 US dollars, 40 South African Rand and five Canadian dollars, the property of the KCB Thika branch through an underground tunnel and handling stolen property.
It is believed that they are the ones who led police to the house in Joyland estate, Juja, where part of the loot, more than Sh17 million, was recovered.
Police say two men are still at large and Sh30 million is yet to be recovered.
A fourth suspect was arrested at Peruma Guest House in Mtwapa.
Police say the two men are believed to have gone in the direction of Lamu.
The fourth suspect was booked at Mtwapa police station and later taken to Thika and on December 4 was charged with stealing along with the three other suspects and later, with being in possession of three national identity cards suspected to have been stolen.
Mr Munene and Mr Mwangi have since faced additional charges of being in possession of suspected stolen property – 200 national identity cards, 200 Orange sim cards, 1,239 MTN sim cards, five Cyprus Telecommunication Authority cards (CYTA) and seven central processing units, which were recovered in the house in Juja.
The suspects could not raise the Sh4 million bond but which was reduced to Sh2 million on Thursday.