The bizarre theft at KCB Thika branch this week only got attention by the way it was executed – more than the amount stolen.
Who would have thought of a tunnel into the vault of a bank?
While Sh50 million was a sizeable amount, the heist and the 30-metre tunnel mimicked many other thefts – and escapes – of a similar nature that have always bewildered detectives.
Thika is not a sleepy town, especially during the day.
It is the banking town of the coffee farms, tea factories and various industries emerging as the drivers of this town’s economy.
It is also the home town of Bidco, Broadway Bakeries, Mt Kenya University and it is the place where the French automaker Peugeot SA is locally assembling its brands at the Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM) plant.
But by night, it is a strange, badly lit ghost town.
Like other towns, numerous small-scale traders operate from small cubicles – in a cut-throat business model known as “exhibitions”.
The chain of ownership of these “stalls”, and the exorbitant goodwill charged not only limits the profit margin but also leaves the “landlord” with little say over the tenant – who could as well be a third party!
That is how the criminals in Thika operated from their three cubicles and it tells much about our “it’s none of my business” society.
While theirs was the first underground tunnel dug into a bank vault in Kenya, such tunnels have been used elsewhere by drug cartels, robbers and human traffickers – baffling security agents worldwide.
For six months, we now know the uncanny thieves packed soil into cartons and carted it away every morning.
They also operated what seemed to be a bookshop and the cartons of soils would pass as books.
Even though they loved working at night, no one suspected what the “traders” were up to.
They had also convinced the caretaker, or the owner of the stalls, that they were doing some repairs at night.
Police say that the drilling could have started in June from the rented rooms and continued unabated – a stone’s throw from the Thika Police Station.
Nobody seemed to know the tenants’ real names. Besides being unfriendly, which is unusual for businessmen, they had used fake identity cards to rent the cubicles.
It is not the first time that robbers have used such tactics in Kenya.
Last November, in a less publicised case, robbers broke into Equity Bank, Kayole Branch, after drilling a hole into a wall leading to the bank’s safe.
The police said the robbers took away money from an ATM machine and the safe.
They disabled the bank’s CCTV and alarm systems and one neighbour told a local TV station that guards from a security firm arrived that night but thought the alarm was faulty.
MATHERI AND WACUCU
A few years ago, out of curiosity, I attended the burial of one of Kenya’s number one bank robbers, Anthony Ngugi Kanagi alias Wacucu.
Wacucu was an accomplice of two others, Bernard Matheri Thuo also known as Rasta, and Gerald Wambugu Munyeria alias Wanugu.
The trio, before they were gunned down, had been blamed for a series of armed robberies in Nairobi and its environs.
His only equivalent was the 1970s king of bank robberies, the Kangemi-born Nicholas Mwea commonly known as Wakinyonga.
So rough was Wakinyonga that any mention of his name sent shivers across banking halls, which he raided during broad daylight.
He had not only robbed the KCB in Thika of Sh330,000 but had also raided a Nairobi bank of Sh200,000 besides various motor vehicle thefts.
But it was the killing of Total Kenya CEO Stephen Bloch by Wakinyonga in Nairobi’s Valley Arcade shopping centre that seems to have moved police to act.
Bloch, a French national, was shot in the head after he resisted an attempt by Wakinyonga’s gang to snatch his car, a Peugeot 504 that was later found abandoned at a coffee plantation in Loresho.
He had also shot a police sergeant, and five months to his death, he had escaped with bullet wounds on his buttocks until the night of June 26, 1978 when police on a tip-off found him inside Kangemi’s Nyakiambi Lodge and Nightclub.
As it turned out later, Wakinyonga was the hero of the night and was the one buying beer for the revellers until Patrick Shaw showed up.
In the confusion, Wakinyonga had managed to snatch a machine gun from a policeman leading to a shoot out that saw three revellers injured.
Finally, as he tried to flee, he was shot and his picture was splashed on the cover of the Daily Nation.
It was a sweet victory for Patrick Shaw, who also served as an administrator at Starehe Boys’ Centre and was known for patrolling Nairobi at night in his white Volvo fitted with a citizens band radio and a strobe light.
Everyone feared him, not because of his size – he stood six feet tall and weighed 136 kilogrammes – but because of the ruthless nature he tackled crime singlehandedly.
Shaw took no prisoners, and would today be accused of extra-judicial killings.
The man hardly slept and was known to suffer from a glandular disorder, which made him a night owl and was always seen reading manuals from America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He always carried a small album of photos of wanted criminals including that of Wakinyonga and his gang.
And that is the kind of gang that Wacucu also kept before he was shot dead.
How an altar boy who had grown under the care of an Italian Catholic priest in Nairobi’s Eastlands turned to be one of the most-wanted man is still mystifying.
Interestingly, he was eulogised as a “good man” who had later in life changed with no explanation.
There were no lengthy prayers, no flowers and no speeches from his friends since plain cloth police stood by the coffin and in the compound, their weapons bulging beneath their coats.
At the graveside, next to his late father, Anthony Ngugi Kanagi was buried without any ceremony.
His uncle came with a cross and intoned: “This is only to mark the grave!”
While scenes like this are always enacted in movies – how gangsters pull surprises on the communities they live in always captures attention of the media.
In October this year, Brazilian police reported that they had foiled a plot to steal $331 million (Sh3.33 billion) from a bank in São Paulo through a 500-metre underground tunnel that was equipped with electric lighting and a ventilation system.
They had planned to break into a São Paulo branch of the government-owned Banco do Brasil through the tunnel dug for four months from a nearby rented building.
Brazil has a history of such heists and a few years back, thieves tunnelled into a branch of the Brazil’s central bank and walked away with 165m Brazilian reais (about Sh5.2 billion).
The heist, believed to be the world’s largest, saw the gangsters, assisted by several kidnapped workers, take five containers weighing 3.5 tonnes.
These were old notes in the vault and since they were not numbered the authorities were unable to trace them.
Interestingly, they left the brand new notes that could easily have been traced through serial numbers.
And like in the Thika heist, the Brazil thugs had masqueraded as a gardening company purporting to sell artificial grass.
To hide their true purpose, the Brazil gang would occasionally distribute promotional merchandise of T-shirts and caps to unsuspecting “customers”.
They were also advertising their business on local media.
Besides banks, Brazil has earned reputation of having a tunnel dug under the country’s biggest prison in 2001 and through which 108 prisoners managed to escape.
Three years ago in Britain, thieves dug a 50ft tunnel under a Tesco supermarket from an abandoned bus park in Greater Manchester and stole thousands of pounds from an ATM cash machine.
While such heists are common in the UK, what has become a Hollywood thriller is the escape from prison of Mexican drug lord and notorious gang leader El Chapo.
For over a year, his supporters constructed a tunnel towards the country’s Altiplano jail and it opened in El Chapo’s cell allowing him to escape.
Although he was guarded 24 hours, the guards did not notice him enter the shower block at the high-security prison where he pried open a 50cm by 50cm grill in the floor of the shower block and climbed 32 feet down a ladder into a tunnel below the prison.
From there he used a motorbike that was waiting at the bottom for him to ride through the tunnel to freedom.
It is no wonder that the US federal government considered him as “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet”.
Last year, he was tracked to a house by US marines and during the raid he again escaped through a secret 1.5 kilometre tunnel, and whose entrance was hidden behind a mirror in a closet.
The tunnel then led to the city’s sewer system and that is how El Chapo managed to escape albeit for a short while.
He is reported to have surfaced, stole a vehicle at gunpoint and drove away.
But he was later arrested by local Mexican police and despite promising them “property, money” and when they refused “death”; - “I will kill all of you” he had finally told them – he was extradited to New York in January this year where he is facing drug trafficking charges.
In the US, police in August discovered a tunnel in California’s Tijuana city, which was used to smuggle people from Mexico.
The police still do not know how many people could have sneaked into the US via this cross-border tunnel – which opened into a guarded warehouse – but its discovery show how tunnels are turning to be the next challenge for security agents.
As Kenya now grapples with the Thika incident, it appears that police will have to be more vigilant.
For some time, banks have spent millions of shillings to stop hackers – but who would have thought of a tunnel into a bank vault?
Not, the Kenya Police. Definitely.