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Puzzle of Linturi link in Sh13.5m bank heist

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By BRIAN WASUNA
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After a little-noticed robbery of Sh13.5 million at the Co-operative Bank’s branch in Makutano Junction, Meru County, seven years ago, two of the lender’s employees became the proverbial fall guys despite the fact that the missing loot was traced to an account owned by Meru Senator Mithika Linturi.

The robbery took place sometime between the night of November 2, 2012 and early the following day.

A Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) officer sat in his Mazingira House office along Kiambu Road in November 2012 looking at a couple of statements recorded after the theft and decided that there was no need for further investigations before moving to have Ms Harriet Kanorio, Mr Wilson Wanjohi and Mr Ensume Muriungi Mithika tried.

Interestingly, Mr Linturi used a piece of land in Kithoka, Meru County, valued at Sh3.3 million as bond to secure freedom for Mr Muriungi Mithika after the three suspects were charged.

Mr Linturi, then Igembe South MP, also stood in as surety for Mr Mithika.

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After six years in and out of court, only Ms Kanorio and Mr Wanjohi were convicted. The two were ordered to each pay a Sh1 million fine or spend 15 months in jail.

For Ms Kanorio, it was unbelievable as the 20 years she had spent at Co-operative Bank had seen her rise through the ranks from a clerk/bank teller to an operations manager. The banker says she “worked hard as though I owned the bank and I hoped I would retire there.”

After losing her job at Co-op Bank and being charged, her mother went into depression and succumbed shortly afterwards.

In her time at the lender, Ms Kanorio had scooped at least seven commendations from the chief executive officer for exemplary service.

She was also named banker of the year in Coop Bank’s 1998 staff awards, and was a common feature in the lender’s internal newsletters whenever good service was a topic of discussion.

Of course, owing to the criminal case, no financial institution would touch her with a 10-foot pole.

On July 22, 2019, both Ms Kanorio and Mr Wanjohi finally walked free after spending seven months in prison as they appealed the sentence handed to them by Chief Magistrate H. N. Ndung’u.

“Even though I knew that my family and friends could have helped raise the Sh1 million, it would have been admission of guilt, so I chose to fight to clear my name,” Ms Kanorio told the Nation in an interview last week.

Mr Wanjohi’s family was tired and drained after the six years in and out of court. They could not take it anymore, so they contributed money and paid the Sh1 million fine. With the conviction quashed, Mr Wanjohi and his family are free to ask that the fine they paid be refunded.

The stolen money was in denominations of Sh13 million, 1,120 Canadian Dollars, £660, and US$60.

The loot was taken from an ATM in the branch’s computer room — whose door only the systems administrator had keys to — and the strong room.

The systems administrator, who testified in the trial, did not indicate whether he may have issued someone else with a copy of the key.

In a statement recorded with the DCI, Mr Linturi claimed to have deposited Sh8.6 million in his account after selling a piece of land in Machakos.

While he did not indicate who the land was sold to, Mr Linturi said he received the money from Gikunda & Company Advocates who acted for the buyer. The Meru senator claimed to have received Sh18 million as a down payment and that he was still expecting a Sh42 million balance.

He admitted that he knew Mr Mithika but denied any blood relations. Instead, the senator said Mr Mithika had campaigned for him during the 2007 Igembe South parliamentary polls.

Mr Linturi said he talked to some senior managers at Co-operative Bank to help Mr Mithika secure a job at the lender’s Makutano Junction branch.

Detectives confronted Mr Linturi with information that Mr Mithika had banked Sh8.6 million stolen from the bank in the senator’s account. But Mr Linturi denied the claim. “I vehemently deny the allegation as there is no one that had deposited any money in my account apart from myself, neither had he (Mr Mithika) given me any cash to deposit or keep for him,” Mr Linturi said in his statement to the DCI.

On the night of the robbery, Mr Mithika was the last employee to leave, and he was the first to arrive the following day.

Mr Mithika had keys to the branch’s strong room during a stint as acting operations manager. Conveniently, cameras monitoring the bank were not working on the night of the robbery and the morning after. Only the systems administrator had access to controls of the CCTV cameras.

Alarms also failed to go off on the night of the robbery.

The main door to the computer room, where the money was stolen from, had a time lock. Somehow, the main door was also not working on that day.

Whenever the computer room’s main door malfunctioned, the emergency door was used.

In this case, the emergency door did not have a time lock, which enabled the thief to take the money.

On December 3, 2018, Chief Magistrate H. N. Ndung’u acquitted Mr Mithika but found Ms Kanorio and Mr Wanjohi guilty of the robbery. Ms Kanorio’s lawyer, Victor Olao, took issue with the conviction because her keys were still locked in a drawer.

The two appealed the suit, questioning why the magistrate overlooked the fact that no investigation was done after the money was traced to Mr Linturi’s account, or on the senator’s relationship to Mr Mithika.

The appeal filed by Mr Olao also faulted Ms Ndung’u for overlooking the fact that prosecutors did not call, as witnesses, security guards on duty during the robbery.

“Throughout the dragged trial, the prosecution did not present direct evidence connecting Ms Kanorio to the stolen monies. Instead it glared at the possibilities of where the money could be traced, and in fact on that reason transferred the case to Nairobi at one point.”

“In all these, Ms Kanorio did not feature. The only evidence that they sought to suggest (this was not proved) to the court is that, it is Ms Kanorio’s bunch of keys that might have been used during the incident,” Mr Olao argued.

The six-year trial was difficult for the entire family. Her husband Joseph Guantai was forced to sell a truck he used for business to sustain legal fees and transport from Ongata Rongai to Meru. “I had to sell my transport truck. I had a tender with the East Africa Growers for supply of avocados for export. I was unable to continue with the business.”

“After the conviction, people would ask me why we bothered appealing as it was just 15 months and my wife was only likely to serve 10 months. I would tell them that the appeal was not about the sentence but to clear my wife’s name,” Mr Guantai said.

The couple has two children, a son and daughter.

Terminal benefits from Co-operative Bank were channelled to ensure their daughter finished her studies in Australia.

For their son, it was a different fate. He had to leave Moscow, Russia, where he was pursuing a dream in aeronautical engineering. He returned to Kenya and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in economics.

She still hopes to one day earn enough money to take her son to South Africa to finish his aeronautical engineering degree.

While in prison, Ms Kanorio started a programme to aid jailbirds imprisoned over illegal businesses such as brewing illicit alcohol and cooking in insanitary conditions.

The programme, dubbed Alternative Business Opportunities Training, encourages women to pool resources and invest in legitimate businesses that require little capital.

Ms Kanorio hopes to one day set up her own bank or microfinance lending institution.

A staunch Christian, Ms Kanorio insists anyone that may have been involved in seeing her go through the criminal trial is forgiven, and believes that God will one day set things right.





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