Mary Wanjiku: Girl who grew up to become a gangster

Pastor Mary Wanjiku speaks to a Daily Nation reporter about her life in crime, during an interview in Kiserian, Kajiado County, on February 20, 2018. She used to be in the same gang with criminals Anthony Ngugi Kanagi alias Wacucu, Gerald Wambugu Munyeria alias Wanugu and Bernard Thuo Matheri — nicknamed Rasta. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Wanjiku quit school shortly after sitting her Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) for a life of crime.
  • Wanjiku struggles to explain that she was a “very desperate child” who endured years of physical and emotional abuse.
  • On September 1, 1997, following weeks of waylaying, spying and ambushes, Matheri was finally gunned down.

Before she was caught, Mary Wanjiku was Kenya’s Bandit Queen, Nairobi’s version of New Delhi’s Phoolan Devi or Milan’s Raffaella d’ Alte Rio.

In her prime she was nicknamed Lakwena — after the self-styled spiritual leader who engineered a social and political uprising in northern Uganda.

To her, Sh5 million in the house was pocket change and, together with her equally dangerous husband Bernard Thuo Matheri — nicknamed Rasta — led a group of criminals whose portfolio ranged from bank heists and kidnappings to murders, carjackings, and robbery with violence.

Nothing could stop them... other than, of course, a police bullet.

PRISON SENTENCE
Wanjiku was arrested in Githurai, Nairobi, in 1999 after stealing Sh196 million in Meru.

She was found with 18 guns and several grenades in her private, illegal armoury and sentenced to 35 years in prison the same year, but that was soon commuted to seven years, and, later, four.

On June 1, 2002, she walked out of prison, a free woman with a clean slate and a colourful past.

At the height of her murderous career, Wanjiku was backed by Matheri, probably one of the most dangerous criminals to ever prowl these lands.

Matheri was in turn backed by two other criminals — a former altar boy named Anthony Ngugi Kanagi alias Wacucu, and Gerald Wambugu Munyeria alias Wanugu.

It is now almost 20 years since Wanjiku was first arrested, and last week we traced her to Kitengela Township on the outskirts of Nairobi, where she runs Jehovah Shalom Ministries, a tiny, corrugated-iron-sheet church with a sitting capacity of about 250.

MATHERI KILLED

On the hot February afternoon we walked into her church, temperatures inside the structure felt upwards of 40 degrees Celsius.

Wanjiku, now in her early 50s, looks nothing like the criminal she once was.

Her light skin, though ravaged by a few sunburns, remains smooth and supple, unscathed by the vagaries of her adventurous youth.

Though her husband Bernard Matheri was killed on September 1, 1997, Wanjiku “survived” two jail terms, and for that she counts herself lucky.

Born in 1968 in Gichugu, Kirinyaga County, she led a life of chaos and instability as a child as she looked for love and attention from parents who, she says, were too drunk to notice her.

“I never, really, experienced motherly love,” the 16th child in a polygamous family of one husband, two wives, and 24 children, says.

SUICIDE
At 13, she attempted suicide in her mother’s house but was saved.

However, rather than be counselled, she was taken to Kirinyaga Police Station for interrogation.

“Only one female police officer was curious to know why a 13-year-old child would want to end her life,” she recalls.

“Days after returning home, my mother fought with my father and walked out, leaving me to take care of my younger six siblings. The youngest was two.”

Wanjiku quit school shortly after sitting her Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) for a life of crime.

Her first heist was Sh70,000 in a church offering, which she stole after scaling the perimeter wall of the home of the local church’s chairwoman and sneaking into her bedroom.

“It was so much money I couldn’t even count it all!” she says.

ABUSE
She did not know what to do with the money, and so gave it to her brother, who bought her a pair of jeans.

Wanjiku struggles to explain that she was a “very desperate child” who endured years of physical and emotional abuse.

But she doesn’t need to because, four decades later, her pain and agony are communicated effortlessly by the tone of her voice.

Out of school, she joined forces with a group of men to terrorise Kutus in Kirinyaga, this time acting as a spy.

She would visit lodgings and hotels, spy on travellers and patrons and tip off the petty thieves on which rooms to raid.

At 18 she opened her first enterprise — a bar in Kutus — before, in 1985, opening a boutique in Kianyaga and soon afterwards giving her heart to a dashing young man named Bernard Matheri Thuo.

“He was my customer,” she says.

“He would come often with his friends to buy jackets and trousers. One day, he offered me a lift to Nairobi and on the way he told me. ‘Wanjiku, I want you to teach my wife this business.’”

MARRIAGE
They went to his house in Komarock, but there was no wife as Matheri’s first wife Nyambura lived in their rural home.

“I never left his house,” she says. “I became his second wife.”

Wanjiku says she did not know Matheri was a thug, and that she did not disclose to him that she, too, was an outlaw — although Matheri later told her he had heard tales of a “young and pretty” thief in Kutus town.

Matheri inducted his new wife into his gang, but first he had to establish her loyalty by taking her through a test.

One day they raided a supermarket and as Matheri and his two partners brandished guns and ordered shoppers to lie flat on the ground, a swift Wanjiku rushed to the safe where the money was kept, stashed the money into a paper bag, and called out the rest to escape.

“That was when he knew that I would be a very valuable asset to him and his gang,” she says.

CHILDHOOD CRISIS

The gang was made up Wacucu, Wanugu, Rasta and Wanjiku — a fierce group of misfits that robbed and killed many in the four long years between 1993 and 1997.

Wanjiku’s role in the gang was to use her alluring smile and looks to bait the victims, after which the men would take over.

She was also very useful as the getaway driver.

Wanjiku says a lot of her criminal activities were fuelled by a deep-seated anger and desire for revenge going back to her painful and unstable childhood.

She remembers herself as a “very angry” young woman driven by manic rage and thirst for revenge, often taking out her anger and frustration on her victims.

“Whenever I got hold of a gun, I became possessed,” she says. “I became a different woman.”

Her husband, Rasta, was an equally dangerous character with a round, plump face and piercing eyes.

He was the gang leader and mapped out the hits from start to finish, Wanjiku says.

RASTA
In a famous black-and-white photo, Rasta cuts the image of a treacherous man with his shaggy mound of dreadlocks and an angry smirk on his face that seems to say in its muted fury: ‘I am coming for you!’

A sharp-shooter who rarely missed his targets, Rasta often gifted his girlfriends with AK-47s.

He was also a tobacco addict and would literally get sick if he missed his fix.

It is this addiction that facilitated his downfall by leading police to his hideout in a goat’s pen in his mother’s house after police trailed his sister as she delivered the drug to him.

Matheri was older than the rest of the gang members as police estimated his age to be between 30 and 35.

Born in Kiria-ini, Murang’a County, he was suspected to have been behind nine murders, including of police officers such as two GSU officers, a military police intelligence officer, two CID officers, and Supt Bernard Kahumbi, the head of Anti-Robbery Unit who was shot dead in Limuru on May 2, 1995.

ROBBERIES
Although they often attacked homes and people to steal money, their specialty was heists and highway robberies, during which they would waylay security vehicles in transit and steal the money.

“We were very sophisticated thieves,” Wanjiku says.

“We often worked with an insider in the company, somebody who was trusted with money. And we never committed the crime on the date we had planned; we would do it randomly, just in case it was a trap.”

Besides spending the loot on alcohol and relatives, Wanjiku is at pains to track every million she stole.

Crime, also, made her life a living nightmare, with police on her trail night and day.

“It was a very dark period for me,” she says. “I became careless with life, waiting for death to come knocking.”

GANG ELIMINATED
On January 1, 1996, police intercepted Wacucu and Wanugu as they drove to Wanugu’s rented house in Rongai.

Wacucu was gunned down but Wanugu survived and fled as he wore a bullet-proof jacket.

Six months later, on June 1996, Wanugu was killed at Kabatini shopping centre in Nakuru. He was aged 27.

The gang had crumbled and Matheri was now the only man standing, but not for long.

On September 1, 1997, following weeks of waylaying, spying and ambushes, Matheri was finally gunned down.

Two years afterwards, Wanjiku was arrested after a Sh196 million robbery in Meru, jailed for the crime and 42 others, and released from Embu GK Prison in 2002.

Today that robber is long gone, and in her place is a Bible-thumping middle age woman known to her flock simply as Pastor Mary.

Does she regret her past? Yes, but the mother of four — aged between 14 and 32 — also says jail taught her the power of forgiveness, and she believes she deserves a new start.

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