Bank robberies, alcohol and women: Kiriamiti looks back at dark past

John Kiriamiti, a former bank robber who is also the author of My Life in Crime and other books. File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In an era where armed bank robberies have been replaced by cyber fraud, two of Kenya’s most notorious criminals, Githenji and Kiriamiti, know they would definitely not fit.

  • Their idea about how to rob a bank is endless planning, getting an insider and paying off the police in order for the heist to be successful. But those days are now long gone.

  • But now, they have nothing to show for the risks they took and regret that they squandered a chance to join the millionaires’ club.

At 75 years, George Githenji would easily pass off as a retired teacher enjoying his pension.

But he was once a very dangerous criminal, who raided banks and homes of wealthy Asians in Nairobi, Naivasha and Nakuru, ending up in jail for 17 years.

In a modest bar at Gaitheri shopping centre in Murang’a County, we meet him in the company of the famed John Kiriamiti — no doubt birds of a feather flocking together, since the two are reformed armed robbers.

In an era where armed bank robberies have been replaced by cyber fraud, two of Kenya’s most notorious criminals, Githenji and Kiriamiti, know they would definitely not fit.

Their idea about how to rob a bank is endless planning, getting an insider and paying off the police in order for the heist to be successful. But those days are now long gone.

“Ours was a world of its kind. Then, violent robbery was not the business of desperate and deranged teens. It was professional work like any other, but done by daredevils,” says Githenji. During their time, robberies were organised well and executed with surgical precision.

“We took our time and visited the target scenes to draw an entry and escape strategy. But we had to first seek the nod of officers so they would look the other way when we hit,” recalls Mr Githenji.

Unity of purpose

It is the same officers who would help the robbers get firearms. With Sh200 daily, you would get a pistol from a police station. “The rule was that you collect it in the morning and make sure you return it by close of business since the armoury had to be inspected. That is why banks had to be robbed in broad daylight,” he adds.

At one point, a chief inspector manning central division in Nairobi lent out three guns to Mr Kiriamiti’s gang and things went terribly wrong.

“A fierce gunfight ensued that resulted in us commandeering a police vehicle so as to try and return the guns in time,” says Mr Kiriamiti, adding that all the robbers knew each other. He notes that the unwritten rule then was “never kill, rape or defile your victims.  If it leaked that a criminal had, especially raped or defiled, the verdict was death to be executed by getting shot in the head,” he says.

Additionally, the robbers exercised unity of purpose where money was needed to bail one of them from police cells or the corridors of judiciary.

And to keep tabs with the police world, they recruited beautiful ladies who in turn befriended officers notorious for investigating armed robberies. Mr Githenji was so ambitious that he once married an officer. This trick backfired in 1971 when one day his ‘wife’ found out that he was a criminal. She arrested him right in their bedroom. “She just stumbled on my firearm hidden in the house and some money. She used the same arm to force me to surrender, warning that if I tried any monkey business, I would lose my life,” he offers.

He tried to be nice, praying that she would drop her guard so he could escape, but she was dead serious.

Unnecessary gunfight

She had handcuffs in the house and Mr Githenji says it was such an interesting journey to Makadara station having been arrested by his wife.

Mr Kiriamiti says there was a principle that they all held sacred: “That a smart thug never engaged police in an unnecessary gunfight”. He says: “Anytime officers got us flatfooted, we would hurriedly tuck away our arms and immediately seek ways to negotiate for freedom, which sometimes included surrendering all the loot to them and we walk away as unpaid robbers for the officers!” And when Mr Githenji and Mr Kiriamiti ‘retired’, they walked into new life with no wealth, only memories of their escapades.

So, how were the big heists? “The highest figure I pocketed in one heist more than 40 years ago was Sh200,000 and the least was Sh120,000. That was equivalent to today’s Sh2 million and Sh1.2 million,” says Mr Githenji.

Adds Mr Kiriamiti: “And we are not talking of one heist or even 10. We are talking of robbers who had perfected the art with time and executed more than 100 raids.”

The two narrate a life on the fast lane where the speed of the illegal earnings matched the speed of spending. “Within 10 minutes, I would have earned Sh200, 000 from a successful bank heist. And within 10 minutes, I would spend at least 50, 000 in the sin industry,” says Mr Githenji.

Millionaires’ club

But now, they have nothing to show for the risks they took and regret that they squandered a chance to join the millionaires’ club. They would pocket thousands of shillings, but somehow they would get themselves broke and in need of another heist to replenish.

Then, a serviced plot cost Sh10,000, with a developed quarter of an acre going for Sh30,000. A brand new Peugeot 404 car retailed at Sh30,000 with a Datsun make going for Sh17, 000. A Volkswagen cost Sh9,000.

They had no wisdom to invest in such when an acre of land in a highland zone cost an average of Sh20,000. Instead, all their proceeds went into entertaining themselves, their friends and women. 

A beer cost Sh1.80 cents, tea 10 cents, a plate of fried githeri cost 30 cents. Transport from Nairobi to any estate was 30 cents. A nightlong treat by a sex worker would cost one Sh5, a brief one at Sh2. Now retired, Mr Kiriamiti ventured into book writing. His books — Life In Crime, My Life With A Criminal, The Sinster Trophy and Son of Fate — have been bestsellers.  Mr Githenji is now a farmer, having tried his hand in politics.

They have an emphatic message to all active criminals and those planning to join:  “Forget it. It is all in vain. Ask us and for free we will tell you that you will only waste your precious time for nothing,” says Mr Kiriamiti.

“Today, you will be lucky to raid three times before you are either dead under a hail of police bullets, crude weapons from mobs or sink away into jail.”

He says as opposed to their days in robberies, nowadays there are smartphones, CCTVs and other forms of technology that will make it difficult for anyone to attempt robbing a bank.

[email protected]