Stephen Lelei
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Stephen Lelei: The life of a good bad police officer

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Former police Chief Inspector the late Stephen Lelei.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Stephen Lelei, the former senior police officer who rose to fame after rescuing several people during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013, died this weekend.

The former Chief Inspector died in a Kiambu Hospital following a short illness.

According to family members, the former police officer looked frail and disturbed in his final days. 

Some relatives said Lelei had depression and that the situation had worsened over the last few months.

While serving in the National Police Service, the deceased officer’s dedication to his work saw him rise through the ranks and eventually become the station commander of several police stations in Nairobi. 

Some of the police stations he headed include Kabete, Pangani, Soweto and Mlolongo in Machakos.

Remarkably, Lelei was among nine police officers who were celebrated by the State for their heroic acts during the Westgate attack.

At this time, he was the station commander at Kabete Police Station.

While at Kabete, Lelei won praise for his efforts to tackle crime which at the time had skyrocketed. 

He was famously known for shouting the word “stupid” whenever he led crime-busting raids within Nairobi’s most dangerous zones.

David Muchunguh, a senior writer at the Nation, once witnessed and benefited from Lelei’s no-nonsense approach to fighting crime.

Muchunguh had been carjacked by robbers who made away with money that he had intended to pay for his children’s school fees.

He reported the matter to the police and within no time Lelei ensured the suspected criminals were arrested and the stolen money stolen recovered.

So ruthless was Lelei in combating crime that he was nicknamed Ocampo – after the former stern prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

For his heroic efforts during the terrorist attack, Lelei, along with other gallant officers, was decorated with a Silver Star (SS) by retired President Uhuru Kenyatta.

At the time of the attack, Lelei was on patrol around Westgate Mall. When he heard that armed assailants had laid siege on the mall, he headed straight to the scene.

It was only later that he learnt that those whom he thought were thieves were actually deadly terrorists.

Being the most senior officer among the first armed responders, Lelei took up the role of the commander at Westgate Mall.

During the deadly encounter with the terrorists, he was shot in the leg as he mobilised a team of police officers.

With grit, he bore the pain from the gunshot wound and marshalled the team until reinforcements arrived from the General Service Unit, Regular and Administration Police and the Kenya Defence Forces.

Kenya lost more than 60 individuals who were present at the mall during the attack.

Mr Lelei was later transferred to Busia as the officer in charge of the weighbridge before returning to Nairobi's Industrial Area Police Station.

He then deployed to Mlolongo as the area police commander. Yet again his efforts to eradicate highway robberies came to the fore.

In early 2014, Lelei was in the news after his wife Matrida Muroso, 36, died from severe burns after their car caught fire as they drove along Thika Road.

When the car suddenly caught fire, Lelei jumped out leaving his wife behind in the burning car. She later died while receiving treatment at Kenyatta National Hospital.

According to then Directorate of Criminal Investigations boss, Ndegwa Muhoro, on that fateful day, Mr Lelei and his wife were driving near Safari Park Hotel at 3am when his Toyota Fielder caught fire.

Mr Muhoro said preliminary investigations revealed that some young men had parked a Mercedes Benz at a restaurant at Kasarani next to Mr Lelei’s car hours before the fire incident.

As Lelei joined the superhighway, he noted that the same car was trailing them. Then the car overtook them. A few moments later, the officer’s car stalled and fire broke out from the bonnet. 

By this time, the Mercedes Benz was about 500 metres ahead and one of the occupants came to the scene on foot and left shortly after.

Despite the good works, the celebrated officer’s reputation suffered when was charged with the murder of Jacob Mwenda and Elizabeth Nduku in Mlolongo town in 2016, alongside his former colleague at Mlolongo Police Station, Frederick Leliman.

The two officers also faced an extra charge of unlawful use of firearms contrary to the Firearms Act.

During the murder trial, a ballistics expert said none of police officers’ pistols were used in shooting the victims. 

Last year, Lawrence Nthiwa, a firearms examiner, told the court that the single bullet collected at the scene did not match either the pistol of Lelei or Leliman.

Appearing before a court in Machakos, Nthiwa said tests on five pistols and four rifles submitted by the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) returned negative results.

Mwenda and Nduku died on May 27, 2016 under unclear circumstances.

Leliman, alongside four other police officers and an informant, were however convicted for the murder of human rights Lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda and driver Joseph Muiruri.

Police in Mlolongo said they might have been hit by a stray bullet as they pursued a suspected robber whom they killed. 

Ipoa opened an inquiry and recommended that Lelei and Leliman be charged.

When he was arrested and charged with the murder, Lelei had been moved to Nairobi Area command.

However, he was later acquitted while three other officers were found guilty and sentenced.

Until his death, Lelei denied claims that he was in any way involved in the murder of the two people.

Lelei's friends and colleagues described him a good man who meant well but was misunderstood by many people.