Willie Kimani: How minor traffic offence snowballed into murders and a death sentence
On April 10, 2015 at about 2pm, Josephat Mwendwa was riding on a friend’s motor cycle as a pillion passenger in Syokimau, Machakos County.
They were on a road near the Syokimau Chief’s Camp when they were stopped by Administration Police Officers dressed in civilian clothing.
Though it's unclear what traffic offence they committed or what happened after the two were stopped, what is clear is that there was an altercation and Mwendwa was shot in the arm by one of the officers, Senior Sergeant Fredrick Ole Leliman.
The same police officer transported Mwendwa to hospital and thereafter placed him in police custody.
Three days after the shooting, an injured Mwendwa was charged at Mavoko Law Courts with three criminal counts including possession of narcotic drugs, gambling in a public place and resisting arrest by a police officer.
It later turned out that the charges were trumped-up in order to cover up the fact that Leliman had shot a civilian without justification.
Mwendwa was aggrieved by this turn of events and moved to report the shooting incident at the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). The complaint was taken up by IPOA which commenced investigations into Leliman's conduct.
Job on the line
Around this time, lawyer Willie Kimani began to investigate the case on behalf of the International Justice Mission (IJM), an international NGO that helps vulnerable people get justice.
Leliman was aggrieved by Mwendwa’s decision to report the incident to IPOA and felt that his job was now on the line. Thus began a plot to eliminate him, which, in his mind, would also lead to the inevitable termination of the IPOA probe since efforts by the officers to pressure Mwendwa to withdraw the complaint were futile.
According to court documents, the pressure on Mwendwa was relentless. For instance, he reported that on December 14, 2015, Leliman and other police officers abducted him from his home at night. The next day, Mwendwa was charged with six additional counts of traffic violations. Leliman claimed that Mwendwa was violating the law while riding a motorcycle despite the fact that the gunshot injury to his hand prevented him from doing so.
Still, he did not budge. Court documents show that Mwendwa was steadfast in his determination to have the shooting and his subsequent arraignment before court investigated by IPOA.
Murder plot in motion
Unable to bully Mwendwa into dropping the case, he resorted to an extreme measure: murder.
To set this plot in motion, Leliman roped in three other police officers: Corporal Stephen Cheburet Morogo, Sergeant Leonard Maina Mwangi and a Sergeant Kamenju, as well as police informer Peter Ngugi Kamau.
Leliman tasked Ngugi with kidnapping Mwendwa on June 23, 2016 — the day he was scheduled to appear in court for the hearing of a case involving the shooting incident.
“He told me that the person he was talking about was really pushing for his dismissal and that he was being assisted by IPOA. He said that his case was set for hearing on 23/6/2016 and therefore we must act on that day, when he comes to court,” a court statement filed by Ngugi read.
At this point, Willie Kimani was representing Mwendwa and had no way of knowing the danger they were in when they set off for Mavoko Law Courts that morning. They were abducted after they left the courtroom premises.
They entered a taxi belonging to Joseph Muiruri, a man who would end up becoming a victim of circumstances. As they drove towards the city centre from Mlolongo, Mwendwa, Kimani and Muiruri were stopped by plain clothes officers and told they were under arrest. They obeyed orders to enter another vehicle that was being driven by Kamenju. Leonard Mwangi, another accused person, was in the vehicle.
After being abducted, the three were detained in a container which had been converted into a holding cell at Syokimau Chief’s Camp. Hours later, at night, they were bundled into the boot of a car and driven to their death in a field in Mlolongo where they were killed by strangulation using a rope.
They were strangled to death one after another, each hearing how the other person was being tortured to death.
Their bodies were found stashed in gunny bags at Athi River in Ol Donyo Sabuk, Machakos County, on July 1, 2016.
At the time of the murder, IPOA had not concluded its investigations into Mwendwa’s complaint against Leliman as the probe had been frustrated by lack of cooperation from the Administration Police hierarchy.
Justice at last
But six-and-half years later, the High Court in Nairobi sentenced Leliman to death for the murder of the trio after establishing that he planned and executed the "sophisticated murder" through impunity and abuse of power.
This is even as his key co-perpetrator in the brutal killings, a Sergeant Kamenju, continues to enjoy freedom as he has never been traced by the state authorities.
Leliman was sent to the hangman on Friday by Justice Jesie Lessit in a judgment that lawyers and civil society groups celebrated as critical towards ending extra-judicial killings in Kenya.
Also sentenced were former police officers Corporal Stephen Cheburet Morogo and Corporal Sylvia Wanjiku Wanjohi who got 30 and 24 years in jail respectively. Ngugi, the police informer, was jailed for 20 years. Sergeant Mwangi was acquitted last year on all three counts of murder.
Justice Lessit said Leliman was the mastermind of the gruesome murders that stemmed from a personal vendetta he had against Mwendwa.
While sending the police officer to the hangman, the judge said Leliman was paid by taxpayers to safeguard life but chose to do the contrary.
“To say the least the murder was most foul with the meticulous planning and execution,” said Justice Lessit, now a judge of the Court of Appeal. She said their respective jail terms will run from 2016 when they were arrested.
'Error of omission'
For Corporal Sylvia Wanjiku Wanjohi, a junior police officer, what did her in was an error of omission: as the officer at the reporting desk that day, she did not record in the Camp’s occurrence book that the three had been detained in the container.
This act, the court found, made her culpable in their disappearance and deaths thus leading her straight to jail.
She argued in court that she was instructed by Leliman, her senior, not to record their presence. But the court found that despite an order from her boss, she had a responsibility to record their presence as it was part of her job. It also found that she should have defied Leliman’s instructions.