Saturday, February 11, 2012

Top cop's dodgy ring

Top cop's dodgy ring
SASHNI PATHER and WERNER SWART | 12 February, 2012 00:00

SOUTH Africa's super sleuth Piet Byleveld accepted a wedding band from a businessman under investigation for links to the notorious Rolex gang.
The Rolex gang operated in Johannesburg's affluent northern suburbs and stole expensive watches and jewellery from wealthy people. They earned the name Rolex gang as they would mostly follow people wearing these expensive timepieces and rob them at gunpoint.

Their victims included well-known personalities such as Discovery CEO Adrian Gore, socialite Edith Venter, celebrity lawyer Billy Gundelfinger and Judy Sexwale, wife of cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale.

The Sunday Times can reveal that the man Byleveld publicly thanked for his "wedding rings", Tony Vardas, is under investigation for his alleged involvement in buying and selling goods stolen by the Rolex gang.

Byleveld, who retired in 2010 after an illustrious career in which he arrested some of South Africa' s worst criminals , publicly thanked Vardas for supplying the "wedding rings" in a magazine article.

Byleveld married Elize Smit at a lavish ceremony near Mookgopong in Limpopo in December. Vardas, according to Byleveld, was not at the wedding. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The sleuth said he did not know of Vardas's alleged connections to the Rolex gang.

"I'm not interested in his personal life," he told the Sunday Times.

He said Vardas had phoned him "out of the blue" and said he wanted to make a contribution when he heard the former policeman was getting married. Byleveld said he knew Vardas from "many moons ago" when the latter was a witness in a case he was investigating.

"The wedding band, not the wedding ring, Vardas organised. He phoned and said he would like to arrange for the wedding band. He organised the jeweller, who measured my wife's finger," he said.

Asked who paid for the wedding band, Byleveld said: "Yes, he organised through the jeweller. He said that is what he wanted to give to us for a wedding present."

Byleveld said he was completely unaware that Vardas was implicated in any wrongdoing. He said: "I can assure you if he was and if I knew, I would have acted on it."

Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela, in response to detailed questions regarding Vardas and two other "middle men" who allegedly bought and sold stolen Rolex watches, said: "I can confirm there is an ongoing investigation regarding the people you have mentioned."

Antonios "Tony" Vardas was linked to the gang through an affidavit made in February 2008 by Konstantinos "Kosta" Svourakis.

He admitted to having acted as a "courier" for selling the watches overseas.

According to the document - whose authenticity was confirmed by the former commander of the officer who took the statement - Svourakis made the affidavit in an effort to receive section 204 indemnity and turn state witness.

In it, Svourakis provides details of how he, Vardas and a man named Ari Argiriadis bought "stolen" watches and sold them in Greece.

Police officers involved in investigating the Rolex gang's activities over the years confirmed that Vardas had always been considered a "person of interest".

Svourakis fled the country after making the affidavit.

On Thursday night, just hours after the Sunday Times began making inquiries and speaking to senior officers involved in the case - as well as underworld characters - police shot and killed suspected Rolex gang leader Kelvin Ludidi in Midrand, north of Johannesburg .

Police said they noticed a "suspicious-looking vehicle" and, after a chase, Ludidi was killed in an exchange of gunfire.

In his biography, Byleveld - Dossier of a Serial Sleuth , the detective said he proposed to Smit in London and spent R40000 on his wife' s wedding ring . He writes: "She's worth every cent."

This week he said of Vardas: "I am not a friend of his, let's be clear about that. When he heard I was getting married he phoned me out of the blue and said he wanted to make a contribution to a wedding gift. He organised through someone else, a jeweller, to make the wedding band."

He denied Vardas bought the engagement ring, saying: "I bought the ring and I have the documents to prove it."

Regarding the wedding band, Byleveld said: "He [Vardas] organised it. That was his contribution to the wedding ."

Byleveld said he had not spoken to Vardas since the wedding. "I don't have any knowledge of any of the things he may have been accused of."

He added: "I acknowledged him along with others like Khaliques [for the suits] and even the people that supplied the flowers. He called me of his own free will and said he wanted to make a contribution."

A number of police officers, as well as associates of the three men, said Vardas, Svourakis and Argiriadis may be in Greece. The Sunday Times was unsuccessful in reaching them for comment.

Byleveld said he did not know whether Vardas had phoned him from South Africa or elsewhere, when he made his offer.

In the affidavit taken by a member of a special task team who worked under Colonel Johannes Kemp, Svourakis named Vardas as the alleged kingpin of the Rolex gang.

Svourakis had himself been arrested by police at OR Tambo International Airport in November 2007 and found with eight expensive watches .

Svourakis said he first met Vardas at his home in Dainfern Estate in Fourways, in April 2007.

"My first impression and assumption [through a lengthy conversation] was that Toni [sic] and Ari had a relationship whereby Toni would purchase 'stolen goods' and provide same to Ari who would travel to Greece and sell such goods there," he said.

Svourakis claimed Argiriadis and Vardas had been investigated by the police and that Vardas's home was raided at one stage. Svourakis said: "Thereafter Toni decided to leave for Greece as he was afraid of being arrested and prosecuted within South Africa."

Svourakis named the "robbers" who supplied the stolen watches. He provided detailed descriptions of each, the cars they drove, cellphone numbers and their various meeting places around Johannesburg.

After Vardas and Argiriadis left South Africa, Svourakis says in his affidavit, he acted as a "courier".

"I would purchase the stolen goods from his contacts in South Africa and ... I would travel to Greece and provide him with such stolen goods," he said.

But he said things turned sour when Vardas apparently found out that he and Argiriadis had stolen his "contacts".

Svourakis explained: "[He] felt that the aforesaid contacts were his to begin with and that Ari had now begun using Toni's contacts. "Toni felt angry that he had been cut out of the agreement."

Kemp confirmed he was commander of a special national investigating task team set up to look into the Rolex gang.

He said the affidavit had been taken down by a member of his team

When asked if Byleveld was aware of these affidavits, Kemp responded: "Piet was not a part of [the unit] ... I don't think he was aware."

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