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Shabbat horror as students held for ransom

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Internationally acclaimed South African cinematographer Lance Gewer was annoyed when his son and two friends didn’t arrive home early for Friday night supper last week. Little did he know that they had been kidnapped and held for ransom.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Nov 21, 2019

This King David Linksfield alumnus told the SA Jewish Report he was so grateful his son was alright, but he and all concerned are totally shaken after what felt like a horror movie.

As the sun set over Johannesburg ushering in the Shabbos Project, Gewer’s son, Ben, 21, of Observatory, and his friend Jesse Elk, 19, of Emmarentia – both first-year students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – and another friend, Ezechial Bolton, 20, of Kensington, were abducted and held for several hours at the Langermann Koppie in Kensington. Their kidnappers wanted their money and a ransom from their parents.

The three young men had gone to the mountaintop park, known for sunset and city skyline views, for sundowners. They wanted to discuss details of their upcoming road trip to Plettenberg Bay, where they were headed as soon as their exams finished this week.

According to Elk, they were ambushed by five armed assailants who forced them into a secluded area. After cash had been withdrawn from their accounts using their pin numbers, the attackers tied them up, and demanded a ransom from Elk’s parents.

“We feared for our lives,” said Elk, describing what happened in the beautiful viewing spot his friends had been escaping to all their lives. “We were hanging out and chatting. I had written my last exam, and we were having a good time when five men swarmed us with guns,” he said.

Their assailants, apparently young men in their mid to late 20s dressed in “township swag”, made them lie face down on the ground.

Two of their attackers fled to a nearby automatic teller machine (ATM) to withdraw cash using the victims’ pin numbers and bank cards. “I tried to keep the situation calm, and keep them happy. The three of us worked together to do this. We made eye contact and held onto each other,” said Elk.

Things became complicated when the men decided to make a ransom call to Elk’s parents, and tied the victims up. “That’s when I thought they might shoot us,” said Elk.

Meanwhile, Elk’s parents had just arrived at the home of friends, journalist Kate Sidley and her husband, novelist Steven Boykey Sidley, for dinner at 19:00. As they arrived, Erica Emdon-Elk went cold as she answered a call from her son.

“Hi mom I need you to keep calm,” she heard him say on the line, ”this isn’t a joke. This man needs you to pay R8 000 in the next ten minutes, or he will shoot me.”

Said Erica, “My initial reaction was anger. I was furious and wanted to call the police. I handed the phone to my husband, who handled the rest of the ransom calls. The whole night is a blur. I was a wreck. I couldn’t think straight. I was hysterical.”

There was pandemonium as dinner guests scrambled to assist, making calls to security companies, the police, and doing whatever they could to help. The Elks tried to track down where their son had been last, and who he was with. All the while, they were fielding aggressive ransom calls and trying to figure out how to make an eWallet transaction.

This eventually led them to break the news to Gewer, who had been waiting agitatedly for the boys to arrive for dinner.

“I somehow knew Ben would be ok,” said Gewer, who explained that his children have grown up with crime.

“I don’t want my children to feel like victims, and I’ve invested a lot of time in this. They have had a lot of crime in their lives. Just two weeks ago, Ben’s car was stolen from Wits,” he said.

A private Muslim security company, Vision Tactical, assisted the families in tracking the movements of the attackers and pinpointing the exact location where they had left the vehicle.

In the meantime, the victims managed to untie themselves and walk safely to the Bolton home in Kensington to relay to Ezechial’s mom what had happened to them. Meanwhile, Clifford Elk was still on the phone negotiating with the kidnappers when urgent SMSs from his son to say they were safe were coming through on his phone.

Clifford said there was a lot of uncertainty throughout the ordeal.

“There was this fear and uncertainty about whether the threats were real or not. When we battled to make the payments, I had a sense the kidnapper might punish us for that. In hindsight, I think we were played, and I feel like a fool and a victim. I’m not sure if I could’ve or should’ve responded differently in the moment. The panic sets in, and you don’t have all the information, you’re not sure if you are doing the right thing, and there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Security experts this week said kidnappings for ransom were on the rise, and were occurring regularly. Security specialist Mike Bolhuis of Specialised Security Services, who was called to the Friday night scene, told the SA Jewish Report: “Kidnappings are on the rise in South Africa. I now deal with up to two cases a week.

“Last Friday evening is a terrifying form of random abduction. This type of kidnapping is so new that most victims are taken by complete surprise. Unfortunately, this terrifying crime is becoming more prevalent.”

He said modern technology had paved the way for an increase in this dangerous crime. “Cell phones, EFTs and eWallets allow kidnappers to communicate easily from anywhere, to get the money quickly and remotely, and then to disappear without a trace. The anonymity of the crime makes random kidnapping attractive to criminals.”

Based on the latest police statistics, about 16 people are kidnapped or abducted in South Africa daily, according to ENCA this week. Not all of them end in ransom demands however, but random, fast, opportunistic kidnappings are a concern, say security insiders.

Gauteng police noted a spike in kidnappings for ransom in December 2018. Gauteng spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters told Eyewitness News, “We’ve had kidnappings for ransom where children are kidnapped, and the capturers demand a ransom from parents who end up paying the money.”

He urged parents not to pay ransom. “We understand they’re panicking and looking out for their children. We urge them to contact the police because they’ve been trained to deal with such things and not pay. Because by paying, we’re exacerbating the problem.”

Bolhuis urged parents to be aware of their children’s whereabouts, know their identity numbers and car registration numbers, and be able to track their whereabouts on their cell phones.

The case has been reported to the Jeppe Police Station. Investigations are ongoing.

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