How police botched Lipolelo murder probe

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  • police chiefs accused of initially sabotaging “straightforward” probe to protect Thabane
  • ‘Molibeli only sprung to action when the ex-PM tried to oust him…

Pascalinah Kabi / Mohalenyane Phakela

POLICE Commissioner Holomo Molibeli and his close lieutenants originally shielded former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his wife, ‘Maesaiah, from being investigated for the 14 June 2017 murder of Mr Thabane’s ex-wife, Lipolelo, only to make a U-turn and go for the ex-premier after he launched a spirited bid to fire the police boss, authoritative sources disclosed this week.

According to the sources, Commissioner Molibeli, Deputy Police Commissioner (DCP) Paseka Mokete and Assistant Police Commissioner (ACP) Beleme Lebajoa, sabotaged the probe which began just two days after Lipolelo’s murder.

A team of six crack investigators was initially assembled by then Police Commissioner Molahlehi Letsoepa. It was led by Senior Inspector Mphelehetse Khatleli and reported to ACP Tebello Tšephe.

But Mr Thabane, who took over as prime minister just two days after Lipolelo’s gruesome murder, booted out Commissioner Letsoepa in August 2017 and installed his then “blue-eyed boy” Commissioner Molibeli as police boss.

Once in charge, Commissioner Molibeli allegedly began to throw spanners into the probe to protect the Thabanes.

He allegedly sabotaged the probe by denying the investigators financial and material resources like airtime and cars they needed to travel and engage with potential witnesses and track all suspects.

The team of investigators was also whittled down to just four members and some like Snr Supt Tšepe were transferred to Leribe, thus dealing the probe a huge setback.

According to the sources, this was one straightforward investigation that could have been wrapped up within a few months because “they were clear leads and motives for the murder”.

But this was not to be because Commissioner Molibeli was so determined to ensure that Mr Thabane would be spared the ignominy of being the first leader in the world to be charged with the murder of his own wife.

The probe would have gone permanently cold had it not been for the fallout between Commissioner Molibeli and Mr Thabane last December, the sources say.

Mr Thabane and Commissioner Molibeli are said to have fallen out over the ex-premier’s bid to oust the police boss.  Mr Thabane tried several times early in the year to suspend pending dismissal or retire Commissioner Molibeli over his alleged incompetence and failure to deal with numerous cases of police brutality, which had soiled the image of the Thabane coalition, but was blocked by the courts.

It was only after Commissioner Molibeli had gotten wind of Mr Thabane’s plans to oust him that the former allegedly revived the murder probe to get back at the ex-premier. According to the sources, the police boss demanded the murder docket from Senior Inspector Khatleli and handed it over to DCP Mokete who has been hogging the limelight as the incorruptible cop who brought down the once powerful ex-first couple.

DCP Mokete this week defended Commissioner Molibeli, saying the latter did everything to ensure the case was thoroughly investigated.

“He (Commissioner Molibeli) went as far as asking the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the American Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to assist,” said DCP Mokete in an interview with the Lesotho Times.

“The SAPS’ Colonel Mangena was here (in Lesotho) on 17 December 2019 to assist with the crime scene. It was only after the Commissioner’s December 2019 letter to the then prime minister (Mr Thabane demanding that the latter explains the alleged use of his mobile phone in the Lipolelo murder) that it was discovered that the police were still after the Lipolelo matter. That is when the prime minister moved to get rid of the commissioner,” DCP Mokete said.

Commissioner Molibeli also told this publication that it was “not accurate to say I took interest in the investigation in January 2020”.

“Don’t they (sources) know that I wrote to SAPS in December 2019,” Commissioner Molibeli asked.

The sources nonetheless insisted the December 2019 letters from Commissioner Molibeli seeking help with the Lipolelo probe were a “ruse” to create the impression that he was being targeted for his investigation of the ex-premier. Even though the first letter from Mr Thabane seeking to oust Commissioner Molibeli was dated 2 January 2020, the sources said the ex-premier’s plans to oust the police boss had been long coming and were an open secret in police circles.

By writing those letters, Commissioner Molibeli was in fact launching his own pre-emptive strike against Mr Thabane because he already knew what was coming his way, the sources insisted.

“It’s all well and good for Ntate Molibeli to congratulate himself for writing to whomsoever in December 2019 seeking help for the Lipolelo murder.  But still, the question remains; where was he in the preceding 16 or so months after he had been appointed police commissioner?” asked one authoritative source.  Commissioner Molibeli was appointed police boss in August 2017.

“Why did he not act on the credible leads that had been established before he was appointed?

Ntate Letsoepa had made sure that the investigators had all the resources to successfully investigate Lipolelo’s killing and a lot of ground had been covered when he (Molibeli) took over. So why wait for so long to pursue the investigation which could have been completed soon after his appointment?”

While everything had gone smoothly under Mr Letsoepa and ACP Tšephe, the sources said everything changed just three days after Commissioner Molibeli’s August 2017 appointment by Mr Thabane.

About three days after assuming power, one senior source said Commissioner Molibeli transferred Snr Supt Tšepe to Leribe.

The source said that the team was then told to submit its progress report on the murder probe to ACP Janki Hlaahla. But the latter is said to have fallen foul of Commissioner Molibeli allegedly because he gave full support to the investigators. Commissioner Molibeli is then said to have removed ACP Hlaahla and transferred him to the Crime Prevention Unit.

In an interview this week, ACP Hlaahla said he was not in a position to discuss the matter with the media. He is now on leave pending retirement.

Ausi (sister) Pascalinah, these are extremely sensitive issues that I ask to refrain from commenting on. God knows I do not wish to comment any further my sister. These are extremely super sensitive and deep work-related issues that I do not wish to disclose,” ACP Hlaahla said.

But the sources insisted that with ACP Tšepe and ACP Hlaahla out of the way, all the resources assigned to the investigators were withdrawn, allegedly on Commissioner Molibeli’s orders.

“At this time, the investigators had made a breakthrough in gaining informers’ confidence. The informers had initially been skeptical of the probe, saying police officers were politicians’ puppets. But all the three months’ work was in vain.

“For 10 months after the withdrawal of resources, the investigators financed the murder investigations from their own pockets. The team was also reduced to four. They went as far as paying transport fares for their informers or walking long distances on foot to meet their informers at night.

“They were afraid of losing their informers’ confidence at a critical time in their investigations. They already had names of suspects and desperately needed to get concrete evidence to tie down all suspects to the crime. Much as they were doing everything in their power to conclude the investigations, the lack of resources affected progress.

“It became hard for them to conclude the investigations without resources. In fact, COMPOL Molibeli never bothered to ask about the progress of the investigations until credible rumours started surfacing that Ntate Thabane wanted to fire him,” said a well-placed source.

“His (Molibeli’s) flurry of letters asking for help from foreign forces and to Thabane himself were only written after he got wind of plans to fire him……It was his own orchestrated plan to ensure that should his dismissal letter reach his desk, he can claim in the courts that he was a professional being victimised for doing his job…It all worked immaculately for him….But for us who knew what transpired, it was all a hoax,” said the source.

Another source said Commissioner Molibeli had also frustrated the original Lipolelo murder probe by transferring Senior Inspector Khatleli to Mokhotlong in March 2020, a month after handing the investigations to DCP Mokete.

Senior Inspector Khatleli was cagey about the issue when the Lesotho Times contacted him for comment.

Although he refused to mention any names, he confirmed that his investigation team “did not enjoy the much-needed support from the police command” after the ouster of Mr Letsoepa.

“I don’t want to go into details surrounding the investigations but I can confirm that twice during the investigations, we went without support from the police boss.

“Three months into the probe, we had already established a pool of suspects and anticipated that we would have completed the case the following month.

“We were now at a point where we needed to get solid evidence to tie the suspects to the crime. However, the vehicle and other resources we had been allocated such as airtime were withdrawn for 10 months.

“When SADC intervened (in December 2017), we had already made a breakthrough but investigations were frustrated by the lack of support from the police command,” Snr Insp Khatleli said.

Contrary to recent claims by DCP Mokete that he took over the probe after realising that Snr Insp Khatleli and his team were afraid of investigating high profile figures like the then premier and his wife, Snr Insp Khatleli said the Lipolelo probe was a straightforward investigation which could have been concluded a long time ago if they had resources at their disposal.

“It is not true that the case was taken away from us because we were afraid to arrest high profile individuals. This was one straightforward murder case which could not be completed soon enough because we did not have resources. We had to dig deep into our own pockets to finance investigations to an extent that we sent informants transport money for us to meet. We did some of these things to maintain our own credibility in the eyes of the informants as they were sceptical about our roles and impartiality as the police.

“In every case I have worked on, my intention is to always do well so that justice prevails. I don’t do it for a promotion. Every case needs enough evidence linking the suspects to the crime before going to court,” Snr Insp Khatleli said, adding that he had previously put other high-profile criminals behind bars.

Another official corroborated the claim that Commissioner Molibeli took an interest in the Lipolelo docket only after moves to fire him were already afoot.

“He (Molibeli) only stampeded for the docket when Ntate Thabane had moved to suspend him pending dismissal. He used the docket in his court application to stop Ntate Thabane from suspending him. The fact remains he had never showed any interest in the investigations until much later when he was on the verge of being fired. He used Lipolelo’s murder to fight his own political battle with Thabane and he won.

Commissioner Molibeli denied all the allegations.

“Who am I responding to? Is there any particular person who is making these allegations against me? All these allegations are false.

“It is not true that I frustrated the case and only revived it in January this year after falling out with Ntate Thabane,” Commissioner Molibeli told the Lesotho Times.

He said contrary to claims that they fell out in January 2020, he had already written to Mr Thabane in December 2019 demanding information over the use of the latter’s mobile phone to communicate with Lipolelo’s likely murderers at the scene of the crime.

It was therefore untrue that he had used the probe to get back at Mr Thabane for attempting to oust him because the then premier only made the moves in January 2020 when he had written his letters in December 2019. But the sources maintained such a small variance in time was immaterial.

“If anyone has mentioned that they fell out in January 2020, then you must note that that little time variance is very small and immaterial…The fact is he only wrote the letters in December after he was tipped off that plans were afoot to fire him.  Remember, he got that tip off from very senior officials in Thabane’s circles because of the infighting in the ABC…He could not have ignored that tip off…He then sprung to action to save his skin…,” said a source.

Commissioner Molibeli also denied that the probe was at an advanced stage when he took over as police chief in August 2017 and that he had sabotaged it thereafter.

“When I became COMPOL (police commissioner) in 2017, it didn’t look like the investigations were at an advanced stage.

“It’s not true that anyone was transferred to frustrate the investigations. What resources are they referring to? It’s possible that resources were scarce as is the case right now. But we did all we could to avail the vehicle in particular.

“I understand you can’t reveal your sources. I thought there were people who are readily available to sustain the allegations. But this being the case, I reiterate that all these are fabrications. Let’s wait until the case is presented before the courts and observe whether there will be such allegations. Luckily that will give equal opportunities to all of us to air everything we know”.

Commissioner Molibeli’s claims that the investigators had always had a vehicle were slightly contradicted by DCP Mokete who said they did not have a car when he (DCP Mokete) took over as head of criminal investigations in November 2017.

“When I got into this (DCP’s) office in November 2017, I discovered that the investigation team did not have a vehicle.

“I lent them a 4×4 vehicle to enable them to continue with their investigations. They used that car for a year and eight months without interruption,” DCP Mokete said this week.

He said he only withdrew the car to give it to the police robbery team after the latter’s vehicle broke down.

DCP Mokete said there had been no progress in the case when he took over in January this year.

“All this time from 2017 up to January this year when I took over the case, the matter had never gone to court and you can ask that investigation team whether I ever stopped them from going to court. You will remember that there was an audio clip of Mme Nkoya (Mr Thabane’s daughter Adv Mabatṧoeneng Hlaele) saying the four police officers had been silenced about the case. You can ask any of them whether I had silenced them. Those are pure lies,” DCP Mokete said.

DCP Mokete was referring to a leaked audio clip Adv Hlaele sent to her cousin Selimo Thabane in July 2019.

In the audio, Adv Hlaele alleged the police had been bought to frustrate the murder probe. She warned ‘Maesaiah “not to start with me because she will go to jail”.

However, the sources insisted that everything had been going well soon after the murder only for Commissioner Molibeli, DCP Mokete and ACP Lebajoa to throw spanners into the probe.

In fact, according to the sources, DCP Mokete and ACP Lebajoa were only promoted to their current ranks for their part in sabotaging the probe.

Prior to his promotion by Commissioner Molibeli in 2018, ACP Lebajoa was only an inspector. He is said to have skipped the ranks of senior inspector, superintendent and senior superintendent to land his current post.

DCP Mokete was a superintendent before he was parachuted straight to DCP in 2017. The promotions are now the subject of a pending High Court challenge by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service Staff Association (LEPOSA).

According to the sources, ACP Lebajoa was promoted just five days after organising a “sham interrogation” of ‘Maesaiah at the police headquarters in January 2018. The sources said that interrogation was never about establishing the truth of what had transpired but to hoodwink the nation into believing that something was being done as calls for justice to be done in the Lipolelo murder mounted.

It is said that Snr Insp Khatleli arrived with his team of investigators upon learning that Commissioner Molibeli and his allies wanted the then first lady interrogated.

But to Snr Insp Khatleli’s surprise, only he was allowed to enter the interrogation room while the rest of his team was denied entry.

Sources said that Snr Insp Khatleli had been told that ACP Lebajoa would lead the questioning. But he (Snr Insp Khatleli) left the room in disgust upon realising that there was a convivial atmosphere where Commissioner Molibeli, ACP Lebajoa and DCP Mokete were actually “fraternising and sharing jokes” with ‘Maesaiah, the suspect. It was clear to Snr Insp Khatleli- the sources say- that this was going to be sham interrogation and he refused to be part of it. Indeed, the sources said nothing had happened after that “interrogation” until Commissioner Molibeli sprung to action when plans to fire him were afoot.

Commissioner Molibeli confirmed arranging the interview. However, he denied that there was anything unprocedural about the manner it was conducted. He also denied that ACP Lebajoa and DCP Mokete were promoted for frustrating the probe.

But the sources insisted that Commissioner Molibeli did everything he could to sabotage the probe.

They said the investigators’ lack of resources prompted Lipolelo’s friend, Thato Sibolla, to approach the SADC standby force (also known as SAPMIL) for help when it was deployed to Lesotho in December 2017.

Ms Sibolla escaped with injuries after being shot at while travelling with Lipolelo on the night she was gunned down. She is one of the witnesses in the murder case.

SAPMIL was deployed to Lesotho to restore order after the 5 September 2017 assassination of army commander Lt Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo. Its police component was deployed to assist the police to investigate high profile crimes including Lipolelo’s murder.

According to the sources, within a few weeks of its deployment, Ms Sibolla approached SAMPIL chairperson Matias Matondo and pleaded the investigators’ case for resources.

“COMPOL Molibeli succumbed to pressure from SAMPIL and allocated all the necessary resources to the investigators. But he later withdrew the resources after SAPMIL left in November 2018. He the only revived the case after Ntate Thabane went after him,” said a source.

However, Commissioner Molibeli rubbished this claim.

“We never bowed to any pressure and in fact there was never any pressure whatsoever. Is there anybody alleging that there was pressure. Unfortunately, I’m responding to faceless people peddling these allegations,” Commissioner Molibeli said.

In September 2018, the SADC oversight committee chairperson, Matias Matondo, said SAPMIL had probed the matter and knew what had transpired in the assassination of Lipolelo.

“We assisted the LMPS in the investigations of high-profile assassinations that took place in the country. Our assistance was in terms of exhibit and forensic analysis…The (issue of) former First Lady is one of those cases that are so sensitive that we have been assisting our colleagues to investigate. Those issues are so sensitive that although we do not publish their results, we actually know what happened…. Alongside our LMPS colleagues, we took all the evidence at the crime scenes and we have all the exhibits,” Dr Matondo told the Lesotho Times then.

Dr Matondo said then although SAPMIL knew what had transpired in the Lipolelo murder case, it would be improper to reveal details.

If Commissioner Molibeli had been interested in justice for Lipolelo, he could also have acted on the work that SAPMIL had done but he didn’t, the sources said, only to spring to action much later when his job was at risk.

In a separate interview this week, Ms Sibolla said she was not at liberty to discuss the case for fear of jeopardising it. She referred all questions to her lawyer, Advocate Letuka Molati.

On his part, Adv Molati said, “there was reluctance from police command to investigate the matter possibly due to political pressure”.

A source said; “It’s well and good that Molibeli and his crew finally did something about the case…but some of us are offended that whatever they did is being portrayed as a result of their professionalism yet it was all because of expedience.

“Since Molibeli has won the battle against Thabane, let’s see if they will still even be an interest in pursuing justice.”

In granting ‘Maesaiah bail on 27 June 2020, Judge Thamsanqa Nomngcongo lammed the police for bungling the case and for failing to charge Mr Thabane even though his argument that he could not be charged while still in office as premier no longer stood. The judge said this could all be because the police has no case against Mr Thabane and was using his name just for the “drama”.

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